There is a tendency to reduce the Middle East to a simplistic morality play where Good battles Evil, projecting our own victim politics on to other people’s complex conflicts.
The Israelis I met bear no comparison with the caricature of expansionist “Zio-Nazis”. These attacks seem very different from 1967 when Israel occupied Gaza and other territories after the Six-Day War. The Zionist dream of Israel reclaiming the biblical lands is over. Most Israelis seem prepared to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and abandon Gaza (as they did in 2005) and most of the West Bank while bunkering down behind the big new security barriers that snake across the countryside. An insecure Israel will still lash out when it feels threatened, as it did in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza now, even though such military spasms are likely to be ineffective and even counter-productive.
Israel’s initial response to rocket attacks in this year’s ceasefire was to lock the door by closing the border with Gaza. When we visited the deserted Erez crossing, little food or fuel was getting through, and most of what Gazans survived on was smuggled through tunnels on the Egyptian side. At the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) base, the major commanding the shockingly young men and women soldiers admitted that it was hard “to balance the civilian needs of the Palestinian population” with the security demands of Israelis. “But we will take all steps to protect our soldiers. We just want peace and quiet. If they stop firing at us, more food will go inside.”
His PowerPoint presentation made clear that “the main aim for the IDF” was not to stop the rockets, but to rescue Gilad Schalit, a soldier held in Gaza since June 2006. That seemed a remarkably defensive priority for an army of occupation.
Would it be best if Israel were to manufacture a thousand or so wildly inaccurate missiles and then fire them off in the general direction of Gaza City? There is a chance, though, that since Gaza is more densely packed than Israel, casualties might be much the same as they are now, so although the ordnance would be proportionate, the deaths would not. Of course, if one of Gaza’s rockets did manage to hit an Israeli nursery school at the wrong time (or the right time, depending upon how you look at it), then the proportionality issue would be solved in one explosion. Would you be happy then?
This is not about proportionality. Let us instead express outrage and, perhaps, illustrate it with pictures of crowds of similarly outraged protesters in Damascus, Amman or Indonesia. Let half of us concoct round-robins of suddenly active professors, Gallowegian politicians and unthinking actors, expressing hyberbolic rage at “genocide”, describing Gaza as Israel’s Guernica and demanding sanctions, while the other half wonders why no petitions ever get launched against the funders and organisers of, say, the suicide bomber in Khost at the weekend, who blew up his vehicle beside a group of passing Afghan schoolchildren; or against the Taleban cleric threatening last week to kill female students in Pakistan for their un-Islamic desire to learn.
This is not about outrage. We could then, perhaps, from the other side, attempt to suggest Israel’s moral superiority on the basis that, unlike the careless firers of Qassam rockets, any civilian casualties caused by Israel’s bombs were the unintended victims of its actions, however many of them there are. Israel takes care with its targeting, they don’t. But the eight students killed by a bus stop in Gaza are just as dead, their families just as bereft, and their feelings towards the originators of the bombs just as compounded of hate and regret.
Oh, I don’t know. Not always: