We have all been shocked to see the surge in violence between Israel and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. This conflict is causing enormous hardship on both sides. Particularly distressing is the sight of civilian casualties. The scale of human suffering in the current escalation is immense and every civilian casualty is a tragedy. The people of Gaza have the right to live in peace and freedom, just as Israelis have the right not to fear for their safety.
It is clear that while Israel has managed to minimise casualties on its own side the losses are much greater on the Palestinian side. This may lead many to conclude that Israel is the aggressor, or that its Israel’s military actions are unjustified and disproportionate.
In the Labour movement it is in our DNA to identify and to sympathise with the weaker party and ask for justice. But to make correct judgements, and correct policy, in response to this situation, we need to look deeper.
The fact that Hamas’s military capabilities are less than those of Israel, does not mean Israel is not justified in confronting them. The fact that Israeli lives are being spared – by their hi-tech anti-missile systems, and low tech bomb shelters – does not mean that Israel is not justified in using military means to stop the rockets.
I have visited Sderot, a tough little Israeli town a few kilometres from the Gaza Strip, which has been targeted with more rockets fired by Hamas and other extremists that any other. They call this place the ‘bomb shelter capital of the world’. I try to imagine if it was my constituency with sirens forcing everyone into bomb shelters 20 times a day. I would not be able to tell my constituents to shrug it off, because they can always have the bomb shelters to protect them from those rockets that get past the missile defences.
My constituents would demand the government fulfil their duty to protect them, and the right of their families to live a normal life free from fear. This is the demand that Israeli civilians are making of their elected representatives, and this is the challenge the Israeli government has to respond to.
If we acknowledge that doing nothing is not an option for Israel, then when making our judgements about Israel’s actions, we have to ask, what can they do? Indeed, what would we do?
It is beyond dispute that Hamas’s entire military infrastructure is embedded within and underneath densely populated civilian areas. They store and fire their missiles from among homes and mosques. Hamas have arranged their forces deliberately so that there is almost no way to get to them, without hitting civilian infrastructure, and risking innocent lives.
Israel, or course, has a responsibility to minimise harm to Palestinian civilians. The Israeli government must do all it can to ensure its army acts with restraint when operating in populated Palestinian areas, in order to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians.
It is clear that some considerable efforts have been made in this regard: specific warnings given to targeted buildings, airstrikes being called off when there are civilians present, leaflet drops in targeted neighbourhoods. Whether Israel has done all it can, and whether every target that has been hit is legitimate, are reasonable questions that Israel must answer.
However, the fact that Hamas shoots from civilian locations cannot grant them immunity from responsibility for civilian casualties. Neither can it mean that the Israeli government’s hands are tied when it comes to their duty to protect their own civilians.
Of course we must also consider the underlying causes of this conflict. The population of the Gaza Strip has been left hopeless due to the restrictions in access put in place by Israel and Egypt. Meanwhile Israel’s occupation of the West Bank goes on.
But we must recall that Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005 and made an agreement with the Palestinian Authority on movement and access. It was the takeover of Hamas – which is committed to the destruction of Israel, opposes the peace process, and turned the Gaza Strip into a base from which to attack Israel – which led to Israel’s border restrictions. Egypt has imposed its own restrictions because it associates Hamas with the threat posed by Islamists in Egypt.
Hamas is not attacking Israel to end the occupation or to end restrictions on border crossings. If that’s what they wanted they would meet the Quartet conditions, recognise Israel, and enter the peace process. What they want is to have the means to maintain an iron grip on Gaza, to be able to increase their military threat, and to avoid any compromise on their commitment to Israel’s destruction. They were the ones who deliberately brought about this escalation, to improve their position in Gaza, without making compromises.
We must all hope that a ceasefire will emerge at the end of this which will create peace for the people of Israel, and new hope for Palestinian in the Gaza Strip. Ultimately, a real change will only come to the people of Gaza when Hamas either gives up its total control of the Gaza Strip, or gives up commitment to Israel’s destruction. Progressive voices in Israel and Palestine must be encouraged to continue to engage with one another and to create space for reconciliation. Israeli Labor Party and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog has backed the ceasefire proposals whilst warning that it would be “worthless and just another break before the next escalation” if it did not lead to meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. The only viable solution to this conflict is a negotiated two state solution for two peoples; a safe and secure Israel recognised within its borders, living alongside a democratic, independent Palestinian state.
Anne McGuire MP is Chair of Labour Friends of Israel