Friday 13 October 2023

Ultimately, they must negotiate rather than kill


The reaction of the UK’s two largest parties to the past week’s events in the Middle East has been instructive in terms of their attitudes and priorities. Firstly, they were in competition to see who could issue the strongest condemnation of the BBC for calling Hamas militants rather than terrorists, as though the most important thing is the label used; and they followed that up by competing over who could take the hardest line against any show of support for the Palestinian side. They were, of course, in complete agreement that Israel should be supported in whatever way might be necessary. There was little room for nuance or debate: in this battle there are good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats. Presumably, they think that it makes for good politics, but it does nothing to aid understanding, let alone reconciliation.

History, as ever, is complex. Whilst events are generally indisputable, their significance is always open to multiple interpretations. There is no doubt that Jews have suffered centuries of persecution and discrimination, including the attempt in parts of Europe in the last century to eliminate them as a people. Sympathy for a people who have suffered so much is natural, but it cannot give the state of Israel a free pass from any criticism when it comes to its own actions against others. Criticism of Israeli actions is not, in itself, anti-Semitism. Palestinians have been forced from their homes and land and, even today, Israel continues to encroach on land internationally recognised as being outside the boundaries of Israel and the property of Palestinians. But the grievance of Palestinians, in turn, cannot justify the sort of random killings that we saw last Saturday. A cycle of atrocity, counter-atrocity and counter-counter-atrocity ends up as a never-ending cycle of death and grief on both sides, from which there is no obvious escape.

Applying the label of ‘war crime’, whether to the random violence delivered by Hamas last weekend or to the retaliatory denial of food, water, medicines and power to millions of citizens in Gaza may be technically accurate, but it overlooks the fact that the real crime is war itself. The idea that a war – any war – can be fought according to a set of gentlemanly rules is to ignore the reality, which is that people – mostly, but not exclusively, young men, whether regular soldiers or less organised bands of fighters – are sent to kill or be killed, a situation in which they will feel fear, anger, and hatred towards those they are trying to kill, added to which the inevitable raised levels of adrenaline and the sight of comrades being killed can all too easily result in actions which few would call civilized being perpetrated by ordinary, average human beings.

The total elimination of Hamas – Israel’s stated objective – may buy a period of relative ‘peace’ to the extent to which it is successful. But experience suggests that it will come at a heavy price in lives and will last only until the next generation are old enough to pick up arms, when they will be driven by an even greater sense of grievance and injustice. Ultimately, the only lasting settlement will have to be a negotiated one, and the rest of the world has a responsibility to drive both sides in that direction, using whatever (peaceful) means it has at its disposal. Picking one side, and giving that side unconditional support, is not living up to that responsibility. Yet that’s where the UK is choosing to be. Regardless of which party is in power. Global leadership it most definitely is not.


Anonymous said...

This is such a difficult issue to understand without first hand experience on the ground. Like many others on the political left, I have terrfic sympathy with the plight of Palestinians. However, having lived in the Middle East (not Israel) for the best part of a decade, I remain astonished, amazed, and appalled by the visceral hatred of Jewish people by large sections of the population. This transcends any rightly held objection to the existence of a Jewish state and is diected towards the Jewish people as a whole wherever they may live in the world. Negotiation with this mindset, which is most certainly not confined to an insignificant minority, is, simply not possible.

Anon said...

I have no doubt that there is great deal of hatred amongst many in the Arab world and amongst the wider muslim community, towards Jewish people. And that this makes negotiation difficult. But by the same token, I have no doubt that rascist attitudes towards Arabs are deeply ingrained in a great part of Jewish Israeli society, including Israel's governing class. I don't for one second, for example, think they place the same value on Arab lives as on Jewish. How does one negotiate with that mindset? I don't know. But there is ultimately no alternative for either side.

John Dixon said...

Both Anons make valid points. There is no doubt that there is a lot of hatred on both sides, with both sides feeling they are victims of actions by the other. A negotiated settlement will not be easy to achieve given current mindsets. But the alternative to a negotiated settlement is a never-ending cycle of violence, which, ultimately, neither side can 'win'. Tragically, they don't yet seem to have witnessed enough violence to realise that fact.