Jason Cowley: The destruction of Gaza and when Israel backed the Islamists

The Gaza conflict has raised the important question of empathy. Would that both sides were capable of greater empathy and, indeed, imagination. 

Palestinians salvage items from the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza City as the fragile ceasefire entered a second day, 6 August. Photo: Getty
Palestinians salvage items from the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza City as the fragile ceasefire entered a second day, 6 August. Photo: Getty

Imagine a science-fiction novel or a dystopian-themed film, set in a strip of land 25 miles long and no more than eight miles wide in which 1.8 million people are encaged or blockaded. The borders are sealed and the people have no control over their territorial waters or the skies above. Many of them are doubly dispossessed because they are descendants of those expelled from their ancestral villages several decades earlier. Squalid refugee camps have hardened into permanent settlements. Imagine, too, that the sinister whine of drones can be heard every day over this blighted territory, monitoring the movements of the people below, who are ruled by cruel, fanatical religious conservatives. Where once women wore bikinis on the beach and local cafés resounded to the clash of argument about Marxism and national liberation, now the women, through choice or coercion, wear burqas and niqabs and the men swear devotion to Allah, the one true God. Meanwhile, hidden figures are hard at work underground, toiling to dig tunnels of escape and attack into the two neighbouring states that have conspired to isolate this claustrophobic coastal enclave from the world.

This preposterous set-up sounds like something that could have been dreamt up by H G Wells (think of the Morlocks and the Eloi). Yet this is how the people of Gaza must live, with the added inconvenience of being assaulted every two years or so by one of the world’s most sophisticated and merciless military powers.

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Hamas, which is a political party and an Islamist resistance movement, with origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, is culpable for the plight of the Palestinians of Gaza. It sent suicide bombers into Israel during the second intifada to blow up cafés, hotels and bars. Its founding charter is anti-Semitic and calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Its leaders dare not even live in Gaza – Khaled Meshal, having left Damascus as the anti-Assad revolts morphed into murderous civil war, is resident in Qatar, one of the very few states still sympathetic to Hamas. If Meshal actually lived in Gaza he might think twice about ordering Hamas to fire his ineffective rockets into Israel, knowing what the devastating response will be. Still, he’s well placed to get some decent tickets for the World Cup.

But Israel, which is fighting what it believes is a “just war” of self-defence, must share equal blame for the tragedy of Gaza. This is because of its long occupation of Palestinian territories – the West Bank is being devoured by Jewish settlements even as I write – and because of its failure to countenance the possibility of negotiating with Hamas when the experience of Northern Ireland showed that, in the end, a deal could be reached only by the hardliners on either side. The irony is that the Israeli security forces once encouraged the Islamists of Gaza, then under the leadership of Ahmed Yassin, a disabled cleric. They were seen as useful idiots, a counterbalance to the power of Yasser Arafat’s secular PLO. The thinking was this: divide the Palestinians among themselves and it will be easier to control them and thus indefinitely postpone the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

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In recent days, I’ve had a lot of emails about a blog I wrote exploring anti-Israel bias in the broadcast media. It has been said to me that the emphasis in too many BBC and Channel 4 news reports has been on the death of children in Gaza rather than on the Hamas rockets and “terror tunnels”, as if what even the Daily Mail has called “the slaughter of innocents” should be downplayed, or were comparable in some way with the threat posed by Hamas rocket fire.

I accept that Channel 4 News has been partisan, but never anti-Israeli. Jon Snow and his colleague Paul Mason, who has shown great courage by just being in Gaza during the bombardment, are justifiably horrified by what they have witnessed: the dead and maimed children, the chaos in the impoverished hospitals struck by Israeli bombs, the wilful destruction of infrastructure, such as UN schools and Gaza’s only power plant. It’s as if a terrible collective punishment has been visited upon all Palestinians in Gaza.

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The Gaza conflict has raised the important question of empathy. The reporting by Snow and Mason has been motivated by empathy for the civilian victims. Would that both sides were capable of greater empathy and, indeed, imagination. “It is hard to be cruel,” Ian McEwan wrote after the attacks of 11 September 2001, “once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

There is also the question of proportion. Israel has the technological capability to show the world that it can defend its people while operating ethically and proportionately but rather it chooses to act ruthlessly and disproportionately, and then seeks to justify its killing of civilians by spurious recourse to international law. Which leads us to the intransigence and belligerence of the Likud-led coalition government and the coarsening of public debate in Israel, where Jewish dissenters to the war are in the minority.

The territorial maximalists and absolutists are in the ascendant in Israel. In a column about the Gaza war in Haaretz, for which she is correspondent on the occupied territories, Amira Hass wrote bravely of her country’s “moral implosion” and the “ethical defeat of a society that now engages in no self-inspection”. She exaggerates – I know many Israelis who are deeply anguished and self-inspecting – but she is correct to suggest that Israel, even as it attempts to bomb its way to security, has suffered a moral defeat in Gaza: a defeat, Hass wrote, that “will haunt us for many years to come”, as well it might. 

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