In his harrowing report from Gaza, our reporter Donald Macintyre tells the story of Mohammed Badran, a ten-year-old-boy whose family was killed in an Israeli air strike on their home in the Nuseirat refugee camp. Mohammed survived but was blinded in the attack, probably by flying shrapnel, which is maiming and killing so many. Confused by what was happening around him when he arrived at al-Shifa Hospital, the boy kept asking staff, “Why have you switched the lights off?” A bereaved and blinded boy asking for the lights to be turned on in a suddenly darkened world: the cruelty and arbitrariness of his suffering is like something from an ancient parable.
More than 1,850 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since Israel responded to Hamas rocket fire by launching a series of air strikes on Gaza in which hospitals, mosques and even UN schools sheltering displaced civilians have been deemed legitimate targets. In addition, Israel launched a land invasion of the blighted strip on 17 July, the purpose of which, it said, was to destroy the network of tunnels that had been dug deep beneath Gaza and through which Hamas militants could enter Israel to launch terror attacks.
Israel has said that its ultimate aim is to “bring long-term quiet” to its citizens. But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is deluded if he believes that Israel can bomb its way to security through indiscriminate use of force. Israel will know true quiet – especially as each generation, on both sides, is hardened by war and hatred deepens – only by withdrawing from the occupied territories and negotiating a settlement with the Palestinian leadership, which may well include Hamas.
Israel is the lone democracy in a region being ravaged by war. It has representative government, a free press and a flourishing, plural civil society. However, in times of war the nation unites behind its army – opinion polls suggest that the war in Gaza has the support of as high as 90 per cent of Jewish Israelis.
As it grieves its own dead soldiers, Israel seems immune to world opinion. Bolstered by unequivocal US support and certain of the nefarious intent of the Islamists of Hamas, many Israelis have become desensitised by decades of war and bloodshed. The country, once a haven for socialists, has shifted abruptly right. A new generation of belligerent territorial maximalists, led by Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.
The Gaza crisis has been condemned as “intolerable” by Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has spoken of the “outrages” committed by Israel. The most recent attack on a UN-run school in Rafah, a town in the south of the Strip on the border with Egypt, was denounced by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, as “a moral outrage and a criminal act”. The attack, he said, was “yet another gross violation of international law”.
Yet the UN is powerless to influence Israel, let alone prevent the killing of civilians in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, signed in the aftermath of the Second World War. David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who is now head of International Rescue, has expressed horror at the killing of the innocent in Gaza. “As the leader of a humanitarian movement I have to defend the principle that, after centuries in which civilians were . . . caught in the crossfire of war, finally in 1949 the Geneva Convention established the absolute right to defence for civilians in times of war. That is being broached [by Israel]. The heartbreaking, the heart-rending situation which faces the people of Gaza is that 1.8 million of them are trapped in an area where frankly there is no safe zone.”
Elsewhere, the Haaretz journalist Amira Hass has written of her country’s “moral implosion” and “ethical defeat” – a defeat that “will haunt us for many years to come”. Her words resonate because in spite of its legitimate right to self-defence, Israel, which has one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world, has wilfully violated the rules of war.
On page 34, we republish a 1955 NS profile of David Ben-Gurion. The piece reminds us that Ben-Gurion’s great fear was that the Israelis would one day become “Levantinised”, which was his “word for his nightmare – his people becoming like their neighbours”. As war rages across the Levant, one can only wonder what Israel’s first prime minister would have made of his proud nation’s moral defeat in Gaza.
Update, 12 August. Donald Macintyre writes: Mohammed Badran’s family turned out not to have been killed in the strike on his home, as had been reported here. In the confusion of a packed Shifa Hospital, the doctors treating him in the burns unit thought he had lost his parents and all his siblings. In fact, although seven of the Badrans’ nine children were also injured in the attack, including their 17-year-old daughter Eman, who is now also in Shifa with serious leg injuries, Mohammed’s parents Tagorid and Nidal Badran both survived to take care of him. That is until Nidal, 44, a policeman, was killed in another air strike, this time on the Qassam mosque in Nusseirat refugee camp, in the early hours of Saturday, 9 August, as he prepared to attend dawn prayers. On 12 August, I was told that Mohammed was being referred to a Spanish hospital for treatment.