Leader: Netanyahu risks condemning Israel to perpetual war

Despite the latest ceasefire, there is no way clear to peace. And there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the days following Israel’s assassination of the Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari, history appeared to be repeating itself in the Middle East. As in 2008, when Operation Cast Lead was launched, Israel seemed poised to mount a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, with huge civilian casualties certain to result. The Israeli interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, spoke of sending Gaza “back to the Middle Ages”. No less chillingly, Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, served notice of its intention to resume suicide bombings in Israel. “We’ve missed the suicide attacks. Expect us soon at bus stations and in cafés,” it declared in a propaganda video. That, at the time of going to press, both sides have pulled back from the brink is due largely to the efforts of the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, who has shown himself to be a pragmatic figure capable of exerting leverage over both Israel and Hamas.

The past week’s events have proved, once again, that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The acknowledgement that Israel has the right to defend itself should not preclude criticism of its actions. As the former foreign secretary David Miliband has observed: “Self-defence is not the same as smart defence.” Rather than weakening Hamas, the assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 135 Palestinians, an estimated half of them civilians, has strengthened it. The Islamist group has enhanced its claim to be the pre-eminent defender of the Palestinian cause. At the same time, the attacks have further marginalised the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s ostensible negotiating partner, which has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.

That there have been mercifully few Israeli casualties has more to do with Hamas’s limited weaponry and Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system than it does with any restraint on the Palestinian group’s part. Yet although nothing justifies the rocket attacks on Israel, one cannot ignore the context in which they take place. Since Hamas assumed administrative control of Gaza in 2006, Israel has maintained a draconian and illegal blockade of the strip which has immiserated its 1.7 million residents, 80 per cent of whom are dependent on humanitarian aid.

It was no coincidence that Operation Pillar of Defence was launched as the Palestinians prepared to seek observer status at the United Nations through a vote in the General Assembly on 29 November. Avigdor Lieberman – the Israeli foreign minister and leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which has recently merged with Likud, the party led by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu – has claimed that the Palestinians will be “destroying the chances of peace talks” if they pursue their campaign for UN recognition.

Yet, through its own actions, Israel has already come close to doing so. In defiance of the UN, the US and the EU, the Likud-led government has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to the point where there are now more than 550,000 settlers, controlling 42 per cent of the land and representing nearly 10 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population. With every new settlement that is constructed, the possibility of a viable Palestinian state recedes further.

Mr Netanyahu will use the strength of Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, and the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, which does, to argue that he has no “partner for peace”. He would be careless to do so. Israel’s ultimate security depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just settlement for refugees. Should Mr Netanyahu continue to obstruct any progress towards this goal, he will condemn his country to perpetual war.

A Palestinian mourns the death of a relative. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

GETTY
Show Hide image

The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.