No-win standoff

2008-12-30 00:00

THE weekend escalation of violence in Gaza is a classic instance of a no-win situation for both parties to the conflict. Israel says that it is acting in retaliation to rockets fired by Hamas fighters from Gaza with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on December 19. Indeed, with tens of thousands of Israeli men, women and children within range of the Kassam rockets, which are now reaching 30 or 40 kilometres into Israeli territory, it would be naive not to expect public opinion to demand action to protect those in the line of fire.

But it would be simplistic to lay all the blame at the door of the perfidious rocketry of Hamas. Even during the truce, the 1,5 million people inside Gaza suffered from an Israeli blockade which deprived them of food and medicine. As the head of operations for the United Nations (UN) Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees said: “The people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence … at the UN our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position … ”

Israel claims that its air strikes — the most intense since the 1967 war — have been carefully targeted. Certainly, Israeli warplanes flattened Hamas’s main security compound in Gaza and some 40 smuggling tunnels running under the border with Egypt, Gaza’s link with the outside world, through which the rockets had been brought. But in a packed urban area, it would have been impossible to limit the casualties to Hamas fighters, and so a number of civilians have been killed or injured, giving rise to charges of genocide against Israel.

Israel has been particularly chauvinist in recent years, knowing that it had the support of a right-wing administration in the United States. But President George W. Bush’s time in the White House is now numbered in days rather than weeks and it is highly unlikely that this sort of Israeli behaviour will be endorsed by his successor.

Both Israel and Hamas — which has refused to recognise the State of Israel — are steadfastly pursuing a lose-lose option. This sort of confrontation, with its attendant deaths of innocent civilians, can only harden attitudes on both sides. As the precedents in both South Africa and Northern Ireland — where 20 years ago the problems appeared equally intractable — indicate, what is needed is a willingness to compromise and statesmanship, also on both sides.

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