fredag 9 januari 2009

What we should we do about Gaza?

The Palestinian cause gets lots of support from well-meaning people in the west, who stand outside shops like Marks and Spencer and ask customers to boycott Israeli goods. The intensity of anti-Israel protest has naturally stepped up in reaction the Israeli action in Gaza in response to the ongoing rocket attacks.

At its inception in 1948 Israel was about one third of its present size and was immediately attacked by Transjordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria - ie all its neighbours. Their aim was to get rid of Israel entirely. Holocaust phase II, it would have been. They very nearly succeeded and from the point of view of the Arabs and their sympathisers, the fact that they did not is regrettable. But one result was that Israel ended up bigger than it would otherwise have been and this was the beginning of the Palestinian refugee problem, which remains to this day as other wealthy Arab countries have barely lifted a finger to help. At the same time Jews from Arab countries migrated in large numbers to Israel to get away from centuries of oppression (dhimmitude). So there was in fact an exchange of population.

The Israeli government at the time was left wing and socialist and desperate for co-existence. But none of the Arabs would sit down in the same room and negotiate and there were repeated and sporadic attacks. Then came the 1956 war, with Franco-British collusion, after which Israel was returned to its 1949 armistice line borders and a United Nations force put into Gaza. In 1967, Egypt conducted a military build up in Gaza and the UN force was asked to leave, preparatory to an invasion of Israel. This led to what was probably a pre-emptive strike, but Jordan and Syria joined in and the result was that Israel ended up in occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights., as well as a tract of Egypt extending to Sharm-el-Sheik.

This military success was unexpected from the Israeli point of view and they promptly tried to get rid of these territories, but although the Israelis were anxious to negotiate, nobody on the Arab side would sit down and talk, but adopted terrorist tactics instead. This was the period of Golda Meir and the aircraft hijackings, at the start of the career of Yasser Arafat.Then came the 1973 war with Egypt, followed by the peace treaty with Egypt, initiated by Anwar Sadat after the death of Nasser. Sharm-el-Sheik was returned to Egypt and Sadat then got assassinated for his peace efforts. By this time the liberal socialist era of Israeli politics was no more. The Palestinians had missed the boat. The Israelis remained in the territories they had occupied and Jewish settlers, many of them immigrants from the US, began to move in, especially around Hebron and Jerusalem. The mood amongst Israelis hardened, in part because of the growing influence of Jews whose origins were in Arab countries. The nationalist Likud and religious parties now came to dominate the Israeli political scene.

Which brings us to the present day. The Israelis eventually withdrew from Gaza and the West Bank, retaining only East Jerusalem. The West Bank elected a Fatah leadership, by now reconciled to the continued existence of Israel. But the inhabitants of Gaza voted for Hamas, an organisation that expressly denies Israel's right to exist at all. They knew what they were doing when they cast their votes. In other words, they would like Israel to vanish into thin air. Had they the power to make this happen, they undoubtedly would. It would be a re-run of the Constantinople massacre of 1453, and nobody would come to the aid of the Israelis until it was too late for anything but expressions of regret.

The fate of Israel if it ever lost a war

Fortunately the Arabs lack military power and have had to confine their efforts to firing short range rockets into the towns of Southern Israel. Although these rarely do serious damage, they have nuisance value and constantly disrupt daily life. Unsurprisingly the Israelis would like this to stop, and when a temporary ceasefire came to an end in December, the firing of rockets resumed. This is the reason for the heavy Israeli response, which is widely regarded as disproportionate.

Personally, I would not want to venture an opinion on this, but arguably, Hamas brought this disaster on themselves and their people by not extending the cease fire. If a French government did nothing but give tacit support to groups of irregulars who lobbed rockets across the English Channel towards the south coast towns, it would not be long before there was a demand to use the RAF to do something.

Of course the sooner a lasting cease-fire can be negotiated, the better. But in this situation, there is little reason to give support to either side in the conflict, which in any case is insoluble. Perhaps if this was openly recognised, means might be found so that people could live with their differences in a less lethal manner.

Or should the Israelis just leave? Many individuals have been doing just that. These are mostly the less bellicose of the population, which means that through the operation of natural selection, the Israelis will become increasingly warlike as time goes on. There is indeed a a genuine argument against Israel's existence is that the land was taken by force and they ought to give it back to the previous occupants. But most of the land included in the original United Nations award of 1947 had been purchased by Jews from Arab landowners, and if one accepts that people have a right to buy and sell land, then those people and their descendants have a right to be there. And it is also the case that the areas of land subsequently occupied by Israel had fallen into their hands as a result of wars that the Israelis had not wanted to fight.

But if one accepts the argument land should be returned, where does this stop? The Arabs themselves came into the area by conquest from the Byzantines,beginning a process of decline which culminated in to the foundation of the Ottoman empire from the early middle ages onwards. The latter conquest eventually extended to Hungary and was reversed only in 1683 at the gates of Vienna. Should Turkey return Constantinople to Greece? It was, after all, bombarded by the Turks and the inhabitants massacred in 1453 so this is arguably as unjust an occupation as Israel’s. In more recent times there have been the annexation of East Prussia and Eastern Poland by Russia and the transfer of German lands to Poland. Perhaps the Israelis should offer to depart from their country on condition that the Turks hand back Constantinople? I think they would be safe to assume that the offer would never be taken up. Which demonstrates that we need to remember that we are where we are and can only start from here.

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