AS THIS newspaper went to press last night the omens for the people of Gaza did not look good. Israel had mobilised tank units and called up an additional 70,000 reservists, in addition to the 16,000 already sent their call-up papers.
Senior sources in the country’s military said they expected a ground invasion of Gaza at some point this weekend. This followed four days of Israeli air strikes against the military and political powerbases of the radical group Hamas, which dominates the Gaza strip and has widespread support from local Palestinians. In the small hours of yesterday morning this culminated in a devastating series of around 200 air strikes across Gaza. One of the buildings destroyed was the office of prime minister Ismail Haniya. Around 40 Palestinians have been killed in recent days, and memories are still fresh of the carnage of four years ago when Israel last intervened in the territory with a brutality and a carelessness about civilian casualties that attracted international condemnation. Are we about to see a repeat of that, as Israel again flexes its military muscle? The sense of foreboding felt by observers in the regions suggests so.
Israel has been sorely provoked, of that there is no doubt, and it has the right to defend itself, albeit with proportionate force. Hundreds of Hamas rocket attacks – using long-range Iranian weaponry – have targeted the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jewish settlements. A rocket has even, for the first time since the 1970s, been aimed at Jerusalem. Three Israelis have lost their lives. The death toll would undoubtedly have been worse had the Israelis not deployed their Iron Dome missile defence system – a modern variation of Ronald Reagan’s “star wars” shield, which has downed about a third of the missiles fired towards Israel from Hamas positions. Hamas has the backing of Iran, its main sponsor in the region, but has also attracted the solidarity of neighbouring Arab nations, including the Egyptians and the Tunisians, both facing calls at home to take sides against the Israeli foe. The Middle East once more feels like a tinderbox.
The Arab Spring was quite rightly lauded as an opportunity for renewal in the Middle East and North Africa. Authoritarian rule by despotic rulers was to be replaced by the will of the people – albeit with a clear-headed acknowledgement of the difficulties in reconciling an array of religious, tribal, ideological and geographical conflicts. This is a hard enough task. It is made doubly difficult – a pessimist might say impossible – by attempts by major powers in the region to use this period of upheaval as an opportunity to extend their influence. Iran in particular seems determined to fund and arm its proxies in a range of countries across the region, with little regard to the needs of these countries as they find their feet. This threatens the chances of stability in Libya and Egypt, and bodes ill for the future of Syria. In Lebanon too – a precarious democracy that has too often been the venue for other people’s conflicts – hard-won peace is under threat.
There are those who seem to be seeking conflict in the hope that when the blood has dried in the settled dust, they can advance their interests amid the resultant chaos. Attempts by anyone on any side of this conflict to ratchet up the tension for their own narrow political advantage are deplorable. All possible diplomatic pressure must now be applied to both sides to pull this situation back from the brink. That is, if it is not already too late.
Curb young drivers
THE toll of death and injury among, and caused by, young drivers under the age of 24 (News, page 9) is unacceptable. Getting the keys to your first car is a rite of passage that everyone who aspires to drive dreams of, but the freedom of the road – alone or with passengers – comes with a heavy responsibility. All recent talk has been focused on the rising price of insurance premiums for young motorists, so the “car crash” map produced by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) is a welcome intervention in the debate about the root causes of the problem.
One sensible measure would be the introduction of some form of “graduated” licence which would impose a series of restrictions – such as young drivers being banned from the roads between 11pm and 4am – for the first six months after passing their test and zero tolerance of alcohol. Statistics show that most crashes among this age group occur late at night when a mix of booze and cars packed with groups of friends raise the risks significantly. Governments on both sides of the Border have rejected such moves so far, largely on civil liberty grounds and partially because of the difficulties of policing changes. But, as the ABI notes, 800 Scottish families have been left devastated by the actions of young drivers over the past six years in five of the hardest hit areas of Scotland. Doing nothing is not an option.