Israel conflict: Despite the violence, a two-state solution must remain the ultimate goal if peace is to be achieved – Alistair Carmichael

Defending the rights of Palestinians is a very different thing to defending Hamas terrorism

I have never been a great lover of music festivals. I am a little too fond of my creature comforts to be attracted to events like Glastonbury or, back in the day, T in the Park. I do, however, have two 20-something sons who are fonder of these things than I am. The idea that they or their friends could end up running for their lives or actually be killed as a result of attending one makes my blood run cold.

I can hardly imagine the anguish of the parents of those who were butchered by Hamas at the Supernova peace festival last weekend. It is simply indefensible. The immediate response of governments and people around the world was one of shock and condemnation, and rightly so. The weight of global opinion is fairly and squarely in sympathy with the people of Israel. The right of the state of Israel to exist and defend itself cannot be challenged ever, especially not today.

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Now, as the international community watches, the question in the mind of many seasoned observers is whether the actions of the Israeli government will manage to maintain that sympathy. To do that will require a response that is proportionate, and which remains within the bounds prescribed by international humanitarian law.

The right to self-defence is not something which, in practice, can be weighed in a fine balance. To be meaningful, some latitude must be given to the nation under attack. A response that is disproportionate is difficult to define, but easier to recognise when we see it.

Looking at how events may unfold over the coming weeks, it is difficult to see a positive outcome for anyone. As is so often the case in this long conflict, the problem may be one of violence but the solution has to be something different and better.

The response of the Netanyahu government has been to talk about laying “siege” to Gaza. It has a medieval ring to it. In terms of modern international law, it almost certainly amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s people, who have already endured massive hardship and violence at the hands of their own Hamas administration.

We must draw a clear line between Hamas and the Palestinian people. What matters to Hamas is its own power and its ability to do harm, while desperate people under their control pay the price.

The aftermath of a rocket attack on Tel Aviv, Israel, on Saturday (Picture: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)The aftermath of a rocket attack on Tel Aviv, Israel, on Saturday (Picture: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)
The aftermath of a rocket attack on Tel Aviv, Israel, on Saturday (Picture: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

I visited Gaza in 2007, months after Hamas had taken power in the territory. It was an experience I shall never forget. I described it then as a “moonscape” as it bore the scars of recent conflict. I dread to think what it may look like today, let alone after the current horrendous chapter in this conflict is over.

I also visited the Israeli border town of Sderot, then suffering under the daily terror of rockets fired from Gaza. Since then, border security has been massively ramped up but, as the weekend’s events demonstrate, walls and barbed wire will always be a limited substitute for a proper, lasting peace.

The question then is: what can we in the West do about this? Britain in particular has an historic responsibility for the present situation. We cannot pretend to solve it but we cannot walk away either. There is a gap in the market for mature responsible statesmanship. If we want to avoid this becoming a regional conflagration, a calming influence is required.

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The most obvious role that we can fill is in preparing to provide humanitarian aid when we are able to. This could be our government’s opportunity to repair some of the damage that they have done to our reputation on the world stage in taking an axe to our budget for overseas development. At home, we can offer protection to our own Jewish and Muslim communities who right now are both feeling exposed and vulnerable.

We can offer support on the international stage to those who offer positive suggestions for a negotiated settlement. Qatar’s suggestion that they may broker a deal to secure the release of the women and children held hostage is a good initiative that we should support. It is not a solution in itself – Hamas has shown what it can do with one hostage, never mind hundreds – but it could be a useful first step. Qatar, with its recent history of engagement in Gaza, is well-placed to make the offer.

We can also support regional players like Egypt and Jordan which have the credibility to broker an eventual ceasefire and de-escalation. We can stand in support of international law. We do it in Ukraine and claim to do it in Hong Kong – why not in Gaza?

What we cannot do is justify butchery and brutality. The best way to tackle extremism is to support moderate reasonable voices in both Israel and Palestine. There are plenty of them there. We simply do not get to hear them much in the West.

The tweet by Green MSP, Maggie Chapman, characterising Hamas’s terrorism as “retaliation” in the face of Israeli misdeeds, was not just crass and insensitive, it was also wrong. I bow to no one in my defence of the right of the Palestinian people to live in a state of their own alongside their Israeli neighbours. That should never force us to defend the actions of Hamas.

Most of all, we must challenge the belief that a two-state solution is no longer possible. Goodness only knows that it has never looked more difficult to achieve, but for permanent peace it is still the only option. Any plan that claims to be a solution but does not involve two states will not be a solution.

That is the test that Israel, the Palestinians and the international community must apply in the weeks to come. Anything that makes that goal more difficult to achieve is to be resisted.

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland



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