Israel-Gaza war: As West betrays its values, others are taking the cause of freedom and justice more seriously – Joyce McMillan

Foreign Secretary David Cameron was visibly embarrassed when questioned by MPs about whether the Israeli government is breaking international law in Gaza

On Tuesday this week, the UK’s new Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton – better known as David Cameron – made his first appearance before the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Select Committee. It was an occasion that alternated between the deliberately bland, and the quietly shocking; part nostalgic reminder of how it felt to have Conservative leaders who instinctively sought to occupy the middle ground of politics, and part dire warning about the British political and financial establishment’s profound unwillingness to hold the Israeli government to account over the current devastation of Gaza.

Cameron began fairly impressively, outlining the areas of agreement that he felt could bring together most of the major players in the Middle East and beyond to promote a future two-state settlement. When it came to the detail of the current situation, though, things began to fall apart for both Cameron and his leading civil servant, Sir Philip Barton. Most significantly, they were visibly embarrassed by the committee’s intense questioning about Israel’s recent conduct in Gaza, and whether – as the government of South Africa is currently arguing at the International Court of Justice – the Israeli government is in clear breach of international humanitarian law.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It is one thing for Cameron repeatedly to remind us that he is “not a lawyer”, and neither is Sir Philip. To tell us, though, that he is “worried” that breaches of international law may have taken place, and that he has received a great deal of advice on the issue from Foreign Office legal teams, while absolutely refusing to say whether that advice confirms the illegality of Israel’s actions, is another matter. Vigorously pursued by the committee’s impressive chair, Tory MP Alicia Kearns, on the matter of the high level of civilian casualties, and by SNP MP Brendan O’Hara on the deliberate withdrawal of Gaza’s water supply (in clear breach of the legal duties of occupying powers anywhere), all the two men could do was flannel about the precise legal status of Gaza, and give smokescreen lectures about process; while Cameron, always quick to blush under pressure, turned an ever more alarming shade of red.

Palestinians evacuate their homes in Gaza City after Israeli airstrikes in October (Picture: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)Palestinians evacuate their homes in Gaza City after Israeli airstrikes in October (Picture: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)
Palestinians evacuate their homes in Gaza City after Israeli airstrikes in October (Picture: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Unravelling of Pax Americana

And although Britain is no longer the major force it once was, in global affairs, these scenes are significant for the insight they offer into the current plight of the West. That Israel’s enemies in Hamas have committed brutal war crimes and acts of aggression, and declared their intention of continuing to do so if they can, is not in dispute. The question of how Israel defends itself, though – and according to what code of values – has become one that the West can no longer avoid, as the devastation of Gaza and its people plays out on our screens; and increasingly, it seems that the West’s tendency to defend and support Israel as a default position, regardless of the conduct of its current government, is now becoming a huge global liability, and a major staging-post in the unravelling of the 75-year “Pax Americana” that has guaranteed relative peace in the West – although certainly not elsewhere – during the lifetimes of most of us now alive.

In a sense, many across the world may be glad to see the end of an era often characterised by brutal forms of economic neo-colonialism, high levels of hypocrisy, and pervasive double standards about who can realistically expect to benefit from the ideal rights and freedoms set out in the UN Charter of 1948 – and since then, more often breached than observed. At this turning-point, though, we should recognise that what we are facing is clearly not, as some right-wing ideologues have argued, a clash of cultures – the decline of a “Western” culture of freedom and democracy, and the rise of other cultures which despise those principles – but rather a profound clash of values in every country and continent between those who hold those UN principles in contempt, and believe that brute force, economic or military, should be the main determinant of our future, and those who honour those principles, and are angered, saddened and moved to action by the blatant breaches of them that face us every day.

World of thuggery and lies

One of the lessons of the world’s current wars, notably the explosive conflicts in Ukraine and Israel-Gaza, is that in every place and culture, you will find both those who are prepared who fight and die for freedom, for human dignity, for justice and truth – witness, among many other examples, the heroic journalists of Gaza, who continue to tell the story of what is happening to their land and people despite a terrifying death rate among their colleagues – and those whose preference is for a world of hatred, thuggery, brutality, and divisive lies. And like the advocates for those values, the enemies of them can be found everywhere; from Donald Trump’s White House to Tehran, Moscow, and the offices of media and political organisations everywhere that are dedicated to spreading fear, hatred, and disinformation.

The turning point we face, in other words, may mark the end of an age when old colonial powers – both political and economic – tried to set up a world order that would pay something more than lip service to freedom, justice and democracy, while not seriously challenging existing patterns of power. Yet across the planet, in every continent, there are now millions who, in their clear-sighted anger against brutality and injustice, may well yet prove to take those values more seriously, as the essential practical building blocks of peace and progress, than the Western powers have ever done; a generation who, rather than destroying and dismantling the dream articulated by the UN founders in 1948, may instead be beginning to work out, through this painful transition, how to remake our structures of global co-operation and solidarity for new times, and to give them and their guiding principles new life, in the tough half-century ahead.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.