Israel Gaza war: West's continued support for Israeli government risks the collapse of its moral authority – Joyce McMillan

Israel had a right to respond militarily to the Hamas October 7 attacks, but the West’s failure to stop or lessen the current nightmare in Gaza is destroying its credibility and influence in the world

Head along to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, this month, and you will see, in the brilliant musical Hamilton, a show that speaks volumes about the world we have lived in, these last 250 years. On one hand, this fast and furious account of the founding of the United States – as performed by a superb young mainly black company – offers a huge tribute to the immense potential, even now, of the American dream of a nation founded on the great enlightenment principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Yet, at the same time, the show also – both implicitly and explicitly – begins to expose the cracks in that dream, in the exclusion from power and full citizenship of women, enslaved black people, and many others; and I have been thinking about it a great deal, as I cast a grim eye over the current state of global politics. For as every government in the world has now acknowledged, the toll of death and destruction in Gaza, over the last six months, has been shocking almost beyond words. In a confined space smaller than the island of Arran, more than two million people – from a population of 2.5 million – have been displaced from their homes, which in many cases have been reduced to rubble.

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More than 30,000 Gazans have been killed, including more than 12,000 children; and on Wednesday, the Guardian reported that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is using drones powered by artificial intelligence to select targets, on the basis that an average of 20 collateral civilian deaths is acceptable, for each Hamas individual targeted. Furthermore, allegedly targeted attacks on aid workers have taken place at a time when, according to the United Nations and other aid agencies, more than a million people in Gaza are facing famine, and the whole population is increasingly malnourished.

The people of Gaza, in other words, are not only being bombed towards oblivion, but are being subjected to an entirely human-made famine and drought, with terrible consequences; and it is perhaps not surprising that six months into the conflict, even those Western governments which at first stood most staunchly by Israel’s right to defend itself, after the brutal Hamas attack on south Israel on October 7, are beginning to change their tune, particularly – of course – since this week’s fatal Israeli attack on a group of aid workers which included British and Australian citizens.

An extremist government

In truth, though, this week’s talk of finally ending arms supplies to Israel comes much too late. The form of action taken by Israel after October 7 – the collective punishment of a whole people, and the devastation of Gaza’s cities and civilian infrastructure – has, most experts agree, been in blatant breach of international law from the outset. Nor is it remotely anti-semitic or even anti-Israeli to point this out. Millions of Jewish people worldwide, and hundreds of thousands in Israel itself, are well aware of these facts; and of how the country’s long-term future, long guaranteed by the West, is being jeopardised by its current extremist government.

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For the truth is that something is dying in Gaza, alongside those thousands of children, their parents and grandparents; and that other, invisible victim is the long age of Western hegemony and leadership, across large parts of the globe, in which the story of the founding of the United States played such a key part, and on which the continued existence of Israel has long depended.

It began with empire, of course – Spanish, British, French, Dutch – but then thrived on the rapid expansion of US economic power. It survived the trauma of the Second World War, and saw perhaps its finest hour with the founding of the UN, in 1945. And as recently as the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, leaders like George Bush Senior and Tony Blair still thought that they could roll out a New World Order which would combine extensive lip service to UN principles with very little real restriction on the vast power of Western clients and corporations. Small wonder that when the late Robin Cook became UK Foreign Secretary in 1997, he issued a clarion call for an “ethical foreign policy” which would take seriously the international law and UN principles that the West claimed to embrace, or risk an eventual collapse of Western credibility and global influence.

West’s ambivalence towards its values

And now, it seems that that moment of collapse has arrived. That the horror of the Hamas attack of October 7 justified a military response from Israel is not in doubt; but the failure of the Western powers to prevent or even modify the current nightmare in Gaza has utterly destroyed the global moral authority of the states most deeply involved, including the United States and the UK, and has opened our governments to possible legal action for complicity in what is at best a forced and brutal act of ethnic cleansing.

Whether any of those embryonic structures of international law will even survive this current age of political chaos, though, must now be in doubt. Fifty-six years ago in Washington, Martin Luther King dreamed of the day when his country would “live out the meaning of its creed” – that is, of the great enlightenment declaration that all humanity is truly created equal, with an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet now, the West’s ever-more visible ambivalence about those values – and the terrible, reactionary culture wars that now tear us apart, whenever any government seriously tries to implement those principles – seem on the point of bringing to ruin the whole world order the West once tried to build. And with “strong man” authoritarian leaders like Presidents Xi and Putin increasingly dominating the global stage, the consequences of that self-inflicted collapse could be brutal indeed; possibly for ourselves, certainly for our children, and perhaps for many struggling generations to come.

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