Peter Jones: Israel losing battle of world opinion

A Palestinian boy receives a present for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, at the Shifa hospital in Gaza, where he is hospitalized. Picture: AP
A Palestinian boy receives a present for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, at the Shifa hospital in Gaza, where he is hospitalized. Picture: AP
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The more blood spilled in Gaza, the more sympathy the Israeli state will forfeit, writes Peter Jones

THANK goodness for some sort of lull in the fighting in and around Gaza. Overnight yesterday Hamas fired a rocket into Israel and the Israeli army responded with a few artillery shells, but that is mild compared to the last three weeks of violence which has now killed more than 1,000 mostly civilian Palestinians, 43 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians. Is there any hope that all fighting will now stop?

Not as long as the dynamics of opinion on both sides continue to rest on the rewards for extreme behaviour. According to recent opinion polls, nearly nine out of ten Israelis approve of their army’s assault on Gaza. There are no such polls of Palestinian opinion, but the lack of obvious public signs of dissent from Hamas’ strategy suggests, at the least, acquiescence by Gazans.

And that is despite the dreadful carnage of schools and hospitals being hit and children being killed at the rate of about ten a day since this bout of hostilities began. Not even UN centres for those displaced by the bombardment are safe. How can anyone think this is good, or likely to achieve the objectives of either side?

On the Israeli side, the answer is that life for ordinary folk has been pretty good until recently. The economy is doing well – growth this year and last is expected to be well over 3 per cent and unemployment is low. The threat of Palestinian suicide bombers has waned and taking the bus or enjoying a pavement café coffee is now seen as safe where it wasn’t a few years ago.

Hamas’ rockets have destroyed that relative sense of security. Their increasing power has brought Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into range. Perhaps Hamas’ most effective shot was one which landed a couple of miles from Ben Gurion airport, causing international airlines to suspend flights for a while, threatening not just Israelis’ personal security but their economy as well.

Military action which destroys the rockets and kills the people launching them therefore meets not just with public approval, but silences any moderate voice calling for a ceasefire to stop the killing.

Life for the 1.8 million Gazans, crammed into a strip of land about 25 miles long and five miles wide, has been the mirror image. A third have no work and two-thirds survive on humanitarian aid. Basics such as clean drinking water are in short supply. Most Palestinians blame Israel’s blockade of Gaza, now in its seventh year, for this. Even David Cameron has described it as a prison camp.

Inflicting blows on the tormentor, even if it incurs a heavy reprisal, may well please a lot of Palestinians. Could their lives be much worse than they already are?

World reaction, however, is somewhat different. The world sees that Israel has a defence system which manages to shoot down most of the rockets. It sees that it is inflicting a death toll which is about 20 times higher than what it is suffering. And it sees that about 150,000 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes.

Israel tries hard to explain, graphically illustrated with pictures and videos from drones and aircraft, that Hamas is firing its rockets from schoolyards and from amidst apartment blocks, that it warns Gazan residents to get out of their homes when it is about to strike them in search of Hamas fighters.

But up against the dreadful scenes of women and children being injured and killed, these explanations do not seem to cut much ice. Neither is world opinion convinced that Hamas is stopping civilians, as Israel claims, from leaving areas it is using to launch its rocket strikes. Reporters from various international news outlets have seen no evidence of that happening.

Instead the evidence is that Israel is losing the battle for world opinion. A variety of non-governmental human rights organisations, including the UN Human Rights Council, have either accused the Israeli government of war crimes or are calling for an investigation into whether they have been committed. A good many western governments, normally supportive of Israel’s rights to self-defence, believe that its assaults on Gaza are utterly disproportionate to the attacks on it.

In short, neither Israel’s medium-term policy towards Gaza – maintaining a blockade while allowing enough humanitarian aid in to prevent malnutrition and starvation, a state of existence rather than life – nor its short-term resort to massive reprisals, are working.

And while Palestinians on the West Bank have not been subject to quite the same horrors, their condition is also miserable. In ten days of a military operation to find the three Israeli youths whose kidnapping began the current conflict, some 800 people were arrested and more than 1,000 premises destructively searched. Meantime they have to accept living under Israeli occupation and having to give up land to Israeli settlers at the government’s whim with no compensation.

This is not a recipe for peace, or for a stable society. It amounts to repression, and people living in a repressive society are likely to periodically rebel. Why can’t Israelis and their government see this?

Probably because they cannot forget that Hamas’ ideology includes violent anti-Semitism and the destruction of the Israeli state. This alone in many Israeli minds may equate the civilian Palestinian population of Gaza, who elected Hamas, with Hamas and thus as justifying civilian deaths.

The rest of the world doesn’t see it like that though. Israel is losing the battle for world opinion. Indeed, if anything, it seems that opinion is strengthening that only a settlement which produces a Palestinian state and ends the Gaza blockade will lead to peace.

Given that Israeli settlements now litter the West Bank, that would be hard to achieve even if there was no conflict. But this ground has been gone over so thoroughly that the outline and even much of the detail of how to do it should be known.

The problem is that Israeli public opinion doesn’t seem ready to accept it. But the more blood is spilled in Gaza, the more sympathy for Israel will drain away.