As well as being a Labour party activist I work as director of We Believe in Israel, a grassroots campaign group.
I therefore don’t pretend to be an unbiased observer of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. But I have studied the situation closely enough to understand that the events of the last week are of a profound significance to hopes for a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians – as opposed to just the ceasefire needed to end the current fighting.
I don’t believe that Hamas’ rocket attacks, a huge escalation of which necessitated Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence, are caused by Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The reverse is true. The blockade came in response to the rocket attacks which quadrupled in the 12 months after Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and before the blockade was imposed. The blockade was imposed to stop weaponry reaching Hamas. It will be lifted when all threat of further rockets is ended.
Nor do I think the rockets result from frustration about the stalled peace process. Hamas cadres who fire off rockets are not ideological enthusiasts for a two-state solution; their organisation’s charter commits them to the destruction of the State of Israel. In contrast to the violence emanating from Hamas in Gaza, there has been relative peace in the PLO/Fatah-controlled West Bank where resolving settlements and the status of East Jerusalem will have a direct impact. But I do believe that the talks around a ceasefire may help trigger a real process that eventually leads to a two-state solution
Labour needs to differentiate between progressive and reactionary forces in the Middle East. As much between Palestinians – working to bolster the moderate forces in Palestinian society vis-à-vis Hamas and others who want confrontation rather than negotiation with Israel, as much as within the Syrian opposition.
With political Islamism in the ascendency in the Middle East, it is important that Britain sends clear and consistent messages that it is committed to Israel’s security and its right to defend itself. The UK should make clear to Sunni powers with influence over Hamas – Egypt, Qatar and Turkey – that they must use that influence to rein in Hamas and pressure it to keep the peace in the Gaza Strip.
Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi is under domestic pressure to cut off relations with Israel and throw Egypt’s support behind Hamas. This would be a devastating reverse for the cause of peace and stability in the region. It must be made clear to Mursi that the western support needed if Egypt is to weather its economic crisis is dependent on its leadership playing a constructive role in the region. Mursi’s efforts to broker a ceasefire are a positive sign that he wants to act responsibly.
Hamas too must receive a clear message that it must choose between the role of a responsible government and that of a terrorist organisation.
This morning’s bomb attack on a civilian bus in Tel Aviv, which Hamas claimed credit for and celebrated, does not bode well for such a change of stance.
Israel has effectively given up on attempts to dislodge Hamas from the Gaza Strip and its goal is more modest – to secure quiet for its citizens. But Israel will be forced to launch more operations like this one in the future if Hamas continues to arm itself with missiles to hit Israel and fails to enforce a ceasefire on other groups. The most basic duty any state has, particularly a democracy, is to try to safeguard its citizens from attack.
Any relaxation Hamas demands on the border crossings must be balanced by assurances that it will be prevented from rearming, otherwise we are paving the way for the next conflict and will just repeat the cycle seen between Operation Cast Lead and now; an initial lull in rocket attacks followed by a gradual escalation to intolerable levels that make normal life impossible for Israelis within missile range.
‘Putting up with’ another gradual increase in rocket attacks is certainly not an option now that Iranian-origin longer-range missiles can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Whatever the outcome of this conflict, Hamas will claim victory and use it to bolster its credentials and paint the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as irrelevant. PA President Abbas is likely to be even more emboldened to seek observer state status at the UN. While this may score him some badly needed domestic political points, it is a move full of risk that could create a damaging confrontation between Israel and the PA in the West Bank, threatening years of fairly successful Palestinian institutional development. The Labour party’s support for this unilateral move at the UN, while motivated by good intentions about kickstarting the peace process, may have the opposite effect and kill it. As such it makes us look naive and lays us open to attack by the Tories for trying to differentiate ourselves on an issue of such importance that it should involve a bipartisan consensus. Too many of the backbench contributions to Tuesday’s Commons debate by Labour MPs went beyond naive and sounded like they had no empathy with the plight of Israel under constant rocket attack and didn’t understand the culpability of Hamas for the dreadful situation the citizens of Gaza are in.
The international community and Israel need to find ways to bolster Abbas and the PA, but at the same time to reduce provocative one-sided steps by both Israel and the PA.
The PA should be persuaded to consider accepting an interim bilateral agreement with Israel in the West Bank that would produce some real tangible benefits for the Palestinian people there, a positive step towards Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank. Such a concrete advance, without the need to fire a single rocket, would help to make Hamas look like the irrelevant party.
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