Opinion: The West must take some responsibility for the current crisis in Gaza

Lib Dem Voice has invited both the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine and the Friends of Israel to submit articles looking at the current Middle East crisis. Today we publish this contribution from Andrew Baldwin, Secretary of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine.

The recent violence in the Gaza Strip is extremely damaging for the so called ‘peace process’ in the Middle East. The international community has been slow to act, issuing statements urging Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel, but this almost abandonment of the Palestinian people is extremely dangerous for the future, and ignores the fact that the international community has to take a major role in this conflict.

It is extremely difficult for civilians in the Gaza Strip to view the outside world with anything but contempt. They are angry over the hypocrisy of the last few years. In January 2006, Hamas swept to victory in free and open elections in the Gaza Strip. They were then subject to international vilification for having the audacity to elect the wrong people. US support for Fatah increased dramatically, and Israel increased its stranglehold on the Gaza Strip. By June 2006, 80% of Gazans were living in poverty and the economic infrastructure was on the verge of collapse. The international community blamed Hamas.

It was very difficult for Palestinians to link demands that Hamas renounce violence, with tacit approval for Israel’s use of violence for its catch-all programme of ‘self-defense’. Indeed, as we have seen, Israel feels justified using F-16 fighters to bomb Hamas targets knowing full well that civilians in that location will be killed. The Western world is also fine with that but, as Norman G. Finkelstein writes*, how would we react if Hamas legitimized bus-bombings by arguing that there was a legitimate target on the bus and the other civilians were simply collateral damage?

This hypocrisy is damaging for prospects for peace. By all means express outrage at rocket attacks on Israel – indeed, I am sure most Israelis simply want to get on with their lives without fear of death from above. However, we must also express similar outrage at Israeli abuses of power in an occupied territory beyond its legal jurisdiction – I am equally sure most Gazans simply want to get on with their lives without fear of death from above as well.

If you force an animal into a corner it will bite you to escape. By ignoring Hamas, accepting the blockade of Gaza as legitimate, and failing to address Israel’s blasé attitude to international law (see Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, or General Assembly Resolution 194) we have forced Hamas into a corner where they believe they are on their own.

It is time for the international community to make the bold move to shake hands with the devil. Recent rumours are that President-elect Obama will do just that. Until the democratically elected representatives of the Gaza Strip are acknowledged as that, and inspite of how much we disagree with their views on Israel, we must enter into dialogue to give them an alternate platform to the barrage of rockets they currently rely upon. Until all sides are represented at the table, civilians on both sides of the Gazan border will live in fear of the other side.

* Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, p. xx

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20 Comments

  • Andrew Duffield 12th Jan '09 - 8:58pm

    Don’t suppose there’s any danger of the Friends of Palestine and the Friends of Israel joining hands as Lib Dem Friends of the Middle East?

    Meanwhile, and in the cynical anticipation that Obama’s change agenda in this (and most other areas) will be little more than skin deep, my local party has submitted the following effort to FCC for Harrogate:

    Conflict Resolution in the Middle East

    “Conference notes that progress towards a solution in the Palestine/Israel conflict remains deadlocked and that, beyond recent events, a measure of the depth of this deadlock is reflected in the refusal of the Israeli settler movement to return to 1967 borders and
    the refusal of Palestinian refugees to give up their ‘right of return’.

    Conference believes that:
    a) a just solution to this conflict would result in a major reduction
    in global tensions;
    b) the European Union potentially has a very important role to play;
    c) new thinking is required.

    Conference therefore calls upon the UK government to explore the feasibility and benefit of Israel and Palestine being jointly invited into membership of the European Union, conditional on the broad political and economic co-operation and compliance such membership
    requires.”

    Is that the sort of positive action that Lib Dem Friends could unite around?

  • Andrew Duffield 12th Jan '09 - 9:48pm

    Actually, that’s me being cynical about Obama and the extent to which US policy might change – not my local party.

  • “Don’t suppose there’s any danger of the Friends of Palestine and the Friends of Israel joining hands as Lib Dem Friends of the Middle East?”

    That is an interesting suggestion: they would presumably, if that happened, operate as a forum for discussion and debate rather than a simple lobby?

  • Yes – as a kind of internal working group I would hope – coming up with some practical proposals to move Party policy forward in a distinctive and positive way, rather than lobbying on behalf of sectional interests. I look forward to someone going as far as suggesting a single state solution in due course – though I accept that may be some way off in the real world just yet!

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jan '09 - 9:43am

    Andrew Baldwin

    “It is extremely difficult for civilians in the Gaza Strip to view the outside world with anything but contempt. They are angry over the hypocrisy of the last few years. In January 2006, Hamas swept to victory in free and open elections in the Gaza Strip. They were then subject to international vilification for having the audacity to elect the wrong people.”

    OK, but let us imagine how we would react if the BNP swept to power in some borough. Suppose after this racist attacks in the surrounding area increased enormously. Would we regard the people of that borough kindly, would we be anxious to talk to the borough’s council leaders, would we accept the line “it’s a cry for help?”. I think we’d find that very difficult to do, and the BNP are pussy-cats compared to Hamas, of course.


    “If you force an animal into a corner it will bite you to escape.”

    Yes, and if you throw pebbles at an animal, you will provoke it and it will bite you.

    The trouble is this debate has been largely framed by the supporters of both sides telling us of the horrible consequence of the violence of the other side, while writing off what their side does as “only natural under the circumstances, what anyone would do when faced with those circumstances”.

    If we accept the arguments from both sides we end up agreeing that each side is doing what is natural in response to what the other side is doing, which means there is no end to it until one side is wiped out.

    I’m happy to accept now that the best immediate solution is for Israel to pull out and say. “Right, we now leave you alone if you leave us alone”. Would Hamas respond positively? I don’t know, but if Israel were to do this they’d gain the moral high ground which they have undoubtedly lost through their cruel over-reaction.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, assuming Hamas are not just fools, they are working to a game plan under which their oppression sparks calls in the Arab world to overthrow the “quislings” in government and bring in radicals who will join with Hamas in an all-out war on Israel. They’ve managed to stoop Fatah (“stoop” – from Sinn Fein’s branding of SDLP as “Stoop Down Low Party”), that’s how the terrorist game works. So they’re not going to go away and the hope that the Palestinians will turn away to more moderate leaders has probably been lost by Israel’s joining in their terrorist game.

    Longer term solution therefore probably has to be to feed the egoes of the Hamas leaders, offer them big fat comfy jobs which seem a more tempting prospect than all-out war and glorious death as martyrs. But I’m not sure Israel’s up to this, though any alternative is worse in the long term.

  • Matthew,

    I don’t quite follow your BNP analogy.

    Has there been ethnic cleansing in the United Kingdom in the last 400 years, and have the perpetrators of said cleansing claimed that the land they have taken by force has been given to them by God?

    Also, the BNP objects to people on grounds of race. Hamas, by contrast, doesn’t give a stuff what racce people are as long as they are Sunni Moslems.

    Now, those looking for racism on the European model need go no further than the recent Israeli “Jewish” immigrants from Russia, many of whom hate Jews even more than they hate Arabs.

    I see few grounds for optimism. Northern Ireland is an inappropriate analogy. In theat case, the ethnic cleansing happened in the 17th century, and both “sides” are “contaminated” with the “blood” of the other. Bosnia is a better comparison. Both factions still hate each other as much as ever, but the guns have remained silent since the Americans froze the conflict at Dayton in 1995. That is the best we can hope for in Israel/Palestine, methinks.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jan '09 - 12:45pm

    Sesenco,

    I’m not saying that Hamas are racists, I’m saying that asking Israel to interact with Hamas politicians on the grounds Hamas are the elected representatives is like asking us to work with BNP councillors on the grounds they’re elected representatives. I’m not saying who’s good or who’s bad here, just noting that the line “but they’re the ones who got elected, so you have to work with them” doesn’t work with us when we have a profound dislike of those who got elected, so should we expect the Israelis to accept it? If we want to work out solutions we have to try and find analogies which help us understand mindsets. If our sympathies are strongly to one side, we still have to try and find a way into the mind of the other side if we want to get somewhere practically. If we don’t want to get somewhere practically, we should be honest and admit we just want to see a war to the finish.

    The analogy with Northern Ireland is nothing to do with what happened historically there, but rather an observation on the way more extreme politicians can manipulate things to push out the moderates. Both sides in Northern Ireland since the 1960s show this happening, with the unionists it went through four cycles. Fatah in Palestine are now like the SDLP in Northern Ireland. The line “let’s deal with Fatah, and the Palestinians will see sense and go with Fatah, and Hamas will dwindle away” won’t work any more than the line “let’s deal with the SDLP and nationalists in Northern Ireland will see sense, back the SDLP and Sinn Fein will dwindle away” worked in Northern Ireland.

    My instinctive line is to back the moderates and don’t give ammunition which would allow the extremists to prosper. Unfortunately, I feel the Israeli action in Gaza has now made this line untenable whereas it may just have still had some mileage before. If one understands that Hamas intended it to work out in just that way things start to fall in place.

  • Andrew Duffield 13th Jan '09 - 11:27pm

    Geoff – if both Israel and Palestine were members of the EU, their respective citizens would have the right to work, to “return”, and to settle anywhere within EU borders. Neither side has to give up anything within the aspirations of this motion – just to embrace a more inclusive, co-operative and ultimately a shared future.
    The single (EU) state solution may yet prevail!

  • Jonathan Davies 14th Jan '09 - 12:08am

    One oddity of the EU solution is that neither Israel nor Palestine is in Europe. Israel has participated in a variety of European social and cultural activities, including the Eurovision song contest and the European football competitions, largely because most of its Arab neighbours will not allow it to participate in the local competitions. I’m looking forward to the world cup qualifying match between Israel and Saudi Arabia

  • Andrew Duffield 14th Jan '09 - 12:15am

    If French Giuana in South America can be part of the EU (which it is), I’m sure we can stretch the borders a little to the East!

  • Matthew Harris 14th Jan '09 - 2:53pm

    Andrew Duffield’s motion has to be applauded, simply because it is pro-peace. One might or might not “agree” with every word of it, but it is pro-peace – it is liberal and well-intentioned. And no, it’s not concocted by LDFI – I knew nothing of it until reading of it on Lib Dem Voice.

    Geoff asks an excellent question about the right of return. It is a very painful issue. My grandfather was a refugee from Nazi Germany and he had the right to go back and live there after the war. Even I could claim German citizenship, having had grandparents who were German citizens. How, therefore, can I possibly go to a Palestinian who fled from his home in, say, Jaffa, and tell him that he is not allowed to go back there? What possible right, moral or legal, can I have to say such a thing?

    The answer is one of realpolitik, and it is ugly. In the 1947/8 war surrounding the creation of the State of Israel, some Arabs were undoubtedly forced from their homes. Some others left their homes because Arab commanders ordered them to get out of the way of the fighting, in the expectation that they could come back after the Arabs had won the war (which they lost). A great number also fled because there was a war on and they were therefore fleeing a conflict zone. Some (definitely a minority) left despite being encouraged to stay by their Jewish neighbours. There is no truth in the claim that no Arabs had to leave and that they could all have stayed had they wanted to. That used to be the Israeli line. Rabin wrote the truth (about Ben Gurion instructing the Army to prevent the return of people who had fled) in his memoirs, which were censored, but then leaked to the New York Times.

    I accept that Arabs were expelled and that these people were treated appallingly. As a Jew, a Briton and a Zionist, I share some of the historical responsibility for that – the British obviously played their role in the mess of 40s Palestine, and I support the wars that Zionists were fighting in the name of the Jewish people, so I share some of the responsibility, historically. Those Arab leaders who refused to accept partition (i.e. the creation of Israel and a Palestinian state) in 1947/8 also share some of the responsibility. So do those Arab governnments which, instead of resettling the Palestinian refugees in the Arab countries to which they had fled, kept them in refugee camps (in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan), pending an Arab re-conquest of Israel/Palestine that then never came.

    So how, in light of this, can I possibly, fairly answer Geoff’s question? How do I justify the unjustifiable? By the following:

    Terrible things happen in wartime. The Jews in Palestine were fighting a war in 1947/8, which they perceived as a war for their survival. I wish that war had been averted, but it wasn’t. You then ended up with a situation in which the Palestinian refugees (and their descendents) had become stateless refugees. Israel would claim that its offer to discuss the refugees (and compensation) in the 50s was turned down by Arab regimes that didn’t recognise Israel. Others would claim that that is irrelevant. Israel would also point out that hostility to Israel led to the expulsion, at around the same time, of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands – Jews who had lived in those countries for many centuries. Those people, too, have been denied the right to return to most of their countries (even the new Iraq, which is fairly shocking – they specifically excluded Jews from the list of people who were allowed to return to Iraq) and have been largely uncompensated for their suffering and loss of property. Should their needs not be considered alongside the Palestinians’ in any final settlement of this conflict? The Jewish refugees were re-settled as Israeli citizens; the Arab refugees were kept as refugees, instead of becoming citizes of their new homes – a tragic mistake on the part of the Arab regimes.

    You have to start from where you are now, not from where we were sixty years ago. There’ve been huge population resettlements to end conflicts before and that’s the key – ending the conflict. I don’t wish to sound glib, but if you try to return everyone to where they were before it started, there will simply be another war. Israel was created to be a Jewish national home. Bluntly, the idea is that if we had a British Nazi government in 2009 and I was made a stateless person, I’d have Israel to flee to as a Jew – in contrast to the 1930s, when so many Jewish refugees had nowhere to go to, as so many countries would not let many of them in. That’s the Zionist idea, in crude terms – if Jews are a minority everywhere, that leaves them open to persecution as a minority, so they need one country in which they are not a minority, and that’s Israel. Were Israel to let in every refugee and their descendents, Israel would cease to be a Jewish-majority state. What would happen in Israel if, in fifty or a hundred years time, the Arab majority became hostile to the Jewish minority (as has happened to Jewish minorities in so very many countries over the centuries) and expelled them, or worse? It would nullify the whole reason for Israel’s existence (that’s also why a one-state solution would not be accepted by Israel). Therefore Israel will simply never accept it – however harsh that is. So it cannot be a factor in resolving this conflict, as the price for imposing it would be another vast Arab/Israeli conflict.

    That is why we need a two-state solution, giving Palestinians a right of return to a Palestinian state and Jews a continued right of return to a Jewish state. Which does not mean that you won’t have a continued non-Jewish, mostly Arab minority in Israel (will the new Palestinian state allow Jews to live there as a minority – I suspect not). There must be massive compensation for the Arabs and Jews who became refugees as a result of this conflict. But we have to move forward and not ask either side to accept the unacceptable. Interestingly, the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan includes an end to the Palestinian right of return.

    By the way, if you’re interested in this thread, there’s another one elsewhere on the site – I’ve written another piece about the war, to complement this LDFP article by Andrew Baldwin, so do all go and post there as well, if you want to.

  • Andrew Turvey 14th Jan '09 - 10:24pm

    Thank you Matthew for this interesting response. Picking up two things you mentioned:

    >> will the new Palestinian state allow Jews to live there as a minority – I suspect not.

    Put simply, unless Jewish settlers and the Palestinian government accept that Jewish settlers could remain as a minority in Palestine, it will be impossible to create a viable Palestinian state or a durable peace. There is a significant minority of Israelis who want the right to settle throughout “Samaria” and “Judaea” and there is clearly a lack of political will on the Israeli side to dismantle all the settlements. This is part of the “new thinking” that is deperately needed to get us out of this situation.

    >> the idea [of Zionism] is that if we had a British Nazi government in 2009 and I was made a stateless person, I’d have Israel to flee to as a Jew … were Israel to let in every refugee and their descendents, Israel would cease to be a Jewish-majority state … it would nullify the whole reason for Israel’s existence

    I understand your reasoning and we may have to accept it from a pragmatic realpolitik point of view in the search for a solution. However, we should not fall into the trap of thinking this gives any special priviliges for Israel or morally justifies any contraventions of the rights of non-Jews.

    There are many national or religious communities to which the same applies, yet who dont have a state of their own. Armenians were left for 70 years following the Armenian Genocide without a state; many religions including Sikhs, Baha’is, Ahmadis, Yezidis, Mandeans, Jains and Mormons are state-less despite a history of persecution and in many cases a fear of future persecution. Many more ethnic groups fall into the same boat like Kurds, Romanis, Basques, Welsh and Crimean Tatars. Should we give them all special rights? I’d rather we stuck to the concept of universal rights and rules that all are expected to live by and resisted any concept of “exceptionalism”, Isreali or otherwise.

  • Matthew Harris 21st Jan '09 - 7:34pm

    In liberal terms, Andrew Turvey is right – we shouldn’t need nation states. We human beings should all get along to such an extent that every nation is safe without its own state. Would that it were so in today’s real world. Daniel Finkelstein expresses it well in The Times: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/daniel_finkelstein/article5461544.ece I strongly urge colleagues to read this piece in its entirety.

  • Can you point me to where LDFOP has condemned rocket attacks on Israeli civilians because it is disappointingly hard to find either in the article above or on the website.

  • Matthew Harris 4th Feb '09 - 1:28pm
  • There can be no peace without justice for the Palestinians. The pre-1967 borders should be drawn and kept. If any jews decide to stay within these borders then the world should point out that they no longer live in Israel but Palestine. I expect only peace-loving jews would stay (which would be fine). It is nonsense to say Israel must protect its people. More of its people are killed in road accidents or falling of ladders than by Palestinians. Israel does not want peace. Delay tactics and lies do not work anymore. Gaza has opened the eyes of the World. If Israel wants to be safe then it should behave and start making up for all the evil it has done. The best way to have a friend is to be a friend.

  • Matthew Harris 6th Feb '09 - 5:11pm

    It just gets worse. The Hamas mafia is stealing the international aid. It is not me saying this. It is the UN agency UNWRA which exists solely to manage the welfare of Palestinian refugees: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7875171.stm

  • Matthew Harris 6th Feb '09 - 5:26pm

    Carol is right to call for peace based on “justice for the Palestinians”. But surely a just peace would entail “justice for the Palestinians and the Israelis”? Carol, despite what you say about people falling off ladders and road accidents, there are 900,000 Israelis who cannot lead normal lives because they are within range of Hamas rockets. Does that justify everything that Israel might do in the name of defending its people? No, it does not, but nor can it be dismissed lightly.

    And as to the argument about which side has been least willing to accept peace. The Palestinians claim that the Israelis always delay doing a deal. The Israelis claim that they have offered the Palestinians a state and it has been turned down repeatedly – and, whenever there it looks like there might be a deal, Palestinian extremists commit atrocities with the precise aim of making Israeli public opinion more hostile to the deal in question! It takes two to tango and that’s why we have to applaud President Obama’s and George Mitchell’s efforts to move things forward.

    Danny Finkelstein writes interestingly here:

    http://www.thejc.com/articles/israel-itself-their-real-target

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