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331 – Peace from Gaza’s wreck?
14 February 2009 (15:12:24)

Israel’s real friends must admit that the Middle East conflict cannot have a military solution, says Jonathan Fryer

As Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza, a traumatised local population mourned its dead. More than 1,200 Palestinians were killed and many more disabled, an unconscionable number of them children. Countless livelihoods were destroyed. The psychological effects among both young and old will take years to gauge.

The physical destruction produced by the Israeli onslaught bears graphic testimony to the disproportionality of the operation. Of course Israel has a right to defend itself, and Hamas was both wicked and foolish to sanction rocket barrages against indiscriminate civilian targets in Israel. But the mercilessness of the invasion has guaranteed not only a new generation of Palestinian hatred, but outrage across much of the world.

The Israeli Defence Force is claiming victory, but on what grounds? Hamas has not been vanquished, even if some senior figures have been killed. If anything, its status has been enhanced, rather as Hezbollah gained credibility in Lebanon for being seen to stand up to the Israelis during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon. The shaky Middle East peace process has been set back disastrously and Turkish-led efforts at reconciliation between Israel and Syria have been undermined.

The United Nations estimates that the reconstruction of Gaza will cost billions of dollars. But where will all that money come from? King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has pledged $1bn, and some emergency funding might be found in various UN budgets to tackle needs such as food, medicine and temporary shelter. The European Union will doubtless be approached for assistance, just as in the past it has helped finance many infrastructure projects on the West Bank (sometimes later to see them blown up by Israeli tanks and aircraft).

A strong case exists to seek war reparations from Israel, which may also find itself being charged with war crimes. The United Nations is incandescent about attacks on UN schools, in particular, and even the normally reticent Red Cross has spoken out against the use of warfare inappropriate in highly populated areas.

The timing of the Israeli operation was doubly cynical. Firstly, it was clearly aimed at influencing the outcome of the Israeli general election, with both Kadima and Labour wishing to portray themselves as being as hawkish as Likud. Secondly, there was an obvious strategy to pull forces out before Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, thereby neutralising the possibility of uncharacteristic condemnation by the incoming US administration. President Obama is thus presented with a dilemma about what exactly he should do. I am tempted to suggest that he should divert some of the funds usually channelled as aid to Israel to Gaza instead, but I can’t honestly see that happening.

So where does that leave Britain and the EU? As so often in foreign affairs, the EU has shown itself lamentably disunited. Unfortunate serendipity meant that the six-month rotating EU presidency is currently in the hands of the Czechs, who virtually gave the Israeli assault their benediction. But few EU leaders came out of the past few weeks smelling of roses. As for Gordon Brown, as Nick Clegg so aptly said, he sat on his hands and talked like an accountant.

In contrast, Clegg was forthright in his criticism of the brutality of the Israeli action, while also rightly blaming Hamas for its role in the humanitarian catastrophe. Once again, as with Iraq, the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream political party in Britain to have seized the moral high ground.

Of course, in this instance there will be some fierce opposition to the leadership’s position from those Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel who believe that the operation was regrettable but necessary. This should not deter Clegg from holding his line and from moving on to broaden his focus from Gaza’s tragedy to the situation in the West Bank. The occupation of Palestinian territories for more than 40 years, the expansion of illegal settlements, the construction of the Security Wall, the demolition of houses, the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees and the daily impoverishment and humiliation of the Palestinian population cannot legitimately be tolerated, let alone condoned.

True Friends of Israel, I believe, must acknowledge that there can never be a military solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Violence only begets violence and hatred. The only way forward, as the rebuilding of Gaza takes place, is for both Israel and Hamas to swallow their pride and to talk.

We are well past the eleventh hour for a peaceful transition to a two-state solution, in which a viable Palestine can live side-by-side with a secure Israel. And that outcome will never happen unless there is good faith and compromise on both sides, an end to the occupation, Israeli withdrawal to 1967 boundaries, and a permanent cessation of Palestinian rocket attacks and suicide bombs.

Jonathan Fryer is a prospective European Parliament candidate for London and chair of Liberal International British Group

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