Land of hope, or gates of hell?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am

What a truly awful New Year present Israel, with help from its Hamas enemies, delivered to the world when it launched its ferocious bombardment of Gaza. The immediate victims are the wretchedly poor Palestinians trapped between the superior weaponry of Israel and the evil men of Hamas. But what is happening should be put in proper frightful context - it goes beyond the shedding of innocent blood in Gaza to the slaughter of fragile hopes of peace in the Middle East and to an indictment of the 21st-century world 'leadership'.

Israeli spokespeople excused the suffering and deaths their soldiers wrought, claiming they could no longer tolerate rockets fired day after day from Gaza deep into Israel; they blamed Hamas for civilian deaths, for sheltering and firing from mosques and schools. Hamas' response was a fiery warning that the attack on Gaza would open the 'gates of hell'.

Apologists for Hamas might ponder the implications of that threat. The battle in Gaza is not just some ordinary territorial dispute. This is the 'Holy Land', the crucible of the monotheistic religions of the Book - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all of which proclaim divine inspiration. For Christians who read the Bible literally, it is also the location of Armageddon, where the final battle signalling the end of the world will take place as God confronts Satan.

The countries that claim a stake in the conflict extend from the Holy Land to the world's biggest oil-producing areas, including Iran. It is a region of myriad animosities and enmities, to the extent of being a land of enemies in search of a war. The entry of nuclear-seeking Iran claiming to be the saviour of the Palestinians makes it radically more dangerous.

Timing of the fighting owes much to political convenience of the interregnum before Barack Obama becomes US president. It also began conveniently before elections in Israel, allowing lame-duck Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to go out with military credentials burnished, and his would-be successor, Tzipi Livni, to steal a march on the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu.

Military experts disagree over whether Israel can destroy Hamas. This would involve shutting down Hamas' mobile weapons sites and killing its fighters, plus disrupting supply lines for new weapons, which means closing hundreds of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.

These things alone would entail massive loss of civilian life, maybe more deaths of its conscript soldiers than the Israeli public will tolerate, and more time than Israel has before the US insists that it is time for talks.

By mid-week, Israeli soldiers had cut Gaza in two and penetrated Gaza City. Just four Israelis had been killed by Hamas' rockets, whereas almost 700 Palestinians had died in the onslaught. A Catholic priest described Gaza as 'drowning in blood'. But Hamas was still firing rockets into Israel.

Even if Israel can stop the rockets, how much time will it buy? Analysts say six months to four years. What is this among peoples whose memories go back millennia?

This is particularly so if the 'peace' eventually reached refills wells of hatred and fuels determination that, next time, it will be different and the other side will really be destroyed. Commentators who claim that both sides seek the complete destruction of the other, but neither has the ability to achieve it, have so far been proved correct.

'Peace' as it has hitherto been signed, has become a signpost towards the next battle. Will Israelis sleep easily even if Hamas is brought to its knees? Meanwhile, in the streets and slums of Gaza, what is the feeling towards the Israeli military that marched in, smashed mosques and schools, and killed brothers, cousins, old women and young children?

Israel has said that it does not want to reoccupy Gaza. But the brutal methods it has chosen mean that it will for ever have to regard Gaza as its sullen and hostile protectorate. There is slim hope that the people of Gaza will rise and overthrow Hamas at the behest of Israel. Hamas, after all, has the velvet cloak of democratic respectability, which it reinforced with the iron fist of dictatorship.

The Gaza bloodshed also reflects badly on the rest of the world for not doing more. True, European Union leaders rushed into action calling for an immediate ceasefire, but this was either naive or grandstanding. Israel was not going to stop when it had barely started, and the silence from the US was a signal to give Israel time.

Will the new US president be able to make a difference? Not if he follows the shortsighted route of his predecessors in being led by the Jewish lobby and the military-industrial complex that wins every time that Israel goes to war. (On the other side, China has been a beneficiary of Hamas' spending on rockets.)

True peace, for Israel, the Middle East and the world will only be achieved if there is hope on both sides. Israel, as the established state and with stronger military forces, has the obligation to show generosity. Actively rolling back disputed settlements, making a proper peace with the Palestinian Authority and easing ultra-strict border restrictions would point towards a more hopeful way.

Israel should encourage other countries to play a more active role, suggesting international safeguards and assistance in economic development of a viable Palestinian state.

Friends of Israel might point out to the new government there that Hamas, and indeed Hezbollah in Lebanon, are the bastard offspring of Ariel Sharon's aggressive ways of dealing with Arab populations in his brutal way. At least, Israel might try treating its neighbours as people.

It is no use just being panicked into action when the shooting war has started. We are all of us, whether Asians, Americans, Europeans, Buddhists, Christians, Jews or Muslims, involved in war or peace in the Middle East. Obligations to other human beings go beyond the strictly legal requirements. When Iran is aggressively pursuing a nuclear option, the comment of the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton becomes all the more pertinent: 'When they finally succeed in blowing up the world, it will be perfectly legal.'

Kevin Rafferty is editor-in-chief of PlainWords Media