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January 20, 2009

How is it possible to support Israel (over Gaza)? Brendan Simms explains why he remains a staunch defender of Israel and its actions in Gaza

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - argues that the Israeli actions in Gaza increase the long-term prospects for peace in the Middle East.

"How is it possible to be a Croat?". This was a question which the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut posed in the 1990s at the height of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. At that time it was almost axiomatic among bien pensants, that the Catholic Croats were an essentially fascistic nationalist people, whose genocidal ancestors deprived them of contemporary political legitimacy.

The two cases are very different in almost every other respect, but one might equally ask today: "How is it possible support the Israeli attack on Hamas forces in Gaza?" The total number Palestinian deaths, at least half of them civilians, is now about 1200, a horrific number, which represents a substantial proportion of the approximately 1.5 million people living there.

Two weeks of constant television coverage have not only inflamed the usual suspects - Azzam al Tamimi recently proclaimed that "We are all Hamas now" - but has also taken its toll among more moderate Muslims. Thus Ed Hussein, the pentiti whose brilliant memoir The Islamist provided a unique insight into the process of radicalisation, wrote (Guardian, 30th December) that

after Israel's massacre of innocent Palestinians in Gaza, out on the streets of Cairo and Damascus it would be impossible to find credible voices that condemn suicide bombings in Israel.

"How can the children of Holocaust survivors become such brutal killers", he wondered. Why should he calm Muslim anger, Hussein asked, because even if Israel was entitled to self defence

A ragtag Hamas army and its rockets did not warrant the wrath of F16 jets and Apache helicopters.
All this, Hussein and a delegation of British Muslims warned the British government, might lead to a repeat of the 7/7 outrages. The conflict has also embarrassed European governments, which routinely refer, as they did during the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah, to Israel's "disproportionate" use of force. Even the United States recently abstained on a UN resolution critical of Israel.

If all Israel faced was a "rag-tag" army and some Heath-Robinson rocket launchers, then the attack on Gaza might be a "disproportionate" response. Hamas, however, is no shambolic Palestinian militia. It is a highly disciplined organisation committed by its founding charter to the total destruction of Israel, since the 1980s. Thanks to their close links to Iran, this is far from a vain boast, and the increasing range and sophistication of their rockets give the lie to the idea that we are dealing with a mere militia. Their potential for devastation, were Iran to supply even heavier weapons, or warheads, does not bear thinking about.

Hamas is therefore, together with Teheran's other ally Hezbollah, part of the Iranian strategy of encirclement of Israel. To be sure, their leadership has repeatedly signalled a willingness to discuss a long truce with Israel within the 1967 borders, but this would only last until it was strong enough to resume the struggle.

It is for this reason that Hamas pointedly refuses to recognise Israel, and those who argue that it would be prepared to negotiate such a recognition fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the beast. For Hamas does not consider itself a primarily Palestinian organisation concerned with the welfare of the Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories. It is, rather, a pan-Islamic movement for whom the recovery of Jerusalem is merely the first step in a wider jihad across the region.

When the Palestinians exercised their democratic right to vote for Hamas most may have done so to protest against the endemic corruption of the Fatah regime. They may not even have been aware that they were thereby signing up to perpetual warfare, any more than Germans did when they cast their ballots for Adolf Hitler. But they should have known, as neither the Nazis nor Hamas made any attempt to hide their ultimate objectives.

The Israeli attack on Hamas is thus a legitimate attempt to secure Israel's southern flank in preparation for the showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme, which is expected this year. If Ed Hussein wonders how the children - or rather the grand-children - of holocaust survivors can kill (in self defence), then he need look no further than the statements emanating from Teheran, and the increasing ability of the mullahs to match their rhetoric with technological reality.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Israeli attack will only strengthen Hamas, as it allegedly did Hezbollah in 2006. That could well be the case: we simply don't know yet. There are several reasons, however, for supposing that Hamas's position is militarily and politically much weaker than Hezbollah's two years ago. Unlike southern Lebanon which has strategic depth in the Bekaa Valley, and behind it in Syria, Gaza is totally isolated. A sea blockade, blowing up the tunnels through which arms are smuggled in, and holding the border points with Egypt more or less indefinitely are all perfectly feasible strategies.

Hezbollah, moreover, knows that launching a diversion to the north will jeopardise its position in Lebanese politics. Nor have the Iranians imposed an oil embargo in the style of 1973, or even allowed its citizens to travel abroad to support Hamas, despite its excoriating rhetoric against Arab governments for "abandoning" the Palestinians. Perhaps Teheran wants to avoid provoking Israel. Whatever the reason, the failure of Iran to provide any substantial relief to Hamas, must dispirit their leadership, and undermines their usual rhetoric against inactive Arab governments.

Above all, the relative silence in the West Bank, where Fatah still holds sway, speaks volumes. Not only have there been no new suicide attacks on Israel proper, but popular protests have been very low key. In part, of course, this may be a consequence of the much-decried "wall", and the survival strategy of Fatah, but it surely also reflects a deep reserve towards Hamas on the part of many ordinary Palestinians. So the actions of the Israeli army in Gaza may well lead to increased threat of terrorism in Britain, but it has not yet provoked a massive upsurge in attacks on Israel from the West Bank. Perhaps there is something in this for Ed Hussein to ponder.

None of this is to give unqualified support for Israeli tactics. If Israeli soldiers have intentionally committed specific crimes in Gaza, they should be punished, in the same way as British and American troops are liable for actions committed during the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein.

But we must be clear that overall aim of destroying or neutralising Hamas is legitimate. The biggest fear we should have is that the Israeli government will leave the job half done, become sidetracked into a self-indulgent search for individual kidnapped soldiers, or even halt the offensive for electoral reasons.

The Palestinian population should fear that too, as another attack by Hamas will inevitably lead to a repeat of the devastation. It is for this reason, that one can only be ambivalent about the current ceasefire. If it really does stop the rockets and the suicide bombers for good, or at least substantially reduce the threat for a lengthy period of time, then the cost will have been worth it.

The danger is, though, that the whole operation will then have provided but a short respite, during which Hamas rearms and capitalises on its claim to have seen off the Israelis. In that case, it would have been better to have pressed on, destroyed Hamas, and reoccupied the whole of Gaza if necessary, without - crucially - building any new settlements. The territory could then be returned under an overall peace agreement, if ever and whenever that should be.

Of course, it is easy to say such things from the safety of a Cambridge study. It might be objected that westerners, who largely have their wars fought for them, do not understand the nature of Israeli society, where everybody serves, or knows somebody who does. They are therefore not enamoured of lofty academic injunctions to "finish the job".

Be that as it may, the Israelis would do well to learn from the most successful counter-insurgents of the past ten years: the British and Americans. On the military front this means a willingness to clear and hold urban areas, such as at Fallujah in 2004, or the more recent "surge". It means no deals with kidnappers (to which the Israelis are distressingly partial), and no deals with terrorists outside of an overall negotiated solution in the style of the Good Friday Agreement, with an enemy willing to compromise (which Hamas isn't).

Otherwise, to inflict such terrible civilian casualties on the Palestinians, and to demand ever greater sacrifices of one’s own troops, without a clear strategy and will for victory, would truly be a crime.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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