For weeks, my facebook page has been convulsed with passionately held opinions on the latest episode in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Slogans and counter-slogans run riot. “No country could tolerate rocket fire on its borders”. “Palestinian children are being slaughtered”. “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
Much of the debate has centred round the weakest arguments. There has been a lot of argument about whether Israel’s actions are ‘proportional’ – a concept which is subjective to the point of meaninglessness. How many Palestinian deaths are proportional to one Israeli death? What is a proportional response to a barrage of rocket fire over Israel’s borders?
Even worse, arguments turn and turn and turn again on the idea of fault. Who was responsible for the current crisis – is it Hamas for firing rockets, Israel for demolishing Palestinian homes, Hamas for (supposedly) kidnapping children, Israel for blockading Gaza? Are Palestinian deaths the fault of Hamas for firing rockets from populated areas, or of Israel for bombing these populated areas? In a situation characterised by aggression on both sides, it makes little sense to point to a single responsible party or action.
Despite this, I think the rational for condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza is clear. Start by noting the one-sidedness of the conflict; over two thousand Palestinians killed, against around 50 Israelis. This in itself doesn’t tell you who is right and wrong. It is possible – as pro-Israel advocates passionately argue – that Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself is a reasonable justification.
But to justify Israel’s actions, I think there needs to be very clear evidence that they have been seeking to establish a lasting peace, through all means necessary. A sustainable peace is the only way to secure Israel’s borders, and to prevent the current violence from re-occurring.
In the recent past, Israel has not fulfilled this condition. It continues to build settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which both act as a key obstacle to the current peace process, and make any future two state solution harder to negotiate. It has refused to talk to Hamas, and suspended all peace talks after the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement. While that position has some emotional heft, it’s hardly likely to lead to a lasting peace deal. Israel has not supported the Palestinian Authority or given any vision of what an eventual peace settlement might look like.
Arguing about the rights and wrongs of this individual outbreak of violence is meaningless if devoid of context. In particular, while Israel has a right to defend themselves, that argument only holds if they have been making regular, honest, attempts to reach a more sustainable peace in the region. In the recent past, they haven’t.