Gaza: the dance of death

"Only real leadership can put an end to the Middle East's dance of death"

This article was published in the Yorkshire Post
5 January 2009

Again violence in the Middle East freezes the hope that a new leader for the 21st century can spread the balm of peace on the world's most intractable problem. As the clock ticks to Barack Obama's inauguration, the images of death and hate from Gaza and Israel dominate the news.
Appeals for a ceasefire from David Miliband, as well as from European leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy, fall on deaf ears. The demands from the Arab League that Hamas renounces its campaign of Jew-killing are ignored. The violence ratchets up as Israel realises that bombing from the air, even with all the high technology available, can never uproot or destroy a political-military-terrorist movement that knows what it wants and actively welcomes martyrdom. As with the incursion into Lebanon in 2006, the Israeli political-military nexus starts with high hopes that – at last! – an end can be put to the attacks on their children and women trying to live peaceful lives in the country of their birth but ends in the misery of mission unaccomplished. Israel has been better at getting across its message in the Gaza conflict. The BBC for the first time in years is accurately reporting the fears of Israelis who cannot sleep other than on the ground floor of their homes in Israel because they must be close to air raid shelters when Hamas rockets fly down. You have to be nearly 80 or older to recall the fears of the bombing of Britain and only Londoners will remember the V1 flying bombs – unsophisticated and falling haphazardly in 1944. Yet this Blitz-like life is what Israeli citizens have had to live with after having withdrawn from Gaza.I cannot speak for other Yorkshire MPs but I expect if some ideologically-driven terrorist outfit was launching rockets to kill Rotherham people from only a few miles away they would be screaming at me as their MP and at the Government to take action to stop it.One BBC reporter described a Hamas member as a "resistance leader". Yet, in the Second World War, the French resistance was resisting the German occupation. The only occupiers of Gaza are the Palestinians themselves. They watched as Israel sent in its no-nonsense police to forcibly evacuate the Jewish settlers. Palestinians were master in their own territory of Gaza for the first time. Don't forget that after 1948 Gaza was also occupied, as was the West Bank. Then it was Egypt and Jordan who denied to the Palestinians their right to form a state. How history might have been changed if, in 1948, the Arab leadership had helped to form a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem. Alas, hate replaced negotiation, war-war trumped jaw-jaw, and ever since Jews and Arabs have not been able to find a way to peace. Today, the outline of a deal is there. It has been put forward by the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who has made clear that a Palestinian state must come into being based on the 1967 borders. Saudi Arabia has also offered recognition of Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders. To be sure, everyone says: "You first and we will follow." As a Foreign Office minister, I urged Arab states to open diplomatic relations with Israel. Even when Germany occupied the French region of Alsace-Lorraine around Strasbourg after the 1870 war, Paris and Berlin maintained diplomatic relations. At a high-level meeting with US foreign policy-makers in Washington last month, I urged aides to Barack Obama to send diplomats to Iran. The non-recognition of Iran is as counter-productive today as was the US's refusal to have diplomatic relations with China until Richard Nixon made his historic visit to see Mao Tse-tung in 1972. Arab foreign ministers looked askance at my suggestion that they should open embassies in Israel. Yet without bold leadership by the Arab world, and a first step would be to talk to Israel as a fully-fledged UN member state, there will be little progress. Hamas could also opt for talking rather than violence. Everyone in Europe and all but the fading neo-cons in Washington want to see aid, trade and travel links restored to Gaza. Ed Balls, when Gordon Brown's adviser, did an important report on how Britain would help build up the Palestinian economy. There are great trading possibilities, without even considering the tourist hopes for this spectacular Mediterranean region, if rockets were not being launched from there. But here we have to enter the question of ideology. Hamas is not a state-building political movement looking for power and authority in a classic political fashion of say, Sinn Fein, which is able to renounce violence, to enter the political sphere and seek government authority to improve the lot of its followers. Hamas denounces other Palestinian organisations, like Fatah, with as much vehemence as it denounces Israel. Hamas is rooted in the most implacable of political passions – namely those in which the struggle is carried out in God's not man's name. To read the Hamas charter – its core ideological document, which is easily obtainable on the Web – is to enter a world in which there is no room for compromise. In the Hamas world view, everyone is an enemy – the Jews above all and the Jewish state of Israel in particular. The ideology of new anti-Semitism is now more pervasive than at any time since 1945. Those who like to find excuses for Hamas claim that the Charter, which was drawn up only 20 years ago, is just words. But words define ideology and belief and I defy anyone who took part in the demonstrations over the weekend to read and absorb the full Hamas charter and not come away with despair that this kind of anti-Semitic hate should lie at the heart of the Islamist ideology Hamas teaches its young followers. In the end, the words will have to be parked, the tanks pulled back, and for a while Hamas will stop firing rockets at Israel. But that requires big leaders and big leadership. None of the former and little of the latter is on offer in the Middle East. Can Barack Obama find words and pressure points to transform the dance of death now taking place on our TV screens? Perhaps. But until Israel accepts its 1967 borders and Hamas turns its back on anti-Semitism, the cycle of violence and death will continue.