Netanyahu may be walking into a trap

Published by The i paper (23rd October, 2023)

Five years ago in Gaza, I watched the theatre of tragedy play out before my eyes. I had gone to report on the eruption of protests against a border fence that corralled two million people inside the tiny enclave, leading to dozens of deaths and many injuries as Israeli forces responded with gunfire. I met one father with bandaged bullet wounds on his legs who took his young sons to impress on them how they lived under occupation. Tear gas landed beside me and ambulance sirens wailed as I listened to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh whip up the crowd, which responded with chants urging him to “strike, strike Tel Aviv”.

These were depressing scenes as hardliners on all sides pushed aside hopes of peace in a region chronically failed by dire leadership. The protests followed Donald Trump’s cynical decision to recognise the disputed city of Jerusalem as capital of Israel to appeal to his domestic base. Khaled al-Batsh, head of Islamic Jihad, told me they would launch more drastic actions across the border if the world ignored their plight. “What would happen if 60 people were killed and 3,000 injured by the resistance movement? Your country would denounce our actions. But in our case, there is silence,” he said.

We have the answer to this question now. Gaza is being battered by air strikes as Israeli troops prepare to invade after horrific atrocities were committed by terrorists breaking through that border fencing.

Yet that trip also showed me the complexities of Palestinian politics, since I saw the desire of many ordinary people trapped in that wretched strip of land beside the Mediterranean to be rid of extremist overlords. Even those protests that had descended into bloodstained performative drama began with a group of activists who talked of civil rights and Gandhi before their campaign was taken over by Hamas.

Unfortunately, the diplomatic stasis that has exploded with such ferocity suited the hardliners in control of both Gaza and Jerusalem. Hamas, rocked by rising anger against power cuts that symbolised its misrule, used the protests to divert attention from its corruption and failures as pressure grew for change in a frustrated, youthful population. Despite the jailing and torture of dissidents, there were flickers of open defiance on the Strip while debate flared on social media. “There is an absence of basic human rights: education, electricity, travel, freedom of speech,” one activist told me. “We want democracy. We want freedom from foreign ideologies.”

Such views are reflected by “Whispered in Gaza”, an online project run by a New York-based peace group. It uses animation to let citizens anonymously tell tales of goons who close shops, cinemas and even counselling centres to stifle dissent. “The so-called ‘resistance’ has become a business,” complains one person. Another man says they live in poverty while Hamas officials have “land, businesses and vast sums of money”. Yet as as one contributor, “Zenaib”, says: “There is a false stereotype that Palestinians in Gaza love rockets and wars. Gazans don’t love wars. The wars that happen are waged by the Hamas government for political aims that serve them alone.”

She points out most people in Gaza just want a decent life in peace – a simple ideal held across the region. Polls showed waning support for Hamas in both Gaza and the wider Arab world. Yet the existence of its oppressive government – which took power in a shock election win in 2006 – also suited the selfish needs of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Although he posed in public as defender of his nation’s security, Netanyahu’s private strategy seems to have involved use of a terror gang committed to their destruction as a tool to divide Palestinians. “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas,” he told MPs in his party. Now this mendacious man – who returned to power in coalition with far-right Jewish extremists and settler fanatics in a bid to avoid prison on corruption charges – seeks to save his skin by hammering Hamas.

There is open talk of obliterating Gaza in his enraged country. Already, we see collective punishment of its people through siege. Hundreds of children have been killed in air strikes, thousands of people wounded, and one third of homes damaged or destroyed. The Israeli military vows to intensify strikes before “the next stages of the war’” – expected to be a ground invasion that could lead to worse carnage on both sides. Tensions are rising on the West Bank – along with a serious risk of regional conflagration.

Britain, like other democracies, rushed to support Israel after it suffered the sickening attack on 7 October (despite Netanyahu’s pandering to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a shameful lack of assistance for Ukraine’s struggle for survival). Yet deep sympathy for its plight and horror over disturbing brutality should not blind us to the need to stand up for our proclaimed values. Nor should it silence fears that a petulant prime minister at the helm of a wounded nation is walking into a trap set by Hamas that might play straight into the hands of our enemies in Gaza, Tehran and Moscow.

I first visited Israel in 1982 to work on a kibbutz beside the Lebanese border just as tanks thundered past in an operation launched in response to a terrorist attack in London. It was supposed to last 48 hours; instead, the misguided assault dragged the country into a three-year quagmire that indelibly stained its flag.

Now the nation vows to smash Hamas. This is a justified mission. Yet how will unleashing fresh hell on an impoverished and repressed people help the cause of peace rather than fuel burning anger – let alone do anything to assist all those Palestinians desperate for a better future? Instead, the hospitals run out of shrouds – and hope explodes into a million shards. Yet as David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, famously said, you must believe in miracles to be a realist.

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