Most of us will have lived with the conflicts in the Middle East for the whole of our lives. Until now, these have become background noise, part of our reality, a constant theme. Worse than this, to many of us – potentially all of us – these ongoing conflicts have become normal.
Yet even the most disinterested person cannot have failed to take notice of the recent war in the region. But a war between who? On one side, certainly Israel – with recent polling within that country placing support for the actions of the Israeli Defence Force at 90%. On the other side, Hamas – a militant Islamic political organization with a military wing which now controls the Palestinian government. Israel has categorized Hamas (this literally means ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’) as a terrorist organization and it is right to have done so.
It’s undoubtedly true that Hamas is firing rockets from Gaza into Israel and that the intention of these rockets is to cause carnage; to kill as many Israeli men, women and children as possible. It’s undeniably the case that Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks – just as any country faced with such a constant threat would do – but the response to these threats must be proportionate.
I’m fortunate enough to have visited the region in question. I’ve been to the police compound in the southern Israeli town of Sderot (bordering the Gaza strip) and seen the vast array of missiles that have been fired into that town by Hamas (and others). Many of the missiles are improvised – hand made from scaffolding tubes – but lethal nonetheless. The school children I spoke to in Sderot clamoured for peace. Outside the local school and along the streets of the town, every bus shelter is a bomb shelter – these are the daily realities of the school children in Sderot. In Ramallah on the Palestinian west bank, Palestinian politicians have precisely the same desires.
Yet Israel now has an ‘Iron Dome’ a missile defence system that destroys the overwhelming majority of missiles now fired into the country before they can hit their intended targets. At the time of writing, the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza has resulted in 55 Israeli deaths, most of them soldiers and over 1050 Palestinians, hundreds of them children. The images coming into living rooms from Gaza – Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces as they played football on the beach, destroyed hospitals and schools in areas designated as safe havens by the UN – are truly shocking. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s description of these casualties as “telegenically dead” requires no further commentary from me.
We are witnessing slaughter and find ourselves seemingly powerless to intervene. How do those Palestinians facing destruction from the Israeli military absent themselves from this conflict? In my opinion, it is true to state that Hamas is hiding behind these very people; embedding itself in densely populated areas, using the people there as ‘human shields’. Put yourself in their position: how do you escape when a terrorist military organisation comes to your street? Move out? Impossible.
So the people of Palestine remain trapped, a hostage population: on one side caught between a terrorist organization intent on destroying Israel irrespective of the pain and suffering such attempts will cause to the Palestinian people. On the other; an implacable, relentless Israeli army which so far has proved itself immune to international condemnation and which appears to have scant regard for those innocent civilian casualties it must surely know it is inflicting.
When I visited Israel and Palestine, I left with many anxieties and doubts, but with the belief that peace could be established in my lifetime. I hope to return, I still believe peace is possible – the alternative shames us all.