If it’s true that a week is a long time in politics it’s even more true that it is longer in war. Infinitely longer. It’s less than a fortnight ago that the world learned of the hell that had been visited on entirely innocent men, women and children by Hamas terrorists. (And, yes, men who murder children and rape their mothers are terrorists however the BBC may wish to describe them). Something else on which the vast majority of us agreed was that Israel was entitled to punish those who carried out those evil acts. Not just punish them but to take whatever steps were needed to stop it happening again.
But the balance of outside opinion seems to have tilted in the past week or so. Not, of course, in relation to the horrors of 7 October but how Israel is punishing those who were responsible for them. Or not responsible as the case may be – but I’ll address that in a moment. The indisputable fact is that large numbers of entirely innocent citizens of Gaza and their children are dying under the onslaught of Israeli rockets and bombs. Even more are suffering from the terrible shortages of food, water, medical supplies and electricity.
It is impossible to put a precise figure on the number of innocent victims. Unsurprisingly Israel says Hamas has grossly exaggerated them. Nor indeed on the number of Hamas fighters who have been killed, though we know for certain that many have escaped the onslaught so far by hiding in the labyrinth of tunnels built beneath Gaza City for precisely this purpose. And will continue to hide there whatever Israel may throw at them.
The Israeli actions raise complex and perhaps unanswerable questions about the morality of military action in which it is inevitable that innocent people will die – especially, perhaps, when one side has many, many times the firepower of the other. In terms of military firepower Hamas is a minnow compared with the great white shark of the Israeli defence force.
Israel does not deny that innocent people are dying. How could they in the face of the evidence? But their supporters argue that you cannot equate the death of a child by a bomb or a rocket aimed at a military target with the death of a child at the hands of a Hamas fighter whose sole purpose was to spread terror. Some draw a parallel between allied air raids on German cities like Dresden or Hamburg in the closing months of World War II. Those who ordered the raids knew many civilians would die. But could those actions really be compared with the horrors of the Nazi regime they were seeking to defeat?
The strongest sign of international sentiment turning against Israel came in a speech made by no less a world figure than the secretary general of the United Nations António Guterres. Or at least in the way that speech was interpreted. He was accused of drawing a moral equivalence between the actions of Hamas and what he called the “suffocating occupation” by Israel of Gaza. He also said nothing could justify the “deliberate killing, injuring or kidnapping of civilians” but he added: “…or the launching of rockets against civilian targets”.
Israel called for Guterres to resign – unsurprising given that there has long been a sense among the Israeli political class that the UN is not balanced where Israel is concerned. Its institutions, they believe, have been balanced against Israel for many years. As The Times put it: “The UN leadership should be able to mediate in good faith and assert itself as a moral authority. Instead, often buoyed by the Security Council members Russia and China, and by Muslim-majority states in the General Assembly, it seems to favour a world view of Israel as an oppressor.”
In this country popular support for the people of Gaza and even, in some cases, for Hamas itself, was evident in the size of demonstrations on the streets of London. The Metropolitan Police put the number of demonstrators marching in support of the people of Gaza at 100,000. The march organisers claimed there were three times that number. Some of the speeches were incendiary. One of them claimed to support Hizbut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamist group that both David Cameron and Tony Blair wanted to ban. He asked the crowd: “What is the solution to liberate people in the concentration camp called Palestine?” The crowd responded with chants of “Jihad… jihad!”
Another chant popular with the crowd was “From the river to the sea… Palestine will be free”. Jewish leaders protested that those chanting knew what that means: the destruction of the state of Israel. They were not impressed with the response of the Metropolitan Police, which was that there are a “number of meanings” of “jihad”.
Police officers were criticised by politicians for taking no action against those who appeared to be demanding holy war against Israel. The immigration minister Robert Jenrick said: “It is inciting terrorist violence and needs to be tackled with the full force of the law.” The home secretary Suella Braverman also wanted to know why the police had done nothing. Sir Mark Rowley, the most senior police officer in the land, said: “We cannot enforce taste or decency’.
The Times was one of many newspapers to take a dim view of that. Downing Street, it declared, should “educate chief police officers on the powers available to them”. It added: “This is an urgent requirement. As Israel’s offensive against Hamas develops the vocal minority of bigots who wish to terrorise British Jews will become even louder… They do not represent the views of mainstream British Muslims and have no right to a platform for their hatred. The alternative is to give free reign to a ragtag coalition of religious fundamentalists and unreconstructed extremists whose only aim is to demonise Israel”.
The Guardian took a different view. Its writer Adittya Chakraborty said anyone in this country who supports Israel over Gaza should prepare to have their motives questioned: “No matter that 6,500 Palestinians have already been slaughtered these past three weeks, to sling on the pile of 1,400 Israelis murdered by Hamas. No matter that more children have died in Gaza this October than all the people killed on 9/11. No matter that war is hardly the right noun for conflict between one of the most militarised states on Earth – Israel has 10 times more tanks than the British army – and Gaza, which has no planes, no Iron Dome (all-weather air defence system), barely any money. It is a daily pulverising.”
The British media and political class, he said, is “again preparing for the vicarious thrill of war. As our prime minister told Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv: ‘We want you to win’. Something similar is happening elsewhere in Europe. France has tried to ban pro-Palestinian rallies. In Germany, the leader of the CDU – the party of Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl – has called for all immigrants to pledge their commitment to Israel’s security.”
Chakraborty claimed three out of four Britons want an immediate ceasefire, something our two main parties have yet to call for: “Nor are any of Westminster’s supposed Serious People talking about how to rebuild homes, schools, hospitals that have been razed to the ground or where a million displaced Palestinians are meant to go.”
That does indeed raise an even bigger question. As I write the world awaits Israel’s next move on the battlefield. It is possible that a full-scale invasion will eventually result in the destruction of Hamas – though at what cost and with what consequences we can only speculate. There is no plan that even pretends to deal with the future of more than two million people whose home is Gaza.
Harel Chorev, the senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at the Tel Aviv University says: “There is a consensus that any other option than to totally eliminate Hamas would be terrible, not just for Israel, but for the entire area, and then even globally.”
Yet if Hamas is “totally eliminated” how can we expect those countries who seek the destruction of Israel to react?
The answer is, of course, that we cannot know.
So where does that leave those of us who watch these terrible events unfurl with a mixture of fear and helplessness? Do you regard Hamas as terrorists and hope for an Israeli victory? Or do you fear that such a victory for Israel will lead only to massive upheavals in the Middle East with unknown and possibly devastating consequences? Should Israel launch a full-scale land invasion? And what is to become of Gaza and all those who live there and are desperate for peace?
Do let us know.