Sunday, 11 January 2009

Demonstration for peace in Gaza

Much has already been written about the escalation of violence in the Middle East, and yet this blogger is sure none of it can capture the horror of being caught up in the cycle of rocket attacks and retaliatory military action. What we know is this: at the end of last year, Israel decided it was time to respond to Hamas' cross-border rocket attacks, which had increased in intensity over the previous year or so. The world stood with baited breath to discover the extent of the Israeli reaction, and over the last three weeks most observers' worst fears have been realised and supassed.

Let's get one thing clear up front. There is no justification for launching rockets into civilian territory as Hamas and its operatives had done for some time. Living in Israeli border towns became a story of coping with the threat of (until recently) sporadic but deadly Qassam weapons. The latest barrage of rocket fire was used by Israel's military to justify air strikes and ground operations aimed at what they claimed were legitimate terrorist targets - at first glance, a justified response to being under fire, one might suggest. However, what has followed has been nothing short of a disproportionate, brutal, indiscriminate attempt to wipe out Hamas and the (democratically elected) party's infrastructure to rule the Gaza strip; what's more this comes against the background of a bitter economic blockade imposed upon the Palestinian people for over 18 months. Although there's no room for a comprehensive history lesson here, let's talk context and background.

Hamas' democratic election over the more moderate Fatah movement in Gaza in 2006, and Hamas' eventual seizing of power after a bitter internal struggle with their rival faction, caused Israel to impose sweeping economic blockade of Gaza. This reduced Gaza to a basket-case territory, with most people depending on food aid just to survive, fuel and electricity reduced to a bare minimum, even medical supplies and other imports restricted. This effective stranglehold on life in Gaza, together with the building of an illegal wall on the border, ramped up tensions and Hamas responded with rocket attacks. Despite what you may hear from UK/US media outlets, these attacks were sporadic and spectacularly inaccurate - it's estimated less than 20 Israeli civilians have died from such attacks.

Not that a single death should be tolerated, but if any retaliation was coming the way of Gaza there was an obligation on Israel to ensure a proportionate response, one targeting militant infrastructure and not civilian targets. Instead we've had over three weeks of horrific civilian casualties. Jonathan Fryer, in his ever-succinct style, showed just how Israel's military have impacted upon ordinary Gazans - I warn the reader that the images posted on Jonathan's blog are not for the faint hearted, and yet urge you to take a deep breath and look anyway. It is time we stopped shielding ourselves from the true cost of war, from the truly shameful consequences of leaping into armed conflict without care or concern for who is being hit.

Undoubtedly Israel will cite the rocket attacks as their reason for invading Gaza. No doubt either that Hamas will claim that the blockade, not to mention 60 years of occupation and marginalisation in turn lead to the rocket attacks. What neither side appears to acknowledge is that in ratcheting up the antagonistic rhetoric, by insisting on a recourse to arms and not talks, each party is guilty of provoking an overreacting in equal measure - the cycle of violence is unrelenting. From a distance one could easily infer equivalence between Palestine's cause and that of Israel. So why were there tens of thousands present in London's Hyde Park this past Saturday, attending a demonstration of support for Gaza organised by the Stop the War Coalition and partners? I was amongst the protesters demanding that Israel immediately halt its devastating war, which has already claimed over 800 lives. Why does this cause deserve support?

Perhaps it's the asymmetry, with the might of the one of the world's most powerful armies pitched against a militia armed with crude armaments; the astonishing contrast between Israelis living in immaculate homes with manicured lawns living within shelling distance of impoverished Palestinians forced to eek out an existence on virtually nothing; the shameful support the US and the EU continue to provide Israel, implicit or often outright, weighed against the ghastly silence in the face of Palestinian suffering under inhumane economic torture. Then again, perhaps it's the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land, in clear contravention of United Nations resolutions too numerous to mention. Maybe we simply cannot stomach the thought of hundreds of dead children, shorn of the most basic human right so poignantly enunciated by Michael Rosen in his poem about Palestinian children of war - the right not to be dead.

The right not to be dead. Read the poem. Go figure...

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