Even seasoned observers of the Middle East and its various conflicts have been shocked at the ferocity of the attack on Israeli civilians launched by Hamas last week. From where I am, in the UK, with its varied diaspora communities and deep ties to the region, we’ve watched the events unfold with distress.
Everyone knows the British have history, but we also have a profound stake in today's events. Our families fear for their missing and mourn the dead. Our streets have been the scene of angry demonstrations, and there have been warnings against religiously motivated attacks. Our media has documented the aftermath of the Hamas violence on kibbutzim and the music festival, sparing no detail of the atrocities uncovered. It has also reported on the impact of Israeli reprisals on Gaza, all with images of the innocent lives caught up once again in this seemingly never-ending tale of anger and revenge.
The consequences are yet unknown, but this is clearly no “flare up” in the manner seen sporadically over the years, with rocket attacks from Gaza being answered by an Israeli response spanning a few days. The long-planned and extensively resourced incursion by Hamas is of a different scale, and a wounded Israel, caught without defence or intelligence cover, is likely to take the severest measures to prevent such a situation happening again.
Its politics will take time to respond fully – there will be arguments about the extent to which the nature of its government, the extremists within it, its months-long political chaos, and the extent to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fatally distracted acted as a signal of opportunity to its enemies. But that is for another day.
The nature of Israel’s reprisal will have consequences throughout the region. Its public desire for revenge, pure and simple, is understandable in a human context, but not at state level. That desire should be for the elimination of threat, and the holding to account of those responsible, both of which will be administered by a military response. This response itself is complicated further by the presence of so many hostages, including those for whom other governments are responsible.
But beyond all that, there are many voices rightly pleading that the barbarism already committed on Israeli citizens should not be compounded by a siege of civilians in Gaza, nor risk innocent lives in indiscriminate bombardment. It is distinctly possible that the atrocity already seen could be worsened. A reprisal in which civilian casualties mount would have ramifications in every Arab state, among their populations and governments alike. No wonder that no effort is being spared diplomatically to try to avoid such a situation, which would deliver exactly what Hamas must now want.
But there is something else that would make the tragedy worse, and that would be to lose sight of the need for a resolution of the issues between Israel and the Palestinian people. In my mind, there is no legitimate excuse or justification for the extreme violence perpetrated on the innocent by Hamas last weekend in southern Israel. It must be considered entirely separate from considerations of the context of issues between Israel and Palestine, which deserve attention not because of terror, but because they deserved attention last year, the year before and many years before that – long before last weekend.
Most diplomatic interlocutors are well aware that the Middle East Peace Process, and surrounding issues have slipped down the agenda in many capitals. We all bear responsibility for this. The reasons are well rehearsed. Everything had been tried. Chances had been wilfully missed by one side or another. It was never “the right time”. The Palestinian leadership was weak and there had been no elections. Repeat elections in Israel, on the other hand, made its leadership steadily more extreme. There was no longer a US push for a process. And there were other distractions for the international community, most recently, Ukraine.
And all the time, the situation on the ground changed in front of us, most strikingly in the last couple of years. As tensions and frustrations rose, from the occupation, from settlements, at Al Aqsa, from Israeli army actions and with a return of murderous attacks upon Israeli Jewish citizens, it became clear to many observers that something bad was going to happen. And now it has.
It is not the time to give up or give in. Now, more than ever, must be the time to try again. Although the background is familiar, perhaps even darker than before, something new has stirred. The region has shaken off a foreign-policy legacy dictated by others, becoming more self-assertive in its diplomacy, and rightly taking decisions in its own interest. Old rivals have been talking to each other and exchanging diplomats. The relationships with Israel are much more open than before, visible in the Abraham Accords or the talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel. A new Middle East is not simply talk. But none of this can be truly accomplished without a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinian people.
The Middle East has moved back to being the fulcrum of the world. It will be an exemplar for the many modern challenges, from energy diversification to technology to fighting climate change. Look at how the relationship between the UAE and Israel has developed quickly and deeply – the investment being made in each other is for decades, not short-term politics.
But the new Middle East depends on peace and stability. Without finally resolving the cause of conflict at its heart, we must know that sooner or later violence will engulf us. The recent regional diplomacy was designed to prevent that cataclysmic possibility. Now is surely time for the final step.
To escape the failures of the past, such efforts must be led by the region itself, supported by the international community – not the other way around. There can be no more patch-ups, until the next round of violent exchanges. This is the moment for Arab and the Gulf leadership, and it must be seized.
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