Prime-time war crimes

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Exactly 100 years after Britain’s entry into World War I, humanity has not lost its capacity for senseless slaughter.

The conflict under way in Gaza is providing brutal, bloody, daily reminders of what people – any people – will do to each other if they believe current circumstances require or justify it.

This time, though, it’s the civilians – and in particular children – paying the heaviest price. In some of kind of reverse trench warfare, the non-combatants are stranded in no-man’s land while the fighters on both sides enjoy the relative protection of the trenches. There is no moral high ground.

The results are horrific:   dead and maimed children and adults, inadequate medical aid, neighbourhoods looking like earthquake zones or like Grozny by the time Russia had finished with it.

Even the professionals have struggled to contain their emotions. The UN’s Chris Gunness broke down and sobbed as he tried to calmly condemn yet another deadly hit on civilians sheltering in UN premises. Some journalists have seemed barely able to contain their rage at what they are witnessing. Channel 4’s John Snow described unashamedly weeping on the plane home, deeply scarred by what he had witnessed.

And the conflict has introduced us all to a new phenomenon: prime-time war crimes. War crimes we can watch unfolding from the safety of our sofas. War crimes that are trending on Twitter, complete with the pictures too horrific to be shown on television.

War crimes have more usually been committed in hidden places, away from the cameras, where the challenge is to later piece together the evidence and the testimony of survivors to establish what has happened.

This time we are all witnesses. But still we can do nothing.

No one is ever likely to brought to book for the killings on either side. Neither Israel nor Palestine is currently signed up to the International Criminal Court treaty, which wouldn’t in itself be an issue if the Security Council would vote to investigate.   It won’t, of course, for political reasons.

So the civilians of Gaza, and occasionally of Israel, go on being killed with impunity. They remain pawns in a nasty war which seems to suit the purposes of both Hamas and Israel.

Hamas continues to fire its random stream of rockets towards Israeli cities, the equivalent of a gnat buzzing an elephant. Its leaders have presumably made calculations along the following lines: “Our rocket attacks will prompt a severe Israeli reaction, which will lead to images of dead and maimed children being beamed around the world, thereby sparking a massive surge in support for the Palestinian cause. Therefore the civilian deaths of both Israelis and Palestinians are a price worth paying for the increase in support for our cause.”

Israel is playing right into Hamas’ hands, obliging its paltry and occasionally deadly stream of rockets with a mighty and destructive barrage of 21st century weaponry.

The response is utterly disproportionate, which is precisely what Hamas has calculated. So arguably Hamas bears as much responsibility for the Gazan deaths as does Israel.

Besides which, Hamas is itself committing war crimes by firing randomly on Israel. There are grieving families and frightened civilians there too. The difference is that only Israel has the technology to kill large numbers of people.

Put another way, you could argue that both sides are committing war crimes, but only Israel is succeeding with any effectiveness.

Israel of course insists that it has no choice, it must defend itself, that civilian deaths are an unintended consequence of its pursuit of Hamas. The tragic irony is that far more Israeli lives have been lost pursuing Hamas that were being taken by it in the first place.

Virtually friendless in the international community, Israel is now succeeding only in alienating itself from wider public opinion. Most of us in the West are default Zionists: few of us would challenge Israel’s right to exist. Even fewer of us are anti-Semitic. Whatever critics might say, it is quite possible to be appalled by what Israel is currently doing without being anti-Semitic.

Most of us have no time for Hamas. We wouldn’t want to live in a society it ran, far less support its military tactics. But poverty, injustice and siege will always spark extreme reaction from a percentage of any given population.

Israel has now successfully battle-hardened the next generation of Hamas fighters. Children shocked, numb, injured, scarred, bereaved, poor and future-less are likely to grow up very well able to hate.

A hundred years on, humanity has not changed, not one little bit. The worm is in man’s heart, as has been observed. But the search for peace must go on, for the sake of the people of Gaza.

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