Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Support Israel if you care about Gazans' suffering

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Colin Rubenstein

Australian Financial Review - Aug 06 2014

The nightly television images of the suffering in Gaza are heartbreaking. A vital challenge is what can actually be done to stop the suffering there and in Israel and prevent it recurring.

Gazans need far more than simply an end to the current fighting. They need leaders who put their interests first, rather than treating them as cannon fodder for extremist political goals. These need a government which sincerely seeks a genuine two-state outcome that will finally bring peace to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank - something Hamas, committed to Israel's demise, has vowed it will always oppose. 

This reality is well illustrated by the key focus of the latest Israeli incursion into Gaza - the revelations of the unexpectedly massive network of secret terror tunnels. Hamas planned to use these tunnels to infiltrate hundreds of terrorists into Israel to slaughter and kidnap civilians.

Over 30 tunnels, each with many branches, have been detected. They reportedly cost 40 per cent of the Gaza government's total budget over four years and are built in part with materials Israel allowed into Gaza for humanitarian needs. An estimated 800,000 tons of concrete were used - enough to construct the world's largest building at least seven times over. Think how many bomb shelters, kindergartens and clinics could have been built instead.

Tunnel entrances have been found in homes, mosques and even medical clinics. Yet the tunnels are for Hamas fighters only. Hamas provides civilians in Gaza no shelter from Israeli attacks.

Israel has implemented a series of humanitarian ceasefires - including last Friday and twice more this week - designed to provide for the humanitarian needs of Gaza residents. So far Hamas has rejected or violated them all - and Gazans pay the price.

The genesis of the current conflict

The current conflict began when Israel was forced to respond to three weeks of intense rocket fire from Gaza, with Hamas having contemptuously ignored several Israeli calls for mutual calm. Rockets subsequently paralysed Israel and shut down its airport.

True to form, and in contravention of international law, Hamas locates much of its war material and assets in, and conducts most of its attacks from, densely populated civilian areas.

The IDF - also true to form - has taken every reasonable precaution to avoid harming civilians, through leaflets, text messages, phone calls, and even "knocking" on the roof tops with a unique, loud but weak ordnance, to alert residents.

Hamas has responded by instructing Gazans to ignore the IDF's warnings and remain in combat zones.

Former US President Bill Clinton rightly noted that Hamas has "a strategy designed to force Israel to kill . . . [Palestinian] civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them."

Hamas' despicable human shield tactics - and Israel's advanced civil defence systems - create lopsided casualty rates. Yet Israel's critics have rolled out the old chestnut that Israel's response somehow violates the principle of "proportionality" or amounts to "collective punishment". These claims are complete distortions of these concepts from international law - and in practice amount to declaring that fighting back against terror groups firing from amidst civilian urban centres is illegal.

No better suggestions forthcoming

These critics almost never suggest any better methods for fighting an asymmetrical urban war than what Israel is doing - they just demand Israel find one. "Proportional" self-defence thus effectively means no self-defence.

Recently, Israel has drawn much criticism for three deadly explosions in UN schools being used as shelters by Gaza civilians. The first was apparently caused by a misfired Islamic jihad rocket that fell short of its intended target in Israel, one of almost 300 rockets fired by terror groups that have fallen in Gaza. Another appears to be the tragic result of Israeli forces under fire responding to the source of that fire - Hamas mortars cynically set up right next to the school. The third did not actually involve a hit on a school at all - Israel struck a motorcycle carrying three militants in a street near a school - the school itself being undamaged.

Hamas had demanded ceasefire terms that include an end to the blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt, payment of salaries for Hamas workers, release of prisoners and other concessions.

The blockade, cited by Hamas as a justification for its indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians, in reality only keeps out material with military uses, and allows unlimited food, medicine and consumer goods. Moreover, it was only imposed in response to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza in the first place.

Handing Hamas a victory would be suicidal for Israel. And not for Israel alone. Other extremist groups will be watching the Hamas example. Imagine if the principle is established that any response to a terror group firing rockets or launching other attacks from civilian areas is illegitimate because of the inevitable civilian casualties. Terror groups would widely seek to imitate Hamas use of human shields - at huge costs to peoples' lives.

Anyone who genuinely cares about the misery the repeated wars around Gaza are inflicting on its civilian residents must - for their sake - unite behind Israel's efforts to degrade Hamas' military assets, especially its rockets and terror tunnels, and secure a ceasefire that provides for Gaza's disarmament.

As Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu noted over the weekend, one idea is for an international program of rehabilitation and development for Gaza linked to the territory's demilitarization. The near-consensus across the Arab world that Hamas' reckless, violent extremism is the key problem for Gazans should make this achievable.

If a ceasefire just maintains the status quo, there will be another, probably even worse, war ahead - in which civilians, particularly Gazans, will once again inevitably experience great suffering.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.


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