Tragically, the 72-hour ceasefire brokered between the Israeli Defence Force and Hamas collapsed within two hours – just as shops in Gaza were opening and the fishing fleet setting out to sea for the first time in days. It’s unclear how the truce was broken, and both sides are flinging blame with the same intensity that they are exchanging missiles.
Without real leadership in both Israel and Gaza, and especially from the wider international community, the efforts underway to stop the carnage are doomed to be either stillborn or temporary.
The Israeli government’s sense of righteousness appears to be set in stone – in a moment of ice-cold hubris, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Israeli Defence Force “a moral army without peer” at the beginning of a cabinet meeting on July 31 as he continued to insist the Israeli offensive on Gaza would continue until all border tunnels were destroyed. He also stated:
The US, the EU and other important elements in the international community have accepted our position, and I must say that this was not an easy thing to achieve but we did it together, with hard work.
Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the latest Gaza death toll has passed 1,400 (including hundreds of children) with more than 7,600 people injured. At least 56 Israeli soliders have been killed, and more than 400 wounded; three civilians have been killed in Israel. The International Federation of Journalists says eight journalists have been killed since the start of the offensive.
On July 30, a UN school in Jabaliya refugee camp was hit by shells during the night. It was being used as a shelter for Palestinian families who were fleeing their homes after receiving warnings from the Israeli authorities that their homes would be unsafe. That day 19 people – mostly children and women – were killed. This only days after a similar attack on another UN school in Beit Hanoun, which killed 15.
The commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN body which runs the schools, informed the press that the UN had given the Israelis the precise co-ordinates of the Beit Hanoun school on 12 separate occasions before the shelling began. Ban Ki-Moon demanded “accountability and justice” for the “outrageous and unjustifiable” attacks on civilians.
As he put it: “Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children.”
The EU issued a statement condemning this most recent attack and demanding an investigation; the White House had already put out a similar one. Both statements stopped short of condemning Israel for perpetrating the attack.
The silence is deafening. In his statement, UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl summed up the general feeling across the globe: “Today the world stands disgraced”.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is due to step down from her post in October, has yet to make any personal statement on this conflict. A general statement was posted on the EEAS site on July 25, stating:
Israeli military operations must be proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law. We reiterate our condemnation of the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and other militant groups. The recent tragic escalation of hostilities underlines the unsustainable nature of the status quo in Gaza and the need to address the humanitarian and socio-economic situation there without further delay.
Europeans across the continent are calling on the EU to try to stop the bloodshed and to seize the opportunity to act as a serious mediator. The main instrument at Europe’s disposal is economic: the EU is Israel’s main trading partner, with total trade amounting to approximately €33 billion as of 2012.
The main legal ties between Israel and the EU are set out in the 1995 EU-Israel Association Agreement, Article 2 of which states:
Relations between the Parties … shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal and international policy and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.
This is a very clear mandate. By putting the suspension of the Association Agreement on the table, the EU would be able to exercise serious legal and economic weight against the carnage in Gaza. Instead, despite the rising death toll, it has remained silent.
Lack of heft
The US, which counts Israel as one of its closest allies, covers nearly one quarter of Israel’s defence budget through military aid – some $3.1 billion during 2013 alone. But there is little evidence that this gets Washington any diplomatic leverage in return.
Most American diplomatic visits to Israel are greeted with an intensification of settlement expansion, which the current administration opposes. As Obama put it:
We have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple of years than we’ve seen in a very long time … If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.
So what from Obama’s administration in response to Israel’s continuous disregard to international norms and obligations under the Geneva conventions?
To reassure his ally, Obama declared at the start of the current Gaza conflict, “Washington supports Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket and tunnel attacks.”
Similarly, EU foreign ministers issued a joint statement recognising Israel’s right to defend itself and condemning Hamas for its “criminal and unjustifiable” firing of rockets into Israel.
Nothing was said, of course, about Gaza’s residents’ right to defend themselves from Israeli shelling. This fake involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” makes the EU and the US complicit in the current and ongoing Gaza attack. Does it make the international community morally corrupt?
Israelis and Palestinians alike need to have a pause from this crazy escalation of violence and the killing of innocent civilians for a thorough reflection on the dangerous collision of different moral claims in this long drawn-out conflict.
Once a ceasefire of more than a few hours is negotiated, leaders on both sides must take the opportunity to be honest about the terrible errors of leadership that have marked the events of recent weeks.
Israel, for one, needs a thorough soul-searching exercise on what its oft-invoked idea of “security” actually means in practice, and whether its chosen definition really has anything to do with “defending itself”. Hamas, by the same token, must reflect on the wisdom of indiscriminately firing rockets into the territory of one of the mightiest military forces in the world.
But the international community, too, has to improve on its woeful diplomatic performance throughout this catastrophe. There are plenty of examples from which to draw inspiration.
Think of how Nelson Mandela, for example, used strategic moral diplomacy to resolve the seemingly intractable stalemate between Libya, the US and the UK in the handling of two suspects accused of the Lockerbie bombing.
The point of this example is that moving away from the idea that our enemies are simply evil, and towards a more pragmatic moral position, is often the only hope in intractable, unstable negotiations between warring factions. The issues in the Gaza crisis are of course far more wide-ranging and muddled than in that specific case – but the contrast with the watery platitudes and inaction that have characterised the last few weeks remains stark.
In the end, what the people of Israel and Palestine desperately need are leaders worthy of their rank, both at home and abroad. But what is also desperately needed is for international diplomacy to start to deliver on its humanitarian mandate – the rest of the world can no longer wring its hands and deplore such blatant abuses of human rights conventions, to which they are all signatories, while continuing to do business with the perpetrators of these abuses.
Without some genuine moral leadership in the Middle East, but also from the international community, there can be no end in sight.