It is far too early to begin the analysis which the past two weeks will eventually demand. Humanity is grieving. Perhaps all one can do at this stage is reflect on the enormity of what has happened, and try to gain some semblance of perspective.
The siege of Gaza has started and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised “mighty vengeance”, vowing to “eliminate” Hamas after the horror unleashed on Israel on 7 October.
Hamas may be driven out from the impoverished Gaza Strip; Netanyahu claims his actions will “change the Middle East”.
Despite the epoch-altering event that was 7 October for Israel, already their response looks not only disproportionate, but also ill-considered.
These attacks have been likened to 9/11 for Israel. If that is indeed the comparison, then should one not also consider the consequences of America’s response to its loss of innocence 22 years ago? Among others, they led to a series of financially ruinous wars, illegal torture camps and the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan.
Perhaps another comparison is also apt: that of 1982 and of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Then, Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon vowed to purge the Middle East of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He too wanted to change the Middle East, by sending his troops all the way to Beirut, and besieged the city for two months.
It became a quagmire, and turned into a major strategic blunder by Israel.
Not only did the invasion result in the mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, it created the axis of resistance which persists to this day – from Tehran right through Damascus to southern Lebanon.
Sadly, however, even this awful chapter of death and destruction would pale in comparison with the humanitarian catastrophe that could play out over the following weeks and months in Gaza.
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When US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken makes thinly veiled comments saying that “how Israel does this matters. We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard … That’s why it’s so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians”, Israel should listen.
Ayman Safadi, the foreign minister of Jordan – a state which recognises the State of Israel and is a firm ally of the US – was even more specific, saying that Israel’s order to Palestinians in northern Gaza to move to the territory’s south when war was “raging” was a “flagrant violation of international law, international humanitarian law, and the law of war”.
Safadi said on Saturday that Israel’s offensive was causing a humanitarian catastrophe that represented the “collective punishment of more than 2 million Palestinians” and was “pushing the entire region towards the abyss”.
Meanwhile, Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has warned that Israel may be on the verge of a “mass ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians in Gaza.
The World Health Organization echoed these sentiments, saying on Sunday that “forced evacuation of hospitals may amount to a violation of international humanitarian law”.
What Hamas committed were vile acts of evil for which it will, and indeed must, be punished. The key change is that, previously, the horrors of war were regrettable but perhaps inevitable consequences.
Now, horror is central to the precise methodology of war, and there are few organisations which illustrate that vileness as vividly as Hamas.
Some Western countries, notably Norway, do not regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation, partly in the hope of some day fashioning an unlikely resolution – but that surely is now a policy open to question.
However, the effective eradication of Hamas does not entail the mass slaughtering of civilians and depriving millions of basic necessities such as water, humanitarian aid and electricity.
Such medieval tactics are not only unbefitting of a supposedly law-abiding democracy, but they will also sow the seeds of ever greater extremism and hatred in the future.
The majority of Palestinians, in Gaza and beyond, are not part of Hamas.
This is especially important at this deeply critical moment in world history.
Israel is even being lectured by the likes of Vladimir Putin, who has himself committed war crimes in his slaughter of Ukrainians.
“In my view, it is unacceptable,” Putin told reporters at a summit in Kyrgyzstan last week, comparing Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War 2.
“More than 2 million people live there. Far from all of them support Hamas by the way, far from all. But all of them have to suffer, including women and children.”
In one volte-face, Putin has instrumentalised Israel’s tactics and assumed the moral high ground versus the West. Hamas, backed by Russian ally Iran, and with the tacit approval of China, has created a new Middle Eastern front of the Second Cold War.
Preaching the rule of law and human rights to Putin, while allowing Israel to commit the same crimes, is exactly the kind of hypocrisy which Putin knows will sow divisions in the West’s alliance and weaken its resolve on winning the war in Ukraine.
As South Africans, we should be fully aware that the only way to defeat an illegal, vengeful force of evil is what we learnt from Mandela. As he famously said, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
He would not expect anyone to accept the heinous acts that Hamas committed last week. But surely, if he was alive today, he would ask everyone to teach love, empathy and care to the young and innocent, both within Israel and throughout the occupied territories of Palestine.
The danger now is of more strategic blunders that will only perpetuate the violence for years to come.
All parties involved in this sordid and unspeakably awful situation should take heed of Nietzsche, when he warned that “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”.
“If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” DM