I have already tweeted my feeling of utter despondency at the situation in Gaza. I feel hopeless, both in the sense of having no hope and in the sense of being useless to help. Compared to the misery of what is happening on the ground my soul-searching is a mere pimple of suffering and I realise that I have no right to lose hope, when hope is what Israelis and Palestinians who want peace must cling to.
But what has struck me in this conflict, more even than during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, is how quickly those who care to comment about such matters have retreated into pre-rehearsed positions. Two articles in the Guardian, one by Hamas leader Musa Abumarzuq and the other by Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, were mirror images of each other: both men arguing that the actions of their adversary left them no choice but the path of violence. Hopeless.
I read Robert Fisk and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent this week, full of righteous and eloquent anger. I looked at Steve Bell’s now notorious cartoon showing Benjamin Netanyahu as a puppet master manipulating Blair and Hague. A similar cartoon in the Independent showed him as the pilot of an Israeli plane with Blair and Obama as the helpless bombs on the undercarriage. I understand why Jews are horrified by these images.
Where can we turn for reasoned and objective and advice on the situation? The difficulty is that everything is poisoned by this conflict. Fisk and Alibhai-Brown are distrusted in many sections of the Jewish community for their perceived pro-Arab and pro-Muslim stance (I would urge anyone to read the pieces they have written this week, which are balanced and well-argued.). Pronouncements from Chatham House or the Foreign Office are likewise perceived as “Arabist”. On the other side, the more eloquent advocates for Israel such as Bicom produce papers and organise teleconferences with experts but they are already condemned as apologists for the Zionist entity in the eyes of those who will never accept that Israel has a right to defend itself. Opponents of Israel scan bylines for signs of suspicious ethnic origins: Cohen, Aaronovitch and Freedland are thus easily dismissed. And, meanwhile, Blair and Hague are mere Zionist stooges for condemning Hamas rocket attacks and expressing the opinion that the Islamists, whose founding charter drips with anti-Semitism, must bear responsibility for this conflict.
For those of us who live in a country at peace it is difficult to imagine the lack of empathy that war brings. I remember naively asking mothers in Sderot in southern Israel who have to tolerate the Hamas rockets fired at their homes, whether they felt for the Palestinian mothers just over the border. No, they told me, what they care about is the safety of their own children. Of course. I also remember a Palestinian father I met in a refugee camp in Lebanon who had lost his sons during the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. He was empty and lost. He said he would look at Ariel Sharon on the television in the days afterwards the massacres and say to himself: “Why do you hate me? What have I ever done to you?” And then I think back to Abu Qatada, whom I interviewed in 1999. Wanted by Jordan for alleged terrorist offences, unwanted by Britain since he came to public attention as a key ideologue of jihad and an inspiration for the 9/11 bombers, it is easy to forget that he too is a Palestinian, his politics forged by his experience as a refugee. He was always courteous, avuncular, learned. But his message was also chilling in its clarity: the crimes of America and Israel’s stooges in the West were so great that the Muslim people had no choice but to resort to violent jihad.
It is impossible not to be moved by the words of Izzeldin Abuelaish the Gaza-based doctor and peace activist whose three daughters were killed in an Israeli air-strike in the last conflict. His challenge to Israel to show compassion for the Palestinian people and work for peace is an attempt, at least, to occupy the middle ground. And so is Hugo Rifkind’s column in The Times (£) this week. Angry at Steve Bell’s cartoon, he still big enough to say:
‘I don’t believe that criticism of Israel is born out of anti-Semitism usually. I think Israel often does a fine job of giving birth to it all by itself. Sometimes, though, the anti-Semitism sneaks in afterwards.’
But an extraordinary piece by American writer Dahlia Lithwick in Slate struck a new “listening” tone. For me she captured perfectly the writer’s feeling of frustration when faced by the cacophony of voices cheering and mourning for each side.
‘I don’t know how to talk about what is happening here but it’s probably less about writers’ block than readers’ block. It says so much about the state of our discourse that the surest way to enrage everyone is to tweet about peace in the Middle East. We should be doing better because, much as I hate to say it, the harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side of this conflict don’t constitute a conversation. Counting and photographing and tweeting injured children on each side isn’t dialogue. Scoring your own side’s suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone—absolutely everyone—is suffering and sad and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.’