Israel at war: an explosive moment in the Middle East

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Only in the days that followed was the true horror of last Saturday’s attack by Hamas on Israel laid bare. Women, children and elderly among the dead; 260 music festival-goers slaughtered; an 85-year-old woman among more than 100 Israelis hauled off to the cellars of Gaza. The death toll of at least 1,200 was the largest number of Jews killed in a single day since the Holocaust. The assault has been compared, in its human cost and trauma to Israel’s national psyche, to “a 9/11 and a Pearl Harbor wrapped into one”. The repercussions, after Israel on Friday gave 1.1mn Palestinians 24 hours to leave northern Gaza ahead of an expected invasion of the Hamas-ruled strip, threaten to be devastating. This is spiralling into a war whose like the Middle East has not seen for decades.

The state of Israel has the right to defend itself against a murderous assault, free its hostages and restore its people’s faith in their security. The impulse to crush Hamas and extract a price for Israelis’ suffering is powerful and comprehensible. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has nurtured an image as the guarantor of his nation’s safety, is under pressure to respond with maximum force.

Yet ordering half of Gaza’s population from their homes smacks of the forced displacement Palestinians have suffered since 1948. A siege denying water, food and power to the impoverished territory — followed by a ground offensive — looks like collective punishment of civilians, who mostly have little love for Hamas, for the crimes of an extremist group. At least 1,800 Palestinians have already died in Israel’s bombardment. That Hamas trampled on the rules of war with its barbarities would not make it right for Israel to do so.

International allies have rightly condemned last weekend’s outrages and pledged to stand by the Jewish state. The US and UK are sending ships to the eastern Mediterranean to assist, and to deter escalation. Yet among the greatest help friends of Israel can give is to warn of the perils, for itself and for the wider Middle East, of a response that causes mass civilian casualties among Palestinians. As Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, declared in Tel Aviv: “We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard, even when it’s difficult.”

Even as it fights to root out Hamas, Israel should do all it can to follow the principles of post-second world war humanitarian law: to distinguish between combatants and civilians, minimise harm to populations, and take only militarily necessary actions. In Gaza, whose 2.3mn people, nearly half of them children, have little means of escape, that will be exceptionally hard.

Appearing to do otherwise would jeopardise international support and sympathy for Israel and may fuel a catastrophic regional conflict. It risks triggering an uprising in the occupied West Bank, opening a new northern front between Hizbollah and Israel and drawing in other regional states.

Western capitals should maximise diplomatic efforts, with regional neighbours, to secure Israeli hostages’ release and ensure de-escalation. They must strive, too, to establish humanitarian corridors out of Gaza.

Israel deserves the world’s sympathy. It should also remember the lessons from its past wars with Hamas and Hizbollah — and from America’s response to 9/11. US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had ruinous consequences, failing to stamp out extremist groups and giving birth to new ones. In a land of two peoples locked in enduing conflict, ending the cycle of violence requires finding a viable way for Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side, in dignity. The only means of ensuring Israelis never face a repeat of last week’s atrocities is to address the causes of the conflict that spawned the militants.

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