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Paul Vallely: Targeted response needed, not vengeance

13 October 2023

Attacking civilians in Gaza is not the answer, argues Paul Vallely


Palestinians rescue a man from the rubble of a destroyed residential building in Gaza after an Israeli air strike on Tuesday

Palestinians rescue a man from the rubble of a destroyed residential building in Gaza after an Israeli air strike on Tuesday

THERE was something heart-rending about the short videos snatched by mobile phones at the Supernova music festival in the Israeli desert, as their owners were shot dead or kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. Others sent texts to their families as they hid, but then the texts stopped. Distressed relatives pleaded for the return of the baby taken hostage “without any diapers”, or the 80-year-old grandmother abducted without her life-preserving medication.

But what was most shocking was the merciless indifference of the heavily armed gunmen who descended from the skies on a festival unsuspectingly billed as “a journey of unity and love”. Videos showed them shooting people on the ground with heartless brutality or sadistically pulling women by the hair into their vehicles. Then came news of families murdered in their beds, babies riddled with bullets, a 90-year-old with two bullets to the brain, a woman beheaded. We now know what Hamas means when its charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed “mighty vengeance” — which is exactly what the shadowy commander of the military wing of Hamas, Mohammed Deif, wanted. Since 2014, Hamas leaders have been saying that their next campaign would take place in Israeli territory. He timed it now, in the hope of embroiling the Arab world in an enraged confrontation that would scupper Israel’s attempts to normalise relations with individual Arab states, including Saudi Arabia.

A deadly Israeli campaign of shock and awe — like that of the United States in Iraq after 9/11 — could turn out to be a mistake of equal proportions. A targeted military response aimed at cutting off the head of Hamas would be widely seen as a proportionate response to the worst attack on civilians in the history of the Israeli state. But the decision to cut off drinking water, food, medicine, electricity, and fuel to the ordinary people of Gaza is another matter.

As the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has reminded Mr Netanyahu, “military operations must be conducted in strict accordance with international humanitarian law.” Civilians must be respected and protected at all times. “Civilian infrastructure must never be a target.”

Yet, Israeli missiles have struck both health facilities inside Gaza and UN schools that were sheltering families who had fled their homes in multi-storey buildings, after Israeli warnings that they were about to be bombed. Israel’s intention of laying a “complete siege” to the Gaza Strip — in which 2.2 million people are crammed into an area the size of the Isle of Wight — will cause a humanitarian crisis that was already “extremely dire” to “deteriorate exponentially”.

Israel has the right to self-defence. There should be no doubt about that. But there is a difference between self-defence and vengeance. It is corkscrew logic to suggest that all criticism of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, as proponents of “Israelophobia” now suggest.

There are ways to dismantle the security and governance mechanisms of Hamas without bombing and starving innocent children in Gaza. Special forces can be deployed against the Hamas leadership while also permitting a UN humanitarian corridor to take food and water into Gaza, and negotiating an exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners. Further escalation is in the interests of no one but the extremists on both sides.

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