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Gaza ceasefire: the limits of the term 'humanitarian'

Paul Mason

"Humanitarian" means to dig with your bare hands for the remains of loved ones, or a lifetime's memories.

Collateral bloodshed: ­Palestinian civilians are ­being caught in the ­crossfire of a war that is seemingly supported by the majority of Jewish Israelis. (Reuters)

For 12 hours they put their lives back together last Saturday.

In Gaza they queued at Western Union for cash, sent by relatives far away.

In the shattered suburb of Shejaiyah they dug bodies from the rubble.

At Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, quiet for the Jewish Sabbath and quieter still because of the war, people stood in the taxi rank amid silence as at 8am the humanitarian pause began.

It’s a great word: humanitarian. It signifies there are certain positive beliefs and behaviours associated with being human.

So you allow 50 000 saline drips to be delivered – enough to plug into 1 000 arms for maybe a week.

You refrain from killing.

This is what both sides did today. Those returning to Shejayiah found a moonscape.

The pictures show scenes that, if the suburb had been hit by an earthquake, would have prompted the arrival of rescue teams from across the world.

But Shejaiyah was hit by Israel, so “humanitarian” means simply the right to dig with your bare hands for the remains of loved ones, or a lifetime’s memories.

Rationed humanity
While Gaza enjoyed its 12 hours of rationed humanity, the occupied West Bank was gripped with civil disorder: in Bayt Umar and Bayt Rahal, south of Bethlehem, the funerals of West Bank Palestinians took place, leading to clashes with the Israeli forces.

Palestinians there say there is not yet, for real, a “third Intifada” – but that the events of the coming week will decide whether one breaks out.

I’m writing this at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. It’s more than just the traditional left and army refuses – there are a lot of ordinary Israeli families here.

But it’s small. Eighty percent of Jewish Israelis polled this week supported the war. And it’s beleaguered – surrounded by army families waving national flags, and by some right-wingers, and some football supporters – all hurling insults at the peace protesters.

I spoke to Maytal Lochoff, a former member of the Israeli army, and Sulaiman Kmatib, former Palestinian fighter. They are both members of Combatants for Peace, who helped to organise the demonstration.

Lochoff told me, given the violence that has greeted previous attempts to hold anti-war demonstrations, she was worried about the safety of people attending.

Kmatib told me he thought the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank was working hard to hold back the outbreak of a third intifada.

“If Israel can’t negotiate with the moderate Palestinian leadership of Abu Mazen now,” says Maytal, “will it ever negotiate?”

Graphic evidence
It’s fair to say many Israelis are unaware of the graphic evidence coming out of Gaza, of the deaths of civilians, including children.

It’s also fair to say that the papers and TV channels that avoid such imagery are playing to a widespread mood in Israel. Kmatib fears it’s not so much racism as “extremism”.

The fact remains: the low level of concern about the conduct of the war, let alone opposition, has to shape what diplomacy can achieve.

Israel still believes it can score a strategic victory against Hamas – through military action.

Hamas believes it can survive the attack, inflicting a Hezbollah-style reversal on the Israeli Defence Force.

In Gaza, as I write, three mortars have been fired into Israel. I don’t know whether there will be a breakdown of the humanitarian truce before the midnight extension.

But maybe, perversely, it’s the fighting that should be labelled with some word starting with “human”: it is certainly a uniquely human thing, available to no other living species – to be able to switch off death, terror and mayhem as a watch clicks over from 59 to zero.

Paul Mason is a Channel 4 News correspondent

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