History repeats itself all too often

Ehud Olmert lost no time in describing the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Lebanese guerrillas as an ”act of war”. That stark formulation was doubtless intended to frighten the Beirut government into reining in the Hizbullah fighters who attacked across the international border. So, in turn, was the ominous announcement that Israel is calling up reserve forces. Add that to angry noises from the Syrian capital, Damascus — buzzed by Israeli jets last week — and to Israel’s on- going offensive in the Gaza Strip, which claimed 22 more Palestinian lives on Wednesday alone, and there is an unmistakable sense of widening crisis in the Middle East.

This alarming escalation began when Palestinian fighters kidnapped an Israeli soldier from a position just across the border from Gaza. For weeks before that dozens of home-made rockets were fired into Israel. Olmert’s response was to emulate what his mentor, Ariel Sharon, would have done: he bombed a power station-, depriving hundreds of thousands of civilians of electricity and water in the summer heat. Israeli aircraft have been breaking the sound barrier in a campaign of psychological warfare against 1,4-million people. That has all been rightly condemned as collective punishment, which is banned by the Geneva conventions.

Since the abduction, more than 70 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli forces. The latest fatalities included nine members of one family (two adults and seven children), who died when an Israeli plane dropped a bomb on a supposed meeting of Hamas leaders. That is the dreadful reality of the ”collateral damage” suffered by bystanders in Israel’s relentless pursuit of its enemies. Self-defence is the right of every nation. But actions such as these are war crimes that will not be expiated by occasional expressions of regret.

Lebanon and Gaza have something important in common. Israel ended its occupation of both without resolving the issues that led to its action in the first place. It invaded its northern neighbour in 1982 in a bid to wipe out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and finally withdrew 18 years later. Hizbullah, a Shia Muslim organisation with seats in the Lebanese Parliament, is supported by both Syria and Iran. It has freed its own land, but now claims to be supporting the Palestinians. Last year’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, after 38 years, has solved nothing. The Hamas government should exercise its responsibility and stop rockets being fired into Israel, having previously halted the suicide bombings that claimed so many innocent lives inside Israel. But Israel should accept that it needs a Palestinian partner, however unpalatable it may be.

Pragmatism, not pride, must guide the parties out of this bloody cul de sac. Israel’s captive soldiers should be treated as prisoners of war, not hostages. But they are more likely to be returned unharmed if they are swapped for some of the thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel. Olmert has vowed not to do this, though previous governments have done so, often trading in corpses as well. Human life matters more than empty notions of no surrender, or deterrence, when it is an incontrovertible truth of this conflict that Israel’s vast military superiority cannot bring it the peace and security it craves.

Fifty years ago this month, the Middle East was plunged into the abyss when Egypt nationalised the Suez canal company and Britain and France embarked on a foolish military adventure, together with Israel, to attack the largest Arab country. These days Western powers are happily no longer directly involved, though outsiders should be doing much more to douse the flames as the protagonists fight on. That is as true of Iran and Syria and other Arab countries as of the United States, Europe and the United Nations. History repeats itself all too often in this part of the world. There is plenty of tragedy, and nothing that can be called farce. — Â

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