Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when it may suffice?
That was William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, in Easter 1916 talking about the heroic sacrifice made by the 16 Republicans executed in the Easter Rising. The centuries-long hatred and stone-heartedness built up between Catholics and Protestants seemed as if it would never end.
But it did – not completely, of course – just enough for the violence to subside following the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. It was a long and gruelling process, but the final agreement was mailed to every household in Northern Ireland and a referendum was held in both the North and the Irish Republic on May 22. Seventy-one point two per cent of people in Northern Ireland and 94.38 per cent in the Republic voted to accept the agreement.
One of the men responsible for that agreement is the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who is now the Special Envoy for the Middle East Quartet, composed of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia. If anyone can deal with hearts of stone in the Middle East, you’d think that Tony Blair would be up to the task. But back in 2012 a Palestinian official said: “The Quartet has been useless, useless, useless.” Mohammed Shtayyeh, an aide to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Independent newspaper: “You need a mediator who is ready to engage and who is ready to say to the party who is destroying the peace process ‘You are responsible for it’.” http://ind.pn/1l8JAh4
What the world needs now in Gaza is such an envoy. And many observers say that party responsible is Israel, who launched an offensive in Gaza on July 8 after a surge in rocket fire from Hamas across the border. But Hamas has also rejected a proposal from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) for a 24-hour truce with Israel in the Palestinian enclave. And the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who came back from a visit to the region this week, has been critical of both sides for firing into civilian areas: “In the name of humanity, the violence must stop.” http://bbc.in/1pyIxZc
Ban Ki-moon has repeated the UN’s call for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire to the fighting in Gaza that has killed more than 13 hundred Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 55 Israeli soldiers and three civilians.
Social media has gone viral with comments from Palestinians and Israelis and their supporters. Photographs of dead and wounded children, grieving parents and devastated parts of Gaza have enraged Palestinians, claiming Israeli missile strikes have caused the carnage. This prompted Israel to blame Hamas for misfiring rockets into buildings, including hospitals and schools.
Rani Levi, adviser to the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who pulled Israeli troops out of Gaza in 2005, posted a message on Facebook defending the Israeli offensive in Gaza, saying it was imposed on them by Hamas rocket attacks. He wants the Israeli Defence Force operation to continue for 13-18 days, destroy all Hamas tunnels, confiscate their infrastructure and weapons, and capture or eliminate a “meaningful” number of their field commanders. The IDF should then leave Gaza, unilaterally, without any ceasefire, adding: “We need them to leave a note on the fridge: ‘We had a great time, call us when you want us to come back’.” http://on.fb.me/1qdmpoM
This message is the last thing Palestinians mourning the death of their loved ones, including many children, want to hear. The most poignant response to that message comes from a Palestinian author, Atef Abu Saif, who kept a diary from Wednesday to Saturday last week, recording what it’s like to live in Gaza under the Israeli offensive. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Guardian (http://bit.ly/1l92ww7): “Despite everything – the killing, the destruction, the missing people, the displaced people, the tears, the wounds, the suffering – for these 12 hours of truce, I see Gaza as it used to be. People in their thousands on the street, buying food, moving from one place to another; the shops open, kids playing in the streets. It is a city that has poured itself out into a few moments of peace. Now the truce is coming to an end. The tank mortars have started to roar again, filling the air with their terror.”
In his column last Saturday in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mike Carlton quoted an Israeli columnist and editorial board member of the Haaretz newspaper, Gideon Levy, whose life was threatened after he called on Israeli pilots to stop bombing and firing rockets on civilians. Levy wrote in his column: “The nationalist right has now sunk to a new level with almost the whole country following in its wake. The word ‘fascism,’ which I try to use as little as possible, finally has its deserved place in the Israeli political discourse.”
Those strong words were echoed on the Palestinian side by Mustafa Barghouti, the leader of Palestinian National Initiative, a party in the Palestinian Parliament which claims independence from both Fatah and Hamas. In an interview with Emma Alberici on ABC Lateline Tuesday night, Barghouti said he didn’t know where Hamas was locating its military equipment, but denied they were killing Palestinians: “… the Israeli army can kill people and then accuse the victims of being responsible for their killing. As one Israeli minister said, Palestinians are conducting self-genocide. It is unacceptable to blame the victims for the fact that they are killed instead of blaming Israel and by the way, we the Palestinians are about to sign our own statute … and we are ready to accept an independent commission to investigate and we are ready to go to the International Criminal Court and all those who committed war crimes should be brought to justice.” http://ab.co/1nSICLP
I have been trying to be balanced in writing this post, but it’s very difficult when Palestinians are dying on the streets of Gaza and Israeli shells are exploding in UN schools and shelters. The UN says on average a child every hour is dying in Gaza. The international body is now sheltering 200,000 people in Gaza and is again pleading for a ceasefire, saying civilians have nowhere to go. This is what Israeli Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dore Gold, told Emma Alberici Wednesday night on ABC Lateline: “Israel doesn’t target UN shelters. What it will do is that if Hamas is firing out of an area, putting our troops at risk, and Israel has ascertained that citizens, civilians are not there, then it will fire to defend its troops. Now where are they to go? That’s an excellent question. In fact, if you look at the Arabic leaflets that Israel drops in places like Shejaiya [Gaza City] … those leaflets have maps on them with red arrows saying where people should go to get out of harm’s way.” http://ab.co/1qMpjpj
And Thursday morning on ABC’s AM, Chris Uhlmann asked Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, if Israel was responsible for the shelling of a UN school in Gaza overnight that killed at least 15 people:
MARK REGEV: At this stage we’re still investigating exactly what happened. What we do know is that there was a fire fight in the immediate vicinity of the UN facility, armed forces taking fire and returning fire from Hamas terrorists.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And you were told 17 times that people were sheltering there?
MARK REGEV: I don’t know for a fact and neither do you that it was an Israeli fire that led to those very, very tragic deaths.
CHRIS UHLMANN: What do you suspect?
MARK REGEV: We did not deliberately, I repeat, we did not deliberately target that school.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the attacks: “This morning, yet another United Nations school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families suffered a reprehensible attack. All available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause. Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children. I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice.” http://ab.co/1nLd35s
All this reminds me of a 1990 press mission to Israel sponsored by the Australian/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. I was one of five Australian and New Zealand journalists invited to get a ten-day comprehensive briefing on Israel’s place in the Middle East, including an interview with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. On our one day off, I visited the Jalazone Palestinian refugee camp near Ramallah in the West Bank, accompanied by a UN official and a World Vision worker who knew the region well. There were 6200 people in the camp dominated by a major checkpoint and four observation points where soldiers with binoculars could see into every house. We went to one of those houses, which had every room sealed except for one. It was during the First Intifada – the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of its territories — and the Israeli military sealed a room for each of the family involved in protests. The Palestinian mother had one son killed by a soldier’s bullet during a demonstration and her other son was in prison. She told me the soldiers showed no remorse. They made random visits and told her if she didn’t cooperate, they would “make another corpse in the house.”
Translating for the mother, the 60-year-old village leader said: “No matter how great the sacrifice, the war will continue.” When I asked if they were getting tired of the Intifada, she replied: “This will continue until our goals are realised. They are increasing their aggression, but we are increasing our resilience. My imprisoned son mobilises the little children to continue. They all want to continue.”
Twenty-four years later, those little children who survived are continuing the war against Israeli aggression, and Israel is still fighting against Hamas rockets. Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart, and it’s obvious that both sides have developed hearts of stone.
How can the world bring them together?
The last word on that should go to the chief of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Pierre Krahenbuhl: “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today, the world stands disgraced … I call on the international community to take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage.”
UPDATE: Friday, August 1 8.55am (AEST) The international community finally managed to get Israel and Hamas to agree to a 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza, starting at 3pm Australian time today. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced the truce jointly with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who, as mentioned above, has been tireless in his efforts to end the war. The good news for Gaza, which has had very little lately, is that Israelis and Palestinians will enter talks in Cairo, and that all parties to the conflict had agreed to an unconditional ceasefire during which there would be negotiations on a more durable truce.
Fingers crossed this will be another historic agreement that began on a Friday. But don’t hold your breath.
UPDATE 2: Saturday, August 2 12.10pm (AEST) As expected, the ceasefire has not held. The ABC’s Hayden Cooper reports Israel has declared it over, saying Hamas militants breached the fragile truce soon after it took effect. Both the US and the United Nations are also blaming Hamas for ending the 72-hour truce, which was the most ambitious attempt so far to end more than three weeks of fighting amid a rising Palestinian civilian death toll. But it collapsed after the apparent capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas, which sparked a major military operation. The Israeli military says Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, disappeared when a group of soldiers working to destroy a tunnel in south Gaza was attacked. This time, Hamas appears to be at fault. It is ever thus in the Middle East. http://ab.co/1m7o0da
UPDATE 3: Tuesday, August 5 9.40am (AEST): It’s déjà vu all over again in the Gaza, with Israel and Palestianian groups agreeing to a 72-hour ceasefire to start at 3pm today (AEST). Let’s hope it lasts longer than the last 3-day truce. There was, however, a seven-hour humanitarian truce overnight. The ABC’s Middle East correspondent Matt Brown reports there was a drop in the level of violence during the ceasefire, but Palestinians claimed Israel broke it by bombing a refugee camp in northern Gaza. The original ceasefire collapsed after reports an Israeli soldier had been captured by Hamas. The Israeli military later said the soldier, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, was killed in action. http://ab.co/1qObPVA
UPDATE 4 Wednesday, August 6 3.50pm This will be my last update on my original post. I will publish a longer one when it’s warranted. There has been some good news. After one day, the ceasefire is continuing and Israel has pulled its ground forces out of the Gaza Strip. It’s the first step towards negotiations on a hopefully more enduring end to the month-old war which has killed more than 1,800 Palestinians and 67 Israelis. Israel has completed its main goal of destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels in Gaza. Israeli spokesman Lt-Colonel Peter Lerner said troops and tanks will be “redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions.” In other words, the war could resume at any time if Hamas fires rockets into Israel. Let’s hope negotiations bear some fruit for a change.
Too long a sacrifice