Who will pay for Gaza’s bloodbath?

Seumas Milne

Over the last 13 days, Israel has inflicted a bloodbath on the Gaza Strip that matches the darkest days of the Iraq war. Backed to the hilt by the US author of that catastrophe, it has killed more than 650 people in less than a fortnight, including at least 200 children, and wounded three thousand. On Jan 7, after killing 50 civilians in UN schools sheltering refugees — “C’est la guerre”, the Israeli minister Meir Shitreet told the BBC when asked about the atrocities — the Israeli government agreed a three-hour daily lull in the carnage for “humanitarian purposes”, as diplomatic manoeuvring intensified over a possible ceasefire deal.

But despite this gruesome demonstration of its overwhelming power, Israel once again faces the threat of political and military failure, just as it did in Lebanon in 2006. After its most pulverising assault ever on the blockaded territory, Hamas remains standing, its administration

intact, its rockets reaching ever further into Israel proper.

Far from turning the Gazan population against the Islamist movement, the signs are that Israel’s onslaught is cementing its support. From what has emerged so far, the deal touted by President Sarkozy and Egypt would trade a full ceasefire for the opening of Gaza’s border crossings —which reflects Hamas’s own terms — combined with an international force on the Egyptian border to police arms-smuggling tunnels. So long as that didn’t challenge Hamas’s authority or involve stationing foreign troops inside Gaza, the Palestinian movement could clearly live with such an arrangement.

On Jan 7 the Israeli government declared it accepted the principles of the plan, while the details had yet to be agreed.

But it’s hard to see how a deal that could have been struck without war would be seen as anything other than a Hamas victory. And the domestic electoral boost won by Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak as a result of the firestorm they have unleashed would then be lost. That’s why the logic of what they have started is likely to push the Israeli government to set impossible conditions, blame Hamas for a breakdown and intensify its onslaught still further.

If Israel’s leaders are going to be able to declare the victory they failed to achieve in Lebanon, they can hardly be seen to leave the power and appeal of Hamas intact, let alone strengthened. At the very least, they would want to arrest or kill key Hamas leaders and stage a humiliating parade of captured fighters.

The US, Britain and the EU, while paying lip service to ceasefire calls, prepared the ground for this barbarity with money, arms and diplomatic support as hope of a viable two-state

solution has disintegrated before our eyes. Pressure now has to be brought to bear not only on Israel, but on those governments that support it — including Britain’s. That’s why the call by Nick Clegg, the UKs Liberal Democrat leader, for an arms embargo on Israel and the suspension of the EU’s new cooperation agreement with Israel — the first mainstream British party leader to do so — is so significant.

David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, calls it naive. In reality, the naivety lies in imagining that the west can continue to underwrite the injustice and bloodshed inflicted with no respite on the Palestinian people, without paying a price for it.