If Israel wants peace, it must talk to Hamas

The two sides need to be brought to the negotiating table to secure an internationally guaranteed peace

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I suspect that there is growing anger among our population as they’ve watched on television the daily slaughter and destruction in Gaza – and the mealy-mouthed statements from both our Government and the Americans’ in response.

Spokesmen for the Israelis regularly recount the huge number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory, but fail to tell us that the vast majority of these have been successfully intercepted without casualties. In fact, over the entire past decade they have killed two dozen Israeli citizens. Unacceptably dreadful though these figures are, there is neither political nor moral equivalence with the 1,600 civilians killed in Gaza currently and the 1,400 killed in the previous Operation Cast Lead in 2009. So those “on the one hand and on the other” balanced utterances are made in shameful disregard of the facts.

I write as one who has visited Ashkelon and Siderot – two of the most regularly hit towns in the south of Israel – and talked with their people and their members of Knesset. So I fully understand their mixture of fear and justified rage. Yet as the 2009 operation amply demonstrated, bombing and blasting Gaza does not stop the rocket attacks.

I am a member of the “Friends of Israel” because I always seek to draw a clear distinction between the State of Israel and the current Israeli government. It is becoming sadly increasingly difficult to maintain that distinction in today’s world. The damage done to Israel’s standing is incalculable. In my student days in the late Fifties, many spent their vacations working in kibbutz, fired by the idealism of Israel – that has stopped. Instead, we see a revival of vicious anti-Semitic incidents all over the world in response to what is seen to be mass murder.

That contagion threatens to spread to terrorist groups fired by distorted views of Islam all over the Middle East and Africa. Our ministers have rightly expressed concern about radicalised extremists returning to our shores and undermining our security. They should wake up to the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is their strongest recruiting agent.

The only way to stop the mutual bloodshed is to bring Hamas to the negotiating table and secure an internationally guaranteed peace. John Kerry understands that but gets little support from his own or our Government. But, it is argued, Hamas is a “terrorist organisation”. We have been here before. I recall my first meeting with Yasser Arafat in 1981 when the PLO was a “terrorist organisation” and no ministers would speak to him. I argued that he should change the PLO covenant, and that came only years later followed by the shake of hands on the White House lawn.

Yet one of the reasons for the success of Hamas in the elections in Gaza was the incompetence and corruption prevalent in Mr Arafat’s Fatah administration. The recent formation of the Fatah/Hamas unity government was a real opportunity to commence dialogue – wholly rejected by the Israeli government. I also recall in the 1970s my discussions with ANC leaders when they too were dubbed a “terrorist organisation” with whom neither the South African nor British governments would deal.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Netanyahu government is treating Palestinians as lesser human beings in exactly the same way the apartheid government treated the majority of its citizens. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 which first envisaged a “national home for the Jewish people” – an ideal given impetus after the Second World War – included the proviso “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Try telling that to the people of Gaza today.

Lord Steel of Aikwood is past-president of the charity Medical Aid for the Palestinians, and a former leader of the Liberal party

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