John McCarthy: If it was your home, what hope 'restraint'?

As Israeli ground troops entered Gaza, Hamas's already fragile incentive to rely on diplomacy alone was trampled underfoot

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Israel's invasion of Gaza comes hard on the heels of its massive air campaign which, it says, is a justified retaliation for the Hamas rocket attacks against southern Israel. Every rocket or mortar fired from Gaza into Israel is reported to the international media and, at the time of writing, more than 400 had been counted during the week. Details of the Israeli attacks are harder to find, but the week's report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that the Israeli Air Force also dropped 400 bombs, not over seven days, but in just the first few minutes of its opening assault on Gaza. These and hundreds more bombs have killed over 400 Palestinians. The Hamas missiles have caused just four deaths.

The Israeli people expect their government to punish attacks on Israel, and with a general election taking place in just over a month, politicians are keen to show their readiness to do anything to protect Israeli civilians. Ehud Barak, defence minister in the coalition government, has seen his poll ratings – and those of the Labour Party he leads – rise as a result of the campaign against Hamas which he has called "a war to the bitter end".

Yet, after a week of air strikes, Hamas continues firing rockets and firing them deeper into Israel. And so it appears inevitable that the military campaign will grind on, causing more and more civilian casualties until international pressure for a truce will eventually become loud enough to promote a ceasefire.

And while its disproportionate response does provoke calls for restraint from many international bodies, the Israeli establishment continues to paint itself as the passive underdog under threat. Ehud Barak has described Israel as "a villa in the middle of a jungle"– a place of civilisation surrounded by savage hordes.

I've met many Israelis who see themselves as just that, convinced that the rest of the world does not understand their plight and that the only important issue is to stop the Hamas rockets. This week's OCHA report may state that Israel's blockade means that food, medical supplies, fresh water and fuel are so severely limited that Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, but Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, denies any such problem. She promotes a widely held view that the suffering of the people in Gaza is their own fault for tolerating Hamas leadership.

Is this intransigence so surprising? We have had 60 years during which the modern state of Israel has never been taken to task for ignoring international criticism. It has ignored, with impunity, countless UN resolutions on the right of return of Palestinian refugees, on ending its occupation of the West Bank and encouraging its civilians to settle in the Occupied Territories, among others.

And why are they not brought to task? The simple fact is that Israel has the most powerful psychological influence to count on – the world's collective guilt over the Holocaust. This means that although the world may sporadically slap Israel's wrists, no one dare go too far, perhaps out of fear of being accused of anti-Semitism or in any way attacking a people who have historically suffered so much. The tragedy is, though, that it is now another people, the Palestinians, who are suffering because of the world's hesitation to offend Israel.

Pro-Israeli sentiment is reinforced by many in the international arena who, privately perhaps, approve Barak's "villa in the jungle" metaphor. To some, Israel represents a foothold of Western values on the edge of the Arab world, which, with the rise of fundamentalist Islam, is perceived as a growing threat. And there is, to me, the very frightening growth of fundamentalist Christian belief – especially in the United States – that, given that the existence of the Israeli state is part of God's plan, it is above criticism.

President Bush and other world leaders have stated that if Hamas stopped firing rockets, then peace negotiations could resume.

But is there really a viable peace process to restart? The idea is that peace will come with a two-state solution and that Israel will graciously give up occupied territory in the West Bank to create a Palestinian state there and in Gaza.

But there are few signs that the Israeli establishment, fully committed to the Zionist goals of creating Eretz Israel (a Greater Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan), plans to relinquish very much land at all: 250,000 Israelis already live on the West Bank. On the contrary, Israel's road and settlement building programmes continue apace.

Israel's policy has always been to build "facts on the ground" while delaying accepting any final borders. Her founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, summed this up with the phrase "where we plough our last furrow is where we put our border".

Ben-Gurion's political heirs are still ploughing. While conceding that a Palestinian state of some sort is necessary to ensure Israel is kept as purely Jewish as possible, they will put off delineating that state until Israel ends up with as much land and as few Palestinians as possible on that land.

As Israel continues to create ever more "facts on the ground", the prospects of the Palestinians being offered a reasonable share of what was meant to be their homeland become ever more remote. The Israelis presumably will count on Palestinians becoming so desperate for their own state, amid international weariness and ineffectiveness, that they will achieve their territorial and demographic goals.

One can only hope that president-elect Obama will bring pressure on Israel to change its policies. But that is not a strong hope. How many more times will the world rub its hands in despair and feebly "call on all parties to show restraint" as our television screens show civilians cowering under bombing raids and hospitals unable to treat the wounded?

Yes, Hamas must stop its rocket attacks. But surely, above all, it is time for Israel to be taken to task and charged with recognising the will of the international community.

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