John McCarthy: Israel and the art of sophistry

What is 'brave' about giving back something you have stolen?

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In Tony Blair's speech in Los Angeles last Tuesday, he said he was sickened by what was happening in Lebanon but went on to effectively absolve Israel of responsibility for the devastation there. He urged: "Just for a moment, put yourself in Israel's place."

In that one phrase, our Prime Minister summed up everything that is wrong with our policy for the Middle East. In that one statemen, he gave credence to all the so-called Islamic extremists who claim the British and American governments care nothing for Arabs. His protestations of sympathy were profoundly offensive, two days after the attack on Qana. If he had really wanted to help he should have been shouting long and loud for an immediate ceasefire to stop the killing of innocents, rather than opting for diplomatic sophistry, important though the proposed UN deal will be in the long term.

Mr Blair ignored the carnage of Israel's rampage through Lebanon and attacks on Gaza. He blamed all the horror - indeed all the world's ills - on what he described as an "arc of extremism" stretching across the Middle East. Amazingly, his "arc of extremism" formed, among others, by Hizbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria, failed to include Israel. He said: "We need to make clear to Syria and Iran that there is a choice: come in to the international community and play by the same rules as the rest of us." The sort of rules that accept Israel's wanton destruction of Lebanon as a reasonable response to the killing of four soldiers and capture of two more by Hizbollah?

Israel is out of control. A craving for physical security (unsurprising with the post-Holocaust generation's attitude of "never again"), together with secular Zionist ideals and the Jewish fundamentalist belief of being God's chosen people, has allowed Israel to believe it can do as it will. Anything, it seems, is legitimate, and Mr Blair has backed the US in rubber-stamping actions in Lebanon and Gaza which surely will be looked back on as crimes against humanity.

Groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas have said they want the destruction of the Israeli state. This obviously unacceptable ambition is shared by Iran and others. At times, such statements appear largely rhetorical; at others, they are backed by suicide bombings and rocket attacks. But, even now, no one can sensibly claim that Israel faces a real threat of destruction or occupation. Israel, on the other hand, is actively engaged in the destruction of a nation, bombing Lebanon back "by 20 years", as the military put it, and in the occupation of Palestinian land.

Look at the events leading to the crisis on Israel's other fighting front, Gaza. Gaza is Palestinian territory, occupied by Israel until last September and still dominated by Israel's military might. On 25 June, Palestinian fighters crossed into Israel, attacked an army post and returned with their captive Cpl Gilad Shalit.

Like many, Mr Blair sees this as the start of Israel's (not Palestine's) "crisis in Gaza". The action was widely reported in our media as being "an escalation" by Palestinian "militants", and Israel's aggressive response was only to be expected. What Mr Blair and other observers will not admit is that the day before Cpl Shalit's capture, Israeli forces went into Gaza and kidnapped two Palestinians whom Israel claims are Hamas militants.

Tony Blair should put himself in the Palestinians' place for a moment. Israel kidnaps your citizens from your territory and no one takes a blind bit of notice. A tit-for-tat raid justifies an onslaught that has cost more than 140 Palestinian lives, many of them civilians. Whose "arc of extremism" is in action here?

The UN says 63 Palestinians were killed and 142 wounded in Israeli attacks on Gaza in May and June this year. These attacks included more than 3,000 artillery shells and almost 50 air strikes. In the same period, Palestinians fired 369 rockets, nearly all home-made and inaccurate Qassams. Fourteen Israelis were injured. Two Israeli soldiers died trying to rescue Cpl Shalit.

Doubtless the people of towns such as Ashkelon and Sderot - within range of Palestinian rockets - are terrified and angry. But what about the terror of the people of Gaza? It is one of the most densely populated places on earth; 1.4 million people live in an area smaller than the Isle of Wight. In the past month, Israel has turned Gaza back into a ghetto, bombing the power station so homes are often without electricity or clean water. Aid agencies say Israel is allowing in only just enough food to stop the population from starving. The UN says Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

Mr Blair did acknowledge the core need to "put a viable Palestinian government on its feet". But there was the usual caveat. The Palestinian state must be "democratic and not threaten Israel's safety". The Palestinians have a democratically-elected government. It is led by Hamas, but because Hamas has not recognised Israel formally the Hamas government will not be recognised. If one is being balanced, or "proportionate", one has to ask: Why would Hamas recognise Israel? Why should Hamas bow before the guns of Israel and say they will stop fighting for their freedom?

Israel has been occupying Palestinian land, in defiance of UN resolutions, for almost 40 years. Instead of insisting on Israel leaving all Palestinian territories, Mr Blair spoke of the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's "brave step of disengagement from Gaza" last year. What is brave about giving back something you have stolen, still keeping the rightful owners in a virtual prison? Until the safety and human rights of Palestinians - and of all people in the region - are valued as much and put on an equal footing with those of Israelis, there is no hope for a peaceful settlement.

The LA speech was vintage Blair but he seemed undecided which of his two favourite roles he was playing, world leader or preacher. Ultimately, his words, though full of sound and fury, signified nothing. The Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis - all of us - deserve better and more honest leadership.

John McCarthy was kidnapped in Lebanon in 1986 and held for five years

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