Phyllis Starkey: I could support Blair on Iraq, but not over this

Israel's tactics are not only against international law, they are counter-productive
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The Independent Online

Unlike President Bush, the Israeli government and the Stop the War Group, I do not believe the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the war in Lebanon and the siege of Gaza are all part of the same struggle. Nor do I think it helpful to bundle together all the varieties of political Islam in the Middle East and treat them as indistinguishable. Life is more complicated and the Middle East cannot be reduced to whether you are "for us or against us", or a war between democracy and the forces of reaction.

I voted in favour of military action against Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime had defied UN resolutions to disarm for more than a decade, and the sanctions regime which had contained the threat was crumbling. Without decisive action the Iraqi regime would be able to use its immense oil wealth to increase its weapons arsenal and again threaten its neighbours. Of course I regret the mistakes made after the invasion, but that is no reason to pull the plug now on the democratically elected Iraqi government.

But the situation in Lebanon, and even more so in the occupied Palestinian territories, is quite different, and the attempt of the Israeli government to present itself as the champion of western democracy at the front-line in the fight against political Islam is a travesty. The seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah was wrong and criminally irresponsible, but the Israelis then used this as an excuse to launch a military strategy to destroy Hizbollah that had clearly been planned for some time.

The bombing of Beirut International Airport and the destruction of Lebanon's civilian infrastructure was wholly disproportionate and has precipitated a ghastly tit-for-tat with both Hizbollah and the IDF wilfully targeting civilians. In Gaza, again, the immediate excuse was the kidnapping of Corporal Shalit, but the wholesale arrest of all the Hamas parliamentarians it could get its hands on, the deliberate destruction of the Foreign and Interior Ministries in Gaza, and the continued bombings of built-up areas (killing 160), were simply an escalation of an existing Israeli campaign.

The Israeli government has been quite open and explicit; threatening to take Lebanon back 20 years and to put the whole population of Gaza "on a diet". In both cases the strategy involves the collective punishment of an entire civilian population in a vain attempt to get them to reign in the militants. The full force of Israel's massive firepower is turned on civilian areas, supposedly to root out the militants sheltering there but with a cavalier disregard for the collateral damage in civilian deaths - which can in any case be blamed on Hizbollah or Hamas for not coming out into the open and waiting to be shot.

These tactics are not only immoral and against international law but counter-productive and a threat to Israel's future. Israel has in the past used its overwhelming military superiority to impose its will on the region; it is creating facts on the ground in Palestine that will leave a series of disconnected bantustans. It has achieved short-term victories, but in the long-term its situation is becoming more perilous.

In Lebanon, far from destroying Hizbollah, Israel has made its leader, Sheikh Nasrallah, immensely popular, while potentially destroying the democratic government of Fouad Siniora. In Palestine, the removal of the Hamas parliamentarians has strengthened the rejectionists within Hamas as well as Islamic Jihad and other militant factions. Across the Middle East, Islamist and nationalist movements are growing in popularity and challenging their (relatively) pro-Western governments.

Tony Blair said that "the vast majority of people in the Middle East want... progress towards democracy, liberty and human rights." The problem in the Prime Minister's analysis is that unlike him, many in the region see political Islam not as the enemy of progress but the means to achieve liberty and justice. All of this has created an even more fertile ground for the meddling of Syria and Iran.

There are courageous voices within Israel that know their government's actions threaten the future of Israel itself. The British government and the rest of the international community needs to be saying firmly that there must be an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, the siege of Gaza must end and all the regional players must be involved in negotiations to implement not only UN resolution 1559 but also those relating to Palestine. A genuine two-state solution is in the interests of Palestinians and Israelis and would once and for all remove the key conflict that has poisoned the region for too long.

The writer is Labour MP for Milton Keynes SW and a former PPS in the Foreign Office