Leading article: Collective punishment is not the answer

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One might have thought Israel would have learned enough from history to know collective punishment is rarely effective. That was the lesson of the Second World War, when German attempts to cow the Czechs by the mass execution of the inhabitants of Lidice, for example, had the opposite effect. It was the same in occupied France and Yugoslavia or, for that matter, in Ireland in the days of the Black and Tans. Collective punishment almost invariably stiffens resistance.

So one wonders what Ehud Olmert thinks he is doing by making a whole population suffer for the deeds of a few, and appearing to boast of the fact. According to his own officials, Israel's Prime Minister told the armed forces at the weekend "to make sure no one sleeps at night in Gaza", which if true, is a deeply distasteful remark, coming from the leader of a western democracy. It is understandable that Israelis should feel furious over the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit. But it is sometimes the job of a statesmen to withstand the demands of the crowd for "something to be done" in the longer-term interests of everyone. Instead, Mr Olmert has succumbed to the temptation to appear even more macho than his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, hurling thunderbolts recklessly at everyone within range, cutting off Gaza's power plant and blowing up bridges.

As our Middle East correspondent reports today, the impact of Israel's indiscriminate vengeance on the refugees who make up a large percentage of Gaza's population has been especially dramatic. With most of their water and power down, sewage systems out of action, while temperatures hover above 30 degrees centigrade, their situation - never good - has become an international disgrace.

More's the pity that our leaders haven't had the guts to openly condemn Mr Olmert's bully-boy tactics. They might have reminded him that collective punishment violates the Geneva Conventions. Sadly, it has been left to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to describe the missile attacks as "inadvisable" - an understatement - while backstairs pressure from the United States seems to have brought about a partial relaxation of Israel's blockade.

Over the whole story there hangs the suspicion that Israel cannot forgive the Palestinians for having elected a Hamas government, and is worried also that Hamas and Fatah may come together in seeking a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine imbroglio.

The Israelis may well be justified in wanting to see the back of Hamas - but this is not the right way to go about it. On the contrary, Mr Olmert's actions will have shored up Palestinian support for Hamas, as well as possibly endangering the life of Israel's abducted soldier.

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