It’s time to stop

 (Dave Brown)
(Dave Brown)


It may seem wrong that, after more than 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza have perished, it took the deaths of just seven international aid workers to stir Western governments into a sense of outrage, but that is the reality.

Israel has promised an inquiry – but we need not wait for that to understand what happened. The known facts are not in dispute, and they speak for themselves. These were not Hamas militants. They were not illicitly transporting Hamas commanders. They were working for World Central Kitchen and the UN World Food Programme.

Their vehicles were appropriately marked. They were taking a route approved for humanitarian aid transport. They died as a result of an Israeli drone attack.

It is not a Hamas propaganda story. These “seven beautiful souls”, as their agency calls them, deserve to be named and memorialised: Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, 25, of Palestine; Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom, 43, of Australia; Damian Soból, 35, of Poland; Jacob Flickinger, 33, a dual citizen of the US and Canada; and John Chapman, 57, James Henderson, 33, and James Kirby, 47, all British. They may be added to the toll of close to 200 aid workers who have been killed.

The seven have become symbolic of the lawless and reckless manner in which Benjamin Netanyahu has prosecuted this war. It is a tipping point. Global public opinion is moving further away from Israel, and many are left disappointed and bewildered by the indiscriminate ferocity of the Israeli war machine.

Where once the world stood with Israel in its moment of anguish, it now stands more in opposition to it, and to the war. The Israeli government has abused the sympathy, support and military backing freely offered after Hamas committed, on 7 October last year, the worst antisemitic atrocities since the Holocaust, murdering 1,200 innocents.

Israel has an inalienable right to defend itself; it does not have the right to do whatever it likes, or to ignore international law. That has been done too often, and too many civilians have been killed; too many families have been uprooted time and again, too many children have been orphaned, and too many babies have starved to death. As the occupying power, and as a nation that sees itself as a civilised democracy, Israel has a duty of care to protect the innocent. It has failed to do so.

The goodwill offered to Israel has been squandered in a most arrogant fashion, and the result is that the world is turning on Israel. Already Israel stands accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice, an extraordinary state of affairs. America, the guarantor of Israeli security, lifted its veto at the United Nations Security Council and called for a ceasefire, much to Mr Netanyahu’s displeasure. The Israeli prime minister has shown a remarkable sense of entitlement; he seems to think the veto belongs to him, with the US ambassador acting as a mere proxy.

Now there has been a further change in tone, and a shift in policy. Joe Biden declares himself “outraged and heartbroken”, and has issued his toughest criticism of Israel yet: “Incidents like yesterday’s simply should not happen. Israel has also not done enough to protect civilians. The US has repeatedly urged Israel to deconflict their military operations against Hamas with humanitarian operations, in order to avoid civilian casualties.”

Rishi Sunak has personally intervened with Mr Netanyahu, and pointedly told him that “far too many aid workers and ordinary civilians have lost their lives in Gaza and the situation is increasingly intolerable”. Justin Trudeau’s Canada has started to restrict arms sales to Israel, and more countries may well follow. So they ought. Such sanctions on Israel have been applied in the past, and have succeeded.

A man as stubborn as Mr Netanyahu will not listen to a polite diplomatic request if it doesn’t suit him. He has lost this war, but cannot begin to accept that he has failed, and thus he has a perverse incentive to extend the war in the pretence that victory is just around the corner.

It is not. The hostages have not been freed. Hamas has not surrendered. Few of its commanders have been eliminated. Another generation of embittered, aggrieved Palestinians will be ready to make war on Israel, for Hamas or some other group. Israel has alienated those Arab governments that sought to establish or retain warmer diplomatic relations. Israel has lost the trust of Western friends.

Mr Netanyahu is deeply unpopular at home – blamed for the intelligence failures that resulted in the mass murder on 7 October, and for his subsequent mistakes. Israel is less secure than it was six months ago.

Despite all that, Mr Netanyahu presses on, as if turning Rafah – the last part of Gaza left standing – into charred rubble constitutes winning, and he can then declare peace with honour, bring the troops home, and Israel will be safe. Plainly, that is a grotesque fantasy. It’s time to stop.

Even this Israeli administration must understand that its security crucially depends on international partnerships. And if those partners now choose to make their support more conditional, that is their right. That does not mean that Israel is just left abandoned, but it does mean that sufficient pressure is applied to make Israel pay attention to what its friends are asking for in return for what has been a series of blank cheques.

It is not tolerable, for example, that British citizens should be at risk of being killed by British munitions. Nor, for that matter, is it tolerable that members of an innocent Palestinian family should become the victims of British arms sales to Israel.

Support for Israel will always be there, but it cannot be completely and automatically unconditional. The least that can be asked is that Israel, as a member of the United Nations, complies with the resolutions of the security council and the instructions of the International Court of Justice. That means no more massacres of innocent civilians or aid workers; a ceasefire now; no ground or aerial assault on Rafah; and full assistance afforded to the shipments of humanitarian aid.

Israel should also stop escalating its attacks on Iran, which are further destabilising the region, risking the lives of American service personnel in the Middle East, and nudging Tehran into an ever closer alliance with Russia, with all that implies for the fate of Ukraine and peace in Europe. The war in Gaza is not some internal Israeli affair – it affects the world.

The moment has come, therefore, to do whatever it takes to force the government of Israel to end its war of destruction and consider what the best, most secure, most internationally guaranteed future for the state of Israel actually looks like. Israel’s prime minister might usefully consider that the best way forward for his country is for someone else to give Israel fresh leadership, and the region new hope.