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How do you explain to a dying child from Gaza that this is within the accepted limits of Israeli aggression?

Binyamin Netanyahu’s only strategy, facilitated by Joe Biden and others, is to unleash the army and pummel Gaza in the hope that it will shore up domestic support

Did those who have masterminded the Israeli assault on Gaza ever sit down and decide what number of deaths would be acceptable? 10,000? 20,000? 33,000+? Has Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu considered how long the assault should go on in order to prolong his career? Is US president Joe Biden attuned to the hollowness of his assertion of being “heartbroken and outraged” by the recent killing of seven aid workers while his US facilitates the continuing horrors?

As things stand there is still a planned ground offensive in Rafah by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). In her 2010 book Broken Promises, Broken Dreams, the physician and film-maker Alice Rothchild included a chapter on visiting Rafah in 2005. It amounted to a “painful confrontation between official explanations, intellectual understanding and the power of brutal emotional insight”. Her observations have an ongoing relevance, especially when it comes to what is deemed by Israel to be an “absolute military necessity”.

Human Rights Watch estimated that between 2000 and 2004, the IDF demolished 1,600 homes in Rafah, leaving 16,000 people homeless, and that these actions were “based on the assumption that every Palestinian is a potential suicide bomber and every home a potential base for attack”. The dominant IDF narrative to justify this destruction was the need to obliterate smuggling tunnels.

Patterns of response to such controversies have been consistent over the decades; UN resolutions, US abstentions or vetoes, the continuance of billions of dollars of military financing and a reluctance to disturb European-Israel trade agreements. Moral outrage is extraordinarily selective, even in the face of testimony from those working amid the devastation, including British surgeon professor Nick Maynard, who has worked in Gaza for 15 years and recently gave a presentation on what he witnessed to the UN. He also spoke on RTÉ radio about the experiences of trying to treat children in the Al-Aqsa hospital in Gaza and his words deserve to be quoted extensively: “One memory that will haunt me to the day I die is that of an eight-year-old little girl that came in with severe burns from a bomb attacking one of the camps near the hospital. Her burns were so severe that we knew she would not survive ... the burns on her face were so bad that you could see the bones of her face. We knew that these were fatal burns but she was still alive and our priority was to allow her to die peacefully and with some dignity, but we were not able to do that sadly ... we had run out of morphine so there was no strong pain relief at all that we could give her. So we could not help her pain and her screams will haunt me forever more. What made it worse was that not only did she die in agony but there was also nowhere for her to die in private. The hospital was so crowded that she ended up on the floor of the Emergency Room in a corner. So she died in public and in agony.”


That scene should be haunting many others. It begs two other questions, also asked by Rothchild: “Are there no accepted limits to Israeli military aggression? How do you explain this to a child from Gaza?” Since its foundation in 1948, the centrality of the IDF to Israel has been paramount and military service has paved a path to power for numerous of its leading politicians, including Netanyahu. His long career has also been facilitated by the complexity of Israeli politics and the alliances of what political scientists describe as “nationalist right”, “radical right” and “soft right”.

The Israeli journalist Aluf Benn characterised Netanyahu in 2016 as one who “considered the Arab-Israeli conflict a perpetual fact of life that would be managed but would never be resolved”. He has a history of reckless provocation and scandal, including indictments on charges of bribery and fraud, and is a master media manipulator. In tandem, US political leaders have continually referenced the “extraordinary friendship” between the two countries, amounting to an “unbreakable bond”.

Any appreciation of Israel’s reaction to the horrific Hamas attack in October last year must take account of Israel’s national psyche, but also Netanyahu’s egregious long-term strategy of shoring up domestic support by attacking Gaza.

Straddling both the Israeli and US dimensions, the perspectives of American-born Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg, author of the Unmaking of Israel (2012), are particularly pertinent. He has highlighted Netanyahu’s reliance on a “contradictory tone of perpetual fear and over confidence”, without any thought-out strategy beyond the hope that “pummelling Gaza would restore quiet”. As Gorenberg noted sadly and ironically in 2014, for Netanyahu, “It’s all so simple, just unleash the army”, amounting to a determination, now facilitated by too many others, to appeal “to our trauma, but not to our reason”.