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If Israel succeeds in Gaza, it will drag the West down with it

Israel is the child of the very international order it is now helping to destroy – it is cutting the connective tissue that has joined it to western values

In 1991, the Israeli writer Ari Shavit, who was then 34, reported for his annual stint as a reserve soldier. When told that he was to serve as a jailer in a Gaza detention camp, Shavit considered refusing. He decided instead to write about what he saw.

What he wrote, in Hebrew, was a calm, clear essay published first in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and then, in an English translation, in the New York Review of Books. He described how “Palestinian prisoners are assigned to scrub the Israeli soldiers’ toilets three or four times a day”. How his fellow guards grumbled “that the place resembles a concentration camp”.

How “on your way from the tent to the shower, you sometimes hear horrible screams”. How children of 15 or 16 were snatched from Gaza city at night and taken into the camp to be beaten and “broken” until they gave up names of their friends who would in turn be snatched the next night. How even one of his colleagues “who owns a plant in the occupied territories, can’t believe his eyes. Have we come to this? he asks”.

Shavit was and remains, as he explained in his brilliant book, My Promised Land, a passionately committed Zionist – his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, was a leading figure in the creation of the Zionist project.


But looking down on Gaza from the prison watchtower, Shavit reflected: “Gaza is a city with no hope, no cure. It is the city of the people whose houses and villages we took in 1948 and whose place of refuge we conquered in 1967. It is the city of those whom we exploited during the long decades of occupation, denying them human rights and civil rights and national rights . . . It is the epitome of the absurdity of occupation. It is futile occupation. It is brutal occupation. It corrodes our very existence and it erodes the legitimacy of our existence . . . if we are to have such a prison, we must betray ourselves. We must betray everything we were to be and everything we are to be.”

What Shavit was pointing out was that Israel faced a kind of existential threat that was not the obvious one posed by those who want to wipe it off the face of the earth. It was the one it is now bringing to a grim fulfilment: the obliteration of a humane project by the brutal logic of occupation.

The children who were being beaten and broken and humiliated in that Gaza camp would be, if they are still alive, middle-aged men now. It’s a fair bet that some of them helped organise the atrocious assaults on Israeli civilians of October 7th last.

Anyone who cared to look down from those watchtowers with clear eyes in 1991 could have seen this future; not just the appalling cruelty that was being incubated in Gaza but the way Israel would be led deeper and deeper into an abyss of self-betrayal.

The question defenders of Israel’s actions always ask its critics is: why are you so obsessed with us? Where were your mass demonstrations when Assad and Putin were wiping out Aleppo? Why do you not give a damn about the catastrophic violence now raging in Sudan? Why is Israel held to a higher standard?

But there is an obvious answer; Israel does not claim to be like Assad or like the mass murderers and rapists who are fighting for control of Sudan. It is held to a higher standard because the higher standard – democracy, human rights, respect for the rule of law – is the one it claims for itself. It is, in Shavit’s words, “everything we were to be”.

And it is that self-image that has justified the West’s support for Israel. Which is why tolerance for its mass slaughter of children and women in Gaza doesn’t just corrode the legitimacy of Israel’s own existence. It corrodes the legitimacy of the West’s self-definition as a bastion of human rights and respect for law.

The irony of Israel’s flagrant contempt for the United Nations is that Israel was created by the UN. It was the UN that ended the British Mandate in Palestine and partitioned its territory between putative Jewish and Arab states. Israel is the child of the very international order it is now helping to destroy. It is systematically cutting the connective tissue that has joined it, however problematically, to western values – and thus to its own allies.

Why would it do this? Unspeakable acts spring from unspeakable motives. There are two clear reasons for the destruction of Gaza: vengeance and ethnic cleansing. Neither can be articulated because both are crimes.

And, though both are grotesque, they are in fact contradictory. Collective punishment assumes that Palestinians will “learn their lesson” from these horrors and accept the immutability of their condition. Ethnic cleansing assumes, on the contrary, that Palestinians can be made to disappear.

The founding father of Israel, David Ben Gurion, asserted in 1938 that “compulsory transfer [of the Palestinian population to Arab countries] will clear for us vast territories”. The pragmatic acceptance of partition a decade later did not dispel that dream of a Greater Israel with no Arabs.

The systematic destruction of Gaza and the starvation of its population has a purpose; to make life so intolerable that Palestinians will have to leave. For the messianic zealots now in power in Israel, the West Bank will be next.

But even if this mass expulsion were possible (and it runs up against the reality that Egypt and Jordan will not take in five million Palestinian refugees), the Israel that accomplished it could no longer be part of “the West”. This is not just because it would have had to abandon all pretence at being a liberal democracy. It is because it would have dragged “the West” down with it. There can be no meaningful idea of a “democratic world” distinguished from a world of brutal autocracies if those democracies collude in the elimination of an entire people.