Europe has a duty to Gaza

The tragedy of the centenary we commemorate this week is that it falls as some of the most brutal and merciless wars of those same hundred years are raging. What characterises contemporary wars above all – in Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic – is that the main victims are civilians, many of them utterly innocent children. Furthermore their deaths and injuries cannot be dismissed as unintended consequences of war. Some are deliberate.

Attacks on Belgian and French civilians, including children, by Germany’s invading army in August 1914 shocked the public and politicians in Britain and elsewhere into intervening, and many individual men into enlisting – so much so that conscription in Britain was not introduced until 1916. Among those appalled by the attacks on civilians was my mother, Vera Brittain, who was to become the author of Testament of Youth, a remarkable memoir of the war. Her childhood dream had been to go to Oxford University and become a writer. But the suffering of civilians and the mounting toll of soldiers compelled her to abandon that dream and sign on as a volunteer nurse in military hospitals in England, Malta and France.

Reports of civilian and soldier deaths in 1914 were carried in Britain by local as well as national newspapers. But today’s television images of dead babies, terrified children, destroyed homes in ruined streets, while evoking outrage, also have a numbing effect: so much horror, so much violence that the traditional distinctions between civilians and soldiers, originating in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s concept of a “just war” seem irrelevant.

The first world war was when these laws of war and the concept of a clear moral distinction between soldier and civilian deaths began to erode, and that erosion has continued through the past century. In Gaza today each side blames the other for the loss of civilian life. Identifying who is mainly responsible in Gaza might well be a key outcome of investigations by the international criminal court, but that will not resolve the immediate crisis. Barack Obama has now stated more forcefully than before his concerns about Israel’s attacks on UN-protected schools repeatedly identified by the UN as a safe haven for terrified and displaced Gaza civilians. Israel blames Hamas for launching rockets from nearby areas. But Hamas espouses terrorism. Israel, a democracy, is rightly held to a higher standard.

Nato allies habitually wait for a US initiative in an international crisis with military implications. But in Gaza, more is needed. European leaders must insist on a ceasefire followed by international negotiations. The political wing of Hamas, as well as Iran and Qatar, must be brought into any such negotiation.

The EU, as the main financier of the Palestinian Authority, is in a position to influence the PLO and to work with the Arab League on a settlement. The US remains Israel’s essential ally, but as a mediator is hobbled by the dependence of its legislators on politically motivated funding. If we are not to see endemic conflict leading to disaster for both the Palestinian territories and Israel, the EU must find its voice.

The chaos in the Middle East and much of Africa is the unwanted offspring of the first world war. A Europe of empires – Ottoman, Hapsburg, Russian – collapsed and a new German empire was foiled. After the war, senior politicians imposed their own map on Europe and the Middle East based on the interests of the victors. That map will have to be redrawn. Without an international understanding, new empires lurking in the wings could assert themselves, resurrecting again the threats that my mother’s generation worked so hard to lay to rest.

Shirley Williams is former Lib Dem leader in the House of Lords.

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