It has been a hard week or so for those of us who pay close attention to the Middle East.
Whether your sympathies usually lean towards the state of Israel or with the Palestinian cause, or towards both, the horrible events taking place in the territory have been difficult to bear. So grotesque is the situation that it’s not been easy to think about much else.
What has made it worse has been the response that we’ve seen on the streets here in the West. The reflexive reaction of so many on the left is to blame Israel for everything and anything that happens. True to form, that’s just what they’re doing now.
It feels necessary to state, though it should surely be obvious, that Hamas is responsible for where we are. Its murderous attacks on Israelis, the killing of more than 1,300 people, including babies, the parading of dead bodies as if they were hunting trophies, the hostage-taking, is savagery on a medieval level. The brutality of these terrorists and the glee that seems to accompany their actions should sicken all of us.
I’ve been struck by how Jewish friends have been left feeling amid all this. The centuries-long history of anti-semitism, pogroms, exile, oppression and, of course, the Holocaust has, in my experience, created a shared mindset among people of that religion. I’ve heard more than one talk in the past of “keeping a packed suitcase by the door” – they may not be speaking literally, but it’s a thing that resides in their head.
Jews have had to flee many times before. They might have to again. It helps to be psychologically prepared.
What a way to have to live, not because of anything you’ve done, of any choice that you’ve made, but simply because of what you are. What a thing to witness the vile assault by Hamas and then see thousands of your fellow Britons take to the streets of London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and elsewhere, chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, which is a call for the total destruction of Israel; to see elements of these crowds brawling with police, video of a Jewish man being chased and beaten by a mob, of protestors in Australia shouting “gas the Jews”. Jewish schools in London have closed over fears for the children’s safety, while others have stepped up security measures.
This is why the state of Israel was created in 1948. Jews needed a land of their own, where they could live together safely and be in a position to defend themselves. But, as Hadley Freeman wrote in the Sunday Times, many of the pro-Palestinian marchers believe that Israel shouldn’t exist at all.
“They see Israelis as ‘colonisers and settlers’. But do you know why they had to settle there? Because they had nowhere to go after the Holocaust achieved what centuries of persecution had failed to do and wiped out most of Europe’s Jews. This is the context: the Jews are there because they needed somewhere safe to live, and now their grandchildren are being killed for it.”
Why do people expect Israel to behave with restraint?
I went into Bute House last week to interview Humza Yousaf. The news was just emerging that Yousaf’s in-laws, the parents of his wife Nadia, had been in Gaza visiting relatives and were trapped there as Israel began its military response to Hamas’s terrorism.
It was clear to me that the first minister was in a state of some agitation – who wouldn’t be? The family only had enough food for two or three days, he told me, and included a four-month-old baby who needed formula milk.
I felt terribly for him, as I feel terribly for those innocent Gazans who have lost their lives to Israel’s reprisals. I worry about what’s coming, and how many more deaths there will be before some kind of peace is re-established.
This is Elizabeth El-Nakla. She is my mother-in-law. A retired nurse from Dundee, Scotland. She, like the vast majority of people in Gaza, has nothing to do with Hamas. She has been told to leave Gaza but, like the rest of the population, is trapped with nowhere to go. pic.twitter.com/D3ZUtnEmyO
— Humza Yousaf (@HumzaYousaf) October 13, 2023
But Israel has a right to defend itself against atrocities. It didn’t start this round of violence. It may have shut off power and water to Gaza – and that is a difficult thing to stomach – but it has said that these will be restored if Hamas releases the hostages. Shouldn’t our expectation be that Hamas does exactly that, to protect the Palestinians it claims to represent?
Why do people expect Israel to behave with restraint in the face of such awful provocation? Why do so many so easily cast aside the imperatives of Jewish history and yet continually refer to Palestinian history as if it’s some kind of moral trump card? Read the quote from Hadley Freeman again.
Ask yourself why Hamas has struck now
You don’t have to like Benjamin Netanyahu and his government – and very few of the Jews I know have any time for him at all – to support Israel’s right to exist. The Middle East peace process has been long and tortuous, and its failure so far is at least as much down to Palestinian intransigence as to Israeli stubbornness.
Israel and previously hostile Arab governments have been normalising relations, which is a threat to the terrorists
Ask yourself why Hamas has struck now. The answer is that Israel and previously hostile Arab governments have been normalising relations, which is a threat to the terrorists’ and their Iranian sponsors’ stated intention to wipe Israel from the map.
If you’re the kind of person who is aware of all this and who still lays all the blame at Israel’s feet, then be aware that you’re one of the reasons Jews feel they have to keep that suitcase by the door.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank, Reform Scotland