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Nuance is one of the first casualties of war in Gaza

There are few things less appealing than the tribalism which erupts whenever Israel goes to war

By on Thursday, 31 July 2014

Palestinian children play outside a UN school that has been transformed into a shelter in Jabalia, Gaza (CNS)

Palestinian children play outside a UN school that has been transformed into a shelter in Jabalia, Gaza (CNS)

There are few things less appealing than the tribalism which erupts whenever Israel goes to war. Roughly speaking, if you are Right-wing (especially in America), then Israel is a force for good – it is merely defending itself against an evil, terrorist attacker that would wipe it from the face of the earth. If you are Left-wing (especially in Britain), then Gaza is the world’s biggest open-air prison camp: Hamas’s rockets are simply the Gazans’ desperate response to poverty and the blockade.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a centre ground – one that recognises that there are genuine grievances on both sides. But that’s where a small minority tries to argue it’s case. It’s baffling, frankly, that there aren’t more of us.

First, you have to understand that there is a narrative which most Israelis subscribe to – and it goes something like this: “As Jews, we cannot rely on the world to defend us, because – within living memory – were were nearly annihilated. The world did not save us then, and it will not save us from our enemies now.”

Five years ago, I visited Israel with a group of student journalists. It was shortly after Operation Cast Lead – another war in Gaza – and was the week that Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. (We were taken to his victory party, though it was very low-key because he thought he had lost.)

What struck me most was that, in the aftermath of that war, the narrative was even stronger. Israelis, I realised, seemed to think about the Holocaust almost on a daily basis. They looked at Hamas, and saw the ghost of the Nazi concentration camp guard. This wasn’t their excuse for the war, or a reasoned argument about it. It was just a fact. And once you fully appreciate it, it is not easily dismissed.

Having said that, Israelis do not live in fear every second of every day. I visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot, where air raid sirens frequently sound to warn of incoming rockets. It is very close to the border with Gaza.

But I asked a local man – an Ethiopian Jew, as it happens – what is the greatest worry for you as a resident of here? “The roof of the synagogue needs repairing,” he said. Goodness, I replied. Was it hit by a rocket? “No,” he said, shaking his head. “But when it rains the roof leaks.”

In other words, only a few weeks after a major war nearby, and with Hamas rockets continuing to land, this man was more concerned about a bit of local repair work. He may as well have been talking about potholes.

When the current round of fighting ends, I would be fascinated to ask a Gazan the same question: “What is the greatest worry for you as a local resident?” I suspect the answer would be a little different.

For the rest of Will Heaven’s Notebook, buy this week’s print edition of The Catholic Herald – paper out on Friday. Try our Catholic Herald 6 issues for £6 special appetiser deal.

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