The international community’s attention in the Middle East nowadays is inevitably focused on military advances of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the failed states of Yemen and Libya, the activities of Islamist extremists everywhere, and the continuing efforts to complete a deal to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Meanwhile, the oldest dispute in the region – the subject of a decadeslong peace process that moves nowhere – continues to fester and worsen in Palestine and Israel.
A report submitted earlier this month by the NGO Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCIP) to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Palestine-Israel conflict’s toll on children in 2014 underscores some of the most damaging consequences of this state of affairs. Its reception also serves as a reminder of why we have made no progress toward peace.
Last year, according to the DCIP report, 561 children were killed – 557 of them Palestinian, most as a result of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during the summer. In addition, almost 3,000 Palestinian children were wounded during that 50-day conflict, with about 1,000 permanently disabled.
The report also details the destruction of schools, the post-conflict mental health problems faced by the young, and the imprisonment of children. According to Ban, the number of Palestinian children killed in 2014 was higher than the numbers of child deaths in Syria and Darfur, and was exceeded only in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number of schools destroyed in Palestinian areas was the highest recorded anywhere.
Not surprisingly, the U.N.’s special representative for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, recommended that Israel and its adversary in Gaza, Hamas (which has a grim record, too), should be placed on the United Nations’ annual list of states and groups that gravely violate children’s rights. But the United States put pressure on the secretary-general to leave Israel off the list; Ban acceded, and decided to leave Hamas off the list as well.
Israel, frequently lauded in the U.S. Congress as America’s most dependable ally in the region, is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is difficult to imagine that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who has a fine record on human-rights protection, had her heart in lobbying to whitewash Israel.
Many Europeans will conclude that this is further evidence (if any was needed) that the U.S. will always – and disastrously – protect Israel from the international and reputational consequences of its actions. But this is not enough.
Israel and Palestine are trapped in a bloody cul-de-sac, which is catastrophic for Palestinians and increasingly dangerous for Israel’s prospects. As a group of eminent European politicians recently noted, a two-state peace deal could be lost, leaving Israel to face a stark choice: become a non-Jewish democracy or a Jewish non-democracy.
This group, which included former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, European Union commissioners and senior diplomats, sent a set of proposals to EU leaders in May. Europe, according to the group, should offset America’s evident withdrawal from the diplomatic process and play a serious role in reviving prospects for peace.
At the heart of the proposals is EU support in the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that “either (1) calls for new negotiations and sets a mandatory deadline for the completion of an agreement to establish a two-state solution; or (2) creates a greater equivalence between the Israeli and Palestinian parties, including through recognition of a Palestinian state and strong support for Palestine accession to international treaties and organizations.”
The call for such a resolution reflects the impact of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obnoxious behavior and the extremist views of several of his ministers, which have increased European countries’ sympathy for Palestinian statehood. There is also a growing clamor in the EU to enforce the correct labeling of products made in Israel’s West Bank settlements. These products are exported to Europe under bilateral trade agreements between the EU and Israel. But the settlements are not part of Israel under international law. Sooner or later, someone will take EU countries to court over this.
The response to these sorts of proposals from Israel’s government has been depressingly predictable. First, Israeli spokesmen accuse Europeans of anti-Semitism – that hateful blot on Europe’s history.
But there is a real danger in conflating criticism of Israeli intransigence and extremism with anti-Semitism. To say that it is anti-Semitic to condemn the killing and maiming of children in Gaza is to make a mockery of acts that really are anti-Semitic and that deserve to be condemned by every civilized person.
Second, Israel repeats its claim that it has no potential partner for peace. In fact, Israel is in deep denial, which was reflected in Netanyahu’s contemptuous rejection of a two-state solution in his successful re-election campaign. The fact is that every situation in which a dominant power confronts those it condemns as terrorists sooner or later ends in negotiations. In Algeria, South Africa and Northern Ireland, those in power invariably claimed that they had no partner for peace – until they made peace with the very “terrorists” they had spent decades vilifying.
To put off talking makes violence increasingly difficult to end, which means that the sentiments that violence breeds become increasingly difficult to change. To secure peace, Israel will one day have to talk seriously to Hamas as well as Fatah and the PLO. There is no alternative.
Until that happens, the children – the overwhelming majority of them Palestinian – will continue to suffer. How long will the rest of the world look the other way?
Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former European Union commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 30, 2015, on page 7.