If Israel’s war on Gaza was a rugby match, it would be like the All Blacks playing a small provincial team from one of the poorer Pacific Islands – after kidnapping them, rendering them to New Zealand, and forcing them to play at gunpoint. This small, amateur provincial team would have had no equipment or fields to train on for the past few years, the players would be malnourished, and they would have no coaches, no reserves, no uniforms, and no team doctor. During the enforced game, the All Blacks would be allowed sixteen players, while the provincial team would be allowed five. The referee and linesmen would all be former All Black coaches, and the match would be played in Auckland: while there would be a small number of Pacific supporters in the crowd, most of the people watching would be cheering on the All Blacks. The referee would allow the All Blacks to spear tackle the opposition players and ruck them viciously when they were on the ground; and the all-too frequent punches thrown by All Black players would be overlooked. However, if one of the unfortunate provincial Islander players objected to the brutality and punched an All Black in retaliation, all sixteen All Blacks would wade in and beat the provincial players to a bloody pulp. The referee would then send off the provincial player who threw the first punch. The All Black supporters would cheer the match despite its gross unevenness, and would happily assert that its one-sided outcome was an important victory nonetheless. The other test-playing nations would applaud the All Black’s victory and defend the right of their players to fight back against uncivilized players from a lesser nation. The nation’s sports writers would also focus their analysis on the ill-disciplined behavior of the opposition, highlighting their propensity to hit out when roughed up a little, and calling on the IRB to ban them all from competitive rugby for life.
Of course, the war in Gaza is much more uneven than this absurd scenario. Israel is a nuclear armed state, and has one of the most powerful military machines in the world; it has a military advantage over Gaza that’s probably more like several hundred to one. The Israeli air force has complete air superiority and can bomb anywhere in Gaza, at any time, and as many times as they like – all with powerful laser-guided bombs of immense destructive power. They could in fact, drop a nuclear bomb on them if they wanted to (this is how secure Israel is in contrast to Gaza). They also have a massive, highly trained and well equipped military force kitted out with every bit of modern weaponry. And they surround Gaza on all sides, able to attack from all directions at once. In addition, they have had the tiny enclave of Gaza under blockade for years in order to prevent any major importation of weapons, and have a state-of-the-art missile defence system. Externally, Israel is backed by the United States, the most powerful military in the world, a nation which provides them with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and economic assistance every year. Partly as a consequence, most states in Europe and the world tacitly and openly support Israel’s actions against Gaza. Israel also has a global network of publicists and media officers to influence public opinion and shape global coverage of the conflict. Perhaps most importantly, previous wars have shown that Israel can smash and pulverize the tiny, impoverished territory of Gaza without any serious political or economic consequences; they can get away with any amount of disproportionate violence against the Palestinians.
In contrast, facing one of the most powerful militaries in the world, a few thousand Gaza militants have some assault rifles, some hand-guns, some improvised explosive devices, and thousands of homemade rockets without any guidance systems. They have no air force, no navy, no anti-aircraft systems, no artillery, no tanks or mechanized armor, and probably not even an effective military communication system. They are trapped in a densely populated piece of land, surrounded on all sides, unable to conduct training exercises and under constant surveillance from drones and satellites. They have a comparatively weak media network, few powerful allies, and little real sympathy from Western governments. No one calls for the Responsibility to Protect or intervention by NATO when Israeli forces start to kill Palestinian civilians, or when Palestinians are not even allowed to flee the besieged enclave from the fighting but are turned back at the border.
If this asymmetry was not enough, Gaza, along with the rest of Palestine, has endured a highly restrictive boycott and blockade for years which has sapped the economic base and morale of the population. They have watched the continual building of settlements and land encroachment on their territories, and endured a set of laws and security procedures that international jurists have said amounts to an apartheid system (see my earlier blog on ‘If Wales was the West Bank’). More importantly, they have watched while the ‘peace process’ fails to deliver even the tiniest positive benefit year after year, all while settlements on Palestinian land continue to expand. Far from a ‘war’ between two relatively equal forces then, this is in fact, a smashing, a crushing, a mighty pulverizing of one of the tiniest nations in the world by one of the strongest. But then again, it’s always been this way in Palestine, boys with slingshots firing their stones at tanks and helicopters, or homemade rockets fired off against guided missiles, bombers and drones. The Palestinians are fighting a behemoth, a giant military and political machine which has sucked out all light and hope for a Palestinian future, but which continues to insist that it is the one under attack, it is the victim of these poorest of the poor.
In this situation of extreme asymmetry, there is a compelling moral argument that the one with the preponderance of power, the one who holds virtually all the cards and who can most afford to take a risk because they have the means to defend themselves and to re-engage in devastating attack any time they like, carries the greatest responsibility to break the cycle of violence. Israel has the real power to end this conflict, to take a small risk and attempt diplomacy and dialogue rather than persisting with military force. Not only that, it’s directly in their interests to do so; in reality, they cannot hope to stop Palestinian militant attacks by might alone, no matter how many bombs they drop. Otherwise, in a few years’ time, when there’s another forthcoming election or a newly inaugurated American president, we’ll all be watching Israel trying to smash Gaza all over again.