Israel’s ill-judged siege of Gaza is doomed to repeat the failures of the past, says Joseph Kelly

Over the past week or so I’ve written very little about the Israel-Gaza war. The history of this conflict is confoundingly complex, and propaganda and misinformation is so embedded in the narrative that it’s all but impossible for anyone to cut through the noise. Despite the pervasiveness of reportage and social media, the world really has no particular sense of what’s happening on the ground, other than that more innocent people are being killed whilst those in positions of power argue over dubious territories and questionable political principles.

Reliable estimates claim that just over 9,000 civilians – 65% of them women and children – have been killed since this terrible war started a month ago. According to the UN that’s already around the same as the number of civilians who’ve been killed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion, and that was almost two years ago. The appalling intensity of this latest conflict, and the viscously brutal way in which it is being carried out has exposed the world to a new magnitude of warfare, in which civilians are not merely collateral damage, but are the weapons with which the war is being fought by both sides.

For all the governing parties involved, there has been an absurd hope that the Israel-Gaza war could be fought quickly and decisively, and with a minimum of civilian casualties. For some inexplicable reason the lessons of war seem never to be learnt; in particular there’s an incredibly misplaced belief that modern hi-tech weaponry makes high loss of life unlikely. One would have thought that the gruelling, protracted campaigns that had to be fought in Afghanistan and Iraq would have taught Western powers that going into war against a determined, highly entrenched and loosely confederated enemy presents one of the most difficult tasks that any large, slow and inflexible force could ever confront.

It wasn’t as if the challenge was unexpected – as at the centre of Hamas/ Palestinian resistance is the “Gaza Metro”, a vast network of at least 300 miles of underground tunnels – some as deep as 70 metres – running under often densely populated areas of the West Bank.

Unlike the notorious Ch Chi tunnels of the Vietnam war, this Gazan infrastructure was no unexpected secret – it’s been under open construction since 2012, when Israel relaxed its embargo on building supplies being shipped into Gaza. Many of these vast tunnel networks now run under schools, hospitals and refugee camps, and fighting a well-equipped enemy in such places is probably the most difficult form of combat any army could face – though a stroll around one of the many regular international arms fairs might lead you to think that there was truly a weapon for every situation.

Avoiding this danger altogether and trying to destroy these tunnels and their occupants by whizzing a drone over them and then obliterating neighbourhoods from the air with deep penetration bombs is all but futile, while the toll on civilians caught below is unbearable. As the Americans learnt to their cost in the Tet Offensive of 1968, an extensive tunnel network has a considerable degree of built in redundancy, and extricating occupants is no simple or rapid business. Israel’s view that it can somehow sweep into Gaza and eliminate the threat of Hamas in with a short, sharp shock is as misjudged as it is dangerous.

The predominant subscript of the Gaza crisis coming through in the media remains one of the need for civilised nations to respond to religious fanaticism, and this largely accounts for the dubious reluctance of western leaders to call for a ceasefire (so far Pope Francis is the only world leader to use the word). For many the hope is that by the time political prevarications have succumbed to voter outrage, Israel will have completed its campaign – Gaza will be a flattened wasteland and Hamas will have gone, after which everyone can get busy bandaging the wounded, building memorials to the dead and chasing the highly lucrative business of rebuilding infrastructures and selling even more weapons in order to hold the ‘peace’.

In terms of governments not learning the lessons of the futility of war, one only has to look back to as recently as 2017, when US-led coalition tried to lever out the Islamic State (ISIS) from the ancient city of Mosul. The UN had warned that 200,000 civilians were trapped in the old western part of the city, and the response from the west? On 25th May 2017 there was a huge leaflet drop calling on the completely trapped civilians to evacuate the Old City ahead of an impending assault by coalition forces. Sound familiar?

By the end of February the US-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force, was streaming into Mosul– and the civilian casualties were rising alarmingly. As in the present Gaza conflict, much was made of the claims that civilian casualties were the result of people being used as ‘human shields’, and that the impact on civilians was being limited according to the international rules of war, which of course it wasn’t. After nine gruelling and bloody months Mosul was reduced to a vast graveyard – more than 10,000 civilians were killed, along with 8,200 military personnel.

Given that more than 9,000 civilians have already been killed in just a month in Gaza, this latest explosion of violence looks set to establish an horrific new low in the sorry litany of human conflicts, and with all the potential to spill over into a much larger and more unpredictable war.

As Pope Francis pointed out in an interview this week with the Italian news programme Tg1, the world is going through a “very dark hour.”

 “One cannot find the ability to reflect clearly and at the darkest hour I will add: one more defeat,” said Francis.

“It has been like this since the last world war, from 1945 until now, one defeat after another, because the wars have not stopped. But the most serious problem still is the arms industry.

“A person who understands investments, who I met in a meeting, told me that today the investments that generate the most income are weapons factories”.

Whilst that will come as no surprise to most Catholics, persuading the broader population that war is no solution to human differences is still a long way off. One only has to look at the population and fields of employment in countries such as the UK and America to see that – despite the horrors of two world wars an endless regional conflicts since – the general populace is still deeply entrenched in empathy for militaristic activities, and the tendency to resort to warfare whenever relations between nations break down.

I’d even go so far as to argue that sadly many of the philosophical and political gains made with such heroic efforts by by peace campaigners across the 1970s and 80s have waned in the face of what appears to be an increasingly intransigent and belligerent society.

When Pope Francis spoke with US President Joe Biden about the Gaza crisis just a few weeks back, Biden told reporters afterwards that: “The pope and I are on the same page. … The pope was, across the board, supportive of what we’re doing.”

Well that wasn’t the view of the Most Rev John Stowe, Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, who also just happens to be the president of Pax Christi USA.

“No, President Biden. Your administration and Francis are not on the same page,” he retorted.

“Francis has consistently rejected war as a fitting tool for building peace. The killing and hostage-taking, the vicious attacks on civilians, the continued siege of Gaza, the increasing violence in the West Bank and the occupation itself illustrate how violence begets violence.

“This war did not start with the Hamas attacks on 7th October and it will not stop with more rounds of violence. Perhaps these latest horrors will convince the world that a concerted effort to address root causes toward a comprehensive just peace is needed, not more weapons and military aid,” said the bishop.

In the 10 years that Francis has been pontiff, the most common word he’s attached to any discussion about war is “defeat”.

He used the word again in his Tg1 interview this week.

“Every war is a defeat. Nothing is solved with war. Nothing. Everything is gained with peace, with dialogue,” said Francis.

“They entered the kibbutzim, took hostages. They killed someone. And then the reaction. The Israelis go to recover those hostages, to save them. In war, one slap provokes another. One strong and the other even stronger, and so it goes on. War is a defeat. I felt it as one more defeat. Two peoples who must live together. With that wise solution: two peoples, two states. The Oslo Accords: two clearly delineated states and Jerusalem with a special status”.

For Francis, who has seen and experienced so much of the dark side of human nature and its impact on the innocent, the argument for peace is utterly self-evident. Sadly, the rest of the world still appears to have a lot of intellectual catching up to do.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian