Shalom and Salaam seem the hardest words to say

As the bloodshed increases and the desperation intensifies, it is time to ask what is the ultimate aim of the bombardment of Gaza, and how will the international community stop each side from harming the innocents of the other.

As the Israeli-Palestinian crisis deepens and the number of dead rises, two urgent questions need to be answered. What is the ultimate aim of Israel’s overwhelming bombardment of people it has caged in effectively the world’s largest open air prison – Gaza - and if the aim is the destruction of its democratically elected Hamas leadership, who will assume control of that parlous strip of land?

Few issues incite such division as this volatile part of the Middle East. Palestinians themselves are divided between Hamas and Fatah, Jews and Arabs are divided, Christians Jews and Muslims are divided, and politicians the word over tend to tread very carefully for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim. Even within countries such as the United States which for inexplicable reasons seems tied to all things Israeli, populations are divided.

Within Israelitself it is not only the Israeli Jews and substantial Israeli Arab populations that do not see eye to eye. Young Israeli Jews are in prison for refusing compulsory military conscription because they oppose Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – like 19-yr-old Omer Goldman, whose former MOSSAD director father now refuses to acknowledge her.

No person nor state should be expected to tolerate the sort of rocket fire that Hamas has inflicted on Israel’s southern towns, but to use that as the excuse for the collective punishment by indiscriminate slaughter of inhabitants of Gaza should not be tolerated either.

Of the countless cliché’s that come to mind, two highly relevant to both parties in this disaster must be ‘violence begets violence’ and ‘two wrongs do not make a right’.

As Israeli politicians announce their Jewish constituents have been united by the fear of Hamas rockets, so too have Gazans found a new unity in the fight against Israel which they blame for the slow starvation of their 1.5 million fenced in on the Gaza strip.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is quite right to assert that her people are sick and tired of hearing the air-raid sirens warning of incoming rockets. Her argument flounders however when she and fellow politicians hold Israel has a right to respond by use of violence because that violence is in the form of wholesale attacks on the innocents in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It is impossible to ‘shock and awe’ Gaza without hitting disproportionately those amongst the 85% who live in refugee camps more than half of whom are children.

Ms Livni and others seem incapable of grasping the concept that if Israelis are permitted the luxury of violent reactions, then surely that is something Palestinians as fellow human beings are also are entitled to.

Israel does feel threatened, but it doesn’t take much brain power to see that years of repression of Palestinians through occupation, blockades of essential goods and fencing them in has fuelled a sense of hatred and resistance. Hamas, and for that matter Hizbollah did not exist until the early 1980s. Hamas surely draws support from a concept of action even if it results in a faster death over a slow death by blockade.

Desperation – such as there currently being no fresh drinking water in Gazaand no possible escape – brings out the she-lion instincts in humans, or to add another cliché, desperate people do desperate things. Pummeling such people into submission has never worked permanently and will not work this time.

Instead what is likely to happen is a new version of the disastrous 2006 offensive on Hizbollah. Israelhad to withdraw and Hizbollah was widely seen as victorious, not because it had defeated Israelper-se, but it had managed to stand up to the region’s military Goliath without being destroyed. Hamas remains on the path to a similar ‘victory’.

Now having unleashed the dogs of war on Gaza, Israel must be wondering what to do next.

Perhaps its main backer, the United States, can offer some lessons from its offensives in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan.

All the military might in the world becomes a problem rather than a solution unless fighting an equally matched opponent, or being hellbent on total destruction of an enemy nation.

The Cold War nuclear standoff between the USA and the Soviet Union remains the gold standard on the deterrence effect of equally matched opponents. The USA didn’t even dare to use its nuclear arsenal on North Korea nor North Vietnam as they were essentially Soviet proxies and a nuclear strike would result in nukes flying back across the Atlantic.

In Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan the world’s military superpower has been drawn in to guerrilla warfare where the locals had/have the advantage.

Israel, having run out of strategic military targets in Gaza faces the same conundrum – what to do with its vastly superior weaponry, let alone its nukes. Israelcould hardly relish the concept of being bogged down in the labyrinth of enemy refugee camps in a ground offensive to destroy Hamas leadership. Its soldiers were outsmarted in Lebanon and have already shot four of their own in Gaza.

So back to the original questions.

If Israelmeasures success in the bombardment of Gazans into submission it will surely succeed in an own goal by further emboldening the so-called ‘Arab Street’.

Inadvertently Israel would assist in the return to power of the hard line regime in its most powerful regional enemy, Iran. President Ahmadinejad, up for re-election in June, is currently looking for every reason possible to enhance his popularity through a nationalistic cry for nuclear capability. Renewed ‘evidence’ of Israel’s oppressor status would play right into Ahmadinejad’s hands.

And the other issue: in the unlikely event of the total defeat of Hamas, what then?

Israel will not want to re-occupy Gazabut what would be its logical exit point? It is difficult indeed to imagine Gazans welcoming Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the saviour should Israelsucceed in clearing out Hamas and hand over the territory. The problem of course being that Palestinians are split in two and Palestinian Authority and/or Fatah arriving in Gaza essentially on the back of an Israeli tank could result in civil war.

The Middle-East has often been referred to as a powder keg. Such a description seems strangely benign as the shelling, the fear, the tiny white shrouds held by grieving parents, the utter despair, the bloodshed, the unthinkable destruction, and the calculation of it all fill television, radio and newspaper reports.

Shalom and Salaam are the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace. They are dramatically under-utilised and await a true commitment to an over-used ‘s’ word, ‘solution’. A solution requires good will on both sides to achieve a cessation of Hamas rocket fire on innocent Israelis, but also of Israeli oppression of innocent Palestinians.

Like every other world problem it seems this too will confront Barack Obama in little over a week. It is to be hoped there is something left to salvage – another underutilised ‘s’ word.