Arriving in Tel Aviv on a visit to Israel in 2019, my first impressions were of a modern, dynamic city, with beautiful beaches and fantastic restaurants.
On the second day, we travelled south and our tour guide soon announced that we were entering the “22nd Zone”. I thought this was just a bland administrative name for the district we were driving through, and paid little attention until she started explaining the procedures we should follow to evacuate the coach if sirens began to sound.
Then the penny dropped: it wasn’t the 22nd Zone but the “20 Second Zone”, the area of Israel where you have just 20 seconds to find shelter in the event of a rocket attack. Soon we passed through the “15 Second Zone” and then, near the border with Gaza, we arrived at a community within the “5 Second Zone”.
Every house in the village has a reinforced “safe room”; a cubic, flat-roofed concrete extension to the ground floor. Bomb shelters line the streets and playgrounds. The football field has a shelter at each end, because five seconds is not long enough to run the length of the pitch to take cover. Even the nursery school is encased inside a reinforced concrete shell; five seconds is not enough time to get babies to safety, so the bomb shelter has been built around the babies.
This was 2019. A “quiet” period. Residents told us that “only” 600 rockets had been fired at southern Israel so far that year, not including the drones that regularly cross the border to set fire to their crops or the threat of armed terrorists popping up from terror tunnels in the middle of the community ready to gun down women and children. We saw the exit of one of these terror tunnels which had been found by Israel’s army at the entrance of the village.
This is how Israelis live. Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 until now, the country has been surrounded by neighbouring regimes seeking her destruction. It is hard to imagine having to live with that threat every day, especially when the Holocaust – in which the Jewish people very nearly were exterminated – is still within living memory.
The reporting of the most recent conflict has been noticeably one-sided. Media reports mention the number of strikes on Gaza by Israel, the number of Palestinian casualties and the desperate conditions within the enclave, and these are important and valid points for news coverage. But they often fail to mention the more than 3,700 rockets that have been fired at Israel, with the sole purpose of killing Israeli civilians.
When attacks on Israel are mentioned in the press, there is often an attempt to draw an equivalence between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, an equivalence which just doesn’t stand up to moral or legal scrutiny.
Israel is a sovereign nation recognised by international law and, like the UK, a liberal democracy – the only one in the Middle East, where women, LGBT+ people and minorities have full and equal rights.
Hamas is a terrorist organisation, designated as such by the UK, EU and US, and run by criminals who use their own women and children as human shields. Hamas’s only aim is to kill Jews and destroy the State of Israel. Just last week, it released an instructional video, showing its supporters how to kill Jews, and even demonstrating which artery the “martyrs” should sever.
Hamas leaders care nothing for their own people either. Instead of using foreign aid donated by the international community to build Gaza’s economy or strengthen its health care system, they use these resources to manufacture rockets, build underground attack tunnels and train suicide bombers.
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There is no moral equivalence between a terrorist organisation and a sovereign state forced to defend itself from it. Hamas deliberately targets civilians, a war crime under international law.
In contrast, the IDF only strikes targets known to be used in Hamas’s terrorist activity and makes enormous efforts to avoid civilian casualties. These include giving warnings of attacks, sending SMS messages to all the occupants of a building to tell them to evacuate and even aborting strikes when intelligence suggests children may be present. Sky News Arabia recently broadcast a recording of an unknown Gazan man at a Hamas-linked building refusing to heed the warning of an Arabic-speaking Israeli to evacuate their own family and saying they wanted to be killed by Israel to “reveal its cruelty”.
Taking military action in self-defence is entirely legal under international law. We would expect no less of our own government and armed forces if 70 per cent of UK citizens were running to bomb shelters under missile fire every day.
Every civilian death is a tragedy. If it wasn’t for Israel’s Iron Dome – a missile defence system that shoots the majority of Hamas’s missiles out of the sky – Israel’s casualties would be far higher. But the Hamas missiles that evade Israeli defences kill and maim, as do those that fall short and land on Palestinians in Gaza. But the moral evil of launching rockets on civilians is not diminished by the proportion of attacks that miss their target.
The situation for Palestinians in Gaza is appalling and we should all be horrified by the loss of innocent lives and the hopelessness of the situation. Gaza’s long-term prosperity must be addressed and we should have tremendous sympathy for the Palestinians who have been used as pawns and human shields by their leaders, often serving the purposes of Iran.
But reporting should avoid hypocrisy. When we in the UK faced an existential threat during the Second World War, we stopped at nothing to defeat our enemy. In our response to more recent terror attacks, which we face with far less frequency and intensity than Israel, we have conducted air and ground wars in lands far from home, sadly with significant loss of life.
The UK, like every sovereign nation, has the right to defend itself. When we deny Israel that right in our media, on social media and in the international community, we are not only being hypocritical but also playing into the hands of a terrorist organisation. Viewing the Western coverage of this conflict, Hamas leaders must rub their hands in glee at the sympathy they have recruited to their cause, boosting their confidence to continue their attacks.
The reasons for this conflict are as old as they are complex. But if we want to stand up to terrorism both here and abroad, we must stand up for legitimate measures taken to defeat it.
Miriam Cates is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penistone and Stocksbridge.