Leaders | Israel’s ground offensive

To save Palestinian lives in Gaza, open the crossing into Egypt

Antony Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy urgently needs to succeed. Here is how

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Tel Aviv
image: Reuters

The ground war has yet to begin, and already casualties are mounting. Gaza’s 2m people are kettled inside a space that is more densely populated than London. As we write, the count from inside the enclave is over 2,500 killed and almost 10,000 wounded. Because the median age in Gaza is just 18, many of the dead are children. Israel is determined to destroy Hamas. Urban warfare is bloody and intense. Something terrible is about to unfold.

That is why, starting with the UN secretary-general, the search is on for ways to save lives—both inside Gaza and by preventing the fighting from spreading to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, is travelling tirelessly across the region. His boss, Joe Biden, may soon visit Jerusalem. Amid this frenzied diplomacy, governments, aid agencies and Palestinian sympathisers are issuing desperate pleas for Israeli restraint.

That aim is noble and just. Unfortunately, calls on Israel to stay its hand are being undermined by well-meant naivety and by double standards. As Mr Blinken is demonstrating, the only realistic path to protecting the innocent lies in hard-headed negotiations, and nowhere more so than over plans to open up the crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Mr Blinken’s first job is to set expectations of well-meaning people. They often assume that killing civilians must always be against international law. However, Hamas terrorists have just demonstrated the gravity of the threat they pose by murdering 1,400 Israelis. In response, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) can lawfully make its country safe by destroying Hamas weapons, fortifications and fighters. Because the land beneath Gaza City is honeycombed by Hamas tunnels, a ground offensive is needed. The awful fact that many civilians will die, even if Israel tries to protect them, is not collective punishment of the Palestinians, but the ugly face of urban warfare.

Outsiders are entitled to ask Israel to allow medical supplies, food and water into Gaza. There is room for argument about what counts as proportionate force and whether Israeli warnings to civilians are adequate. In the past, Israeli action has sometimes been excessive because the IDF has wanted to demonstrate that violence does not pay; and in recent days the defence minister has stooped to calling Hamas terrorists “human animals”. All too often, however, when people place demands on Israel’s conduct they betray double standards—because they do not take account of Hamas’s tactic of putting Palestinians in harm’s way.

In the 16 years that it has run Gaza, the group has not sought to help people prosper, but to strengthen its grip on power and to recruit and arm its militants. It does not protect Gazans in war, but uses their bodies as living armour. In the past it has exploited mosques, schools and hospitals to stash arms and conceal command posts. On October 13th Israel warned northern Gazans to flee ahead of its invasion. Hamas did not help them evacuate or attempt to win them safe passage to the south by releasing the 199 Israeli hostages it is holding. Instead it tried to manipulate them so that they would stay put in the line of fire. It knows that the toll of dead Palestinian women and children will create an international outcry.

How, then, to save innocent lives? Part of the answer is to appeal to Israel’s self-interest. Destroying Hamas would be within the laws of war, but if the cost of obliterating it is the death of many innocent civilians, the harm to Israel’s reputation will rapidly climb. In addition, the bloodier the fighting in Gaza, the more likely Hizbullah will attack in earnest from its bases in Lebanon. Israel does not want a second front.

Another part of the answer is to appeal to Israel’s values. Mr Blinken put it well when he echoed the sentiments of his president in Israel at the end of last week. “How Israel does this matters,” he said, standing beside Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. “We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard.”

The immediate task is to save lives by persuading Israel to allow Egypt to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza with the Sinai peninsula. The hundreds of thousands of people moving south of the Wadi Gaza, a boundary set by Israel, will need food, shelter and medical aid on a huge scale. Supplies are being stockpiled on the Egyptian side, waiting to be allowed across into Gaza. Talks are focused on letting dual passport holders and aid workers out of Gaza as the aid goes in. A deal here is urgently needed.

That is unlikely to be enough. To save as many lives as possible, Egypt should also open the Rafah crossing to Palestinians wanting to flee temporarily from Gaza. It is easy to find reasons to object to such a plan. Palestinians understandably fear that they may never be allowed home. The precedent for that is on display in decades-old “temporary” refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. For its part, Egypt would not like to be seen to connive in emptying Gaza. It also fears that permanent camps could breed Islamist terrorism that aggravate instability in the Sinai, or blow back into the rest of the country. If, years from now, camps become bases for attacking Israel, they might even poison relations between Egypt and Israel, a cornerstone of Middle East security.

To guard against all of those things, Israel, America, Egypt and well-meaning Arab states, including those who have signed up to the Abraham accords—and Saudi Arabia, which may one day do so—should make a formal guarantee, underwritten by the United States, that the flight into the Sinai would be temporary. Egypt, which is in economic difficulties, may be more amenable if Arab states were to offer it relief on its debts. America could grease the wheels.

We do not underestimate how hard such an initiative would be to pull off. In the old Middle East the very idea would have been unthinkable. But when Hamas started to massacre Israelis, that world was lost. A new Middle East is up for grabs and Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and the forces of disorder intend to claim it. What better way to deny them than by a joint plan to save Palestinian lives?

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