Israel is clear about its intentions in Gaza – world leaders cannot plead ignorance of what is coming

Owen Jones

The UN is warning of a ‘risk of genocide’ against Palestinians. Future pleas of ‘If I knew then what I know now’ will not cut it

Tue 24 Oct 2023 by

Israeli army vehicles on a road close to the southern Israeli city of Sderot, 23 October 2023. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

If I knew then what I know now. For many of the guilty men and women who plunged Iraq into blood and chaos, this became something of a stock phrase. When, in 2004, the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, was asked if he would still have supported the British government’s motion backing the war – only 16 Conservative MPs rebelled a year earlier – he replied: “If I knew then what I know now, that would have caused a difficulty. I couldn’t have voted for that resolution.” “If I knew then what I know now, I would not have voted that way,” protested Hillary Clinton during her doomed first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. “If I knew then what I knew now, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” said Labour’s then deputy leader, Harriet Harman, a few weeks later.

Prepare yourself for the revival of this phrase. As the calamity of Israel’s onslaught against Gaza becomes apparent, those who cheered it on will panic about reputational damage and plead their earlier ignorance. Do not let them get away with it this time.

The claim was nonsense even in the context of the Iraq cataclysm. As the Chilcot inquiry later concluded, Blair was warned that an invasion “would increase the threat from al-Qaida” and other groups. As a result, the inquiry did “not agree that hindsight is required”, noting that everything from “internal strife in Iraq” to Iranian intervention to the rise of al-Qaida was “explicitly identified” before the war. Warnings of the disaster to come were not confined to private intelligence briefings to Blair. From the lack of weapons of mass destruction – as former foreign secretary Robin Cook detailed in his resignation speech – to violent strife to a boost for al-Qaida, the coming disaster was widely predicted in public. There was no shortage of evidence to justify the then-secretary general of the Arab League warning that the war would “open the gates of hell”.

In the aftermath of Hamas’s unjustifiable atrocity, Israel’s military onslaught has already slaughtered thousands of civilians, many of them children. That the worst is to come is not supposition, but evident from the public pronouncements of Israel’s political leaders. They have made no effort to disguise their intentions, and thus they have left their cheerleaders with nowhere to hide, no ignorance to plead. “The emphasis is on damage, not accuracy,” declared the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). “Gaza will eventually turn into a city of tents,” said one IDF official, adding, “There will be no buildings.” Israel’s economy minister, Nir Barkat, told ABC News that hostages and civilian casualties will be secondary to destroying Hamas, “even if takes a year”.

One prominent supporter of Keir Starmer on Labour’s national executive committee claimed that Israel was not in breach of international law on the grounds that its actions were “proportionate”, and that the “command structure involves sign-off by lawyers to ensure conformity with intl law for all IDF actions”. So let’s hear from one such lawyer, Israel’s former chief military advocate general and the country’s former attorney general no less, who declared that to destroy Hamas “then you have to destroy Gaza, because everything in Gaza, almost every building there, is a stronghold of Hamas”.

Israel is dropping leaflets on northern Gaza warning that civilians who remain there may be considered an “accomplice in a terrorist organisation”, self-evidently arguing that non-combatants can be considered fair game. Leaving aside that southern Gaza is itself being bombed, contrary to Israeli claims that it’s a safe zone, and that many are unable to flee – not least the injured and infirm – this is a public confession of what could amount to future war crimes.

When the supposed relative “moderate” foreign minister, Eli Cohen, declares that Gaza’s territory will shrink thanks to Israeli annexation, he is simply stating a longstanding open Israeli commitment. After all, when Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, declares her support for Israel’s territory compromising the biblical territory of Judea and Samaria – that is, the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip – she merely echoes Netanyahu’s promoting a map of “Greater Israel” before the UN.

Simon Tisdall

From collective punishment – by depriving innocent people of water, food, energy and medicine – to indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, there are no excuses. The UN is warning of “mass ethnic cleansing”, has denounced “crimes against humanity” and is even arguing that “there is a risk of genocide” against the Palestinians. A ground invasion has not even begun, but what will happen next is clear. So here is a prediction. As it is, just 3% of Britons say there “definitely should not be an immediate ceasefire”, the same proportion as those who believe the Earth is flat. As the atrocities mount, the public mood will be a mixture of horror and fury at those complicit in one of the great crimes of our time.

Last week, the former foreign secretary Jack Straw conceded the Iraq war was “in retrospect, a mistake – I mean there’s no question about that”, with a casual tone more befitting someone who took the wrong turn off a motorway than someone who played a leading role in a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Expect the same tone from those who justify this ongoing massacre. “If I knew then what I know now”, or words to that effect, will accompany their statements of regret. But they do know now: there are no grounds for ignorance, and those complicit deserve nothing but contempt and moral disgrace.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist