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Are power and humanity fundamentally incompatible?

This has not been an easy article to write, for it has been triggered by emotion. The visuals of the humanitarian carnage over the past four weeks, ever since the Al Qassam brigades of Hamas butchered civilians in Israel, and then the severity of the retaliatory bombing of Gaza by Israel that has killed, predictably, thousands of children has been searing. I write “predictably” because 50 per cent of the 2.2 million people in Gaza are below the age of 18.

There are historical and political explanations for this latest round of violence between Israel and Palestine. Many experts have written about it and assigned blame. I do not intend to do that. I do not have comparable expertise or interest. Also, my thoughts are preoccupied by the brutality of what I have read and seen. I am wrestling to come to terms with the corruption of morality by leaders who prima facie have lost the support of the majority of the population that they claim to represent or act on behalf of.

Benjamin Netanyahu is an unpopular and polarising leader of Israel. His Likud party received only 23.41 per cent of the votes polled in the national elections of November 2022. He leads the most ultra-right coalition that Israel has ever had. Members of that coalition do not recognise the right of Palestinians to any land in the Levant. They aggressively encourage citizens to settle in the West Bank.

This coalition has a majority of seats in the Israeli parliament, not because they polled a higher percentage of votes than the Opposition, but because of the peculiarities of the system of proportional representation. I have little doubt that the majority of Israeli citizens want revenge — almost every family has been affected and there is a “rally around the flag” effect. But I find it hard to believe they are supportive of the actions that have led to the killing of literally thousands of innocent young Palestinians. Netanyahu has been PM on and off for 17 years. He is now facing the end of his political career. His decision to carpet bomb Gaza is influenced by the conviction that “office” sanctifies his judgement — that what he does is correct because he is PM — but also by a last ditch effort to regain lost political ground. If in the process, the devil takes the hindmost, so be it.

In a similar vein, and I want to make clear that by “similar” I am not suggesting “equivalence”, the perpetrators of October 7 are also not representative of the will of the Palestinians. I recently heard a conversation between TV journalist Karan Thapar and Italian journalist, Paola Caridi. Caridi is the author of the book Hamas: From Resistance to Government and a recognised authority on the movement. She explained that Hamas is not an undifferentiated entity. It is a complex and spread out organisation with a political wing based in Gaza, West Bank and abroad, and a military wing predominantly in Gaza.

Festive offer

The militant brigades Al Qassam that carried out the October 7 attack are subsumed under the military wing. In the past, the political wing set the direction of Hamas’ policy and the military wing determined the instruments of action. But since 2017, this connection has frayed and the Al Qassam brigades (which incidentally have no more than around 3,000 members) have acquired greater autonomy of action. In her view, and that of other experts she has spoken to, the political wing did not sanction October 7 and, most likely, did not even know it was to happen.

I do not know if she is right, but I believe that this subset of Hamas conceptualised and carried out the attack to safeguard their hold over power. Relations between Israel and Arab nations, in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been on the mend. This has posed an existential threat to the brigades. October 7 was carried out to disrupt the process. Israel would inevitably retaliate and that would stay the hands of Arab governments from continuing the “normalisation” talks.

There are other examples of leaders who took decisions for self-serving purposes that led to adverse humanitarian consequences. Ukraine is currently caught in the vortex of such a tragedy. No one knows what prompted President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. Perhaps to create “Imperia Rus”; perhaps to bolster domestic support. Either way, the collateral consequence has been the death of thousands of innocent people across borders. If one tracks back, the US invasion of Iraq was also a case of hubristic overreach by President George W Bush. The invasion did not create a stable “democratic” Iraq. Instead, it compounded social, religious and internal differences. Comparably, “the march of folly” in Afghanistan by leaders focused only on playing the “Great Game” brought about the ruination of this country.

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Former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It is a cynical comment but not without substance. Democracy has the built-in check of electoral accountability. But that happens only every 4- 5 years. In the interim, leaders have considerable latitude to exercise power ostensibly for the purpose of “national security”. And therein lies the rub. National security can often be the prompt for policies that are narrowly self-serving and the cloak of democratic sanction to hide the consequences of such policies.

The historian, Lord Acton, wrote in 1887, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.” One could add that the longer a leader is in power, the greater the likelihood of despotism. The past four weeks have brought into stark relief the consequences of “immoral” leadership. It has raised the question: Are power and humanity fundamentally incompatible? Clearly that would be tragic. The global community must tighten the sanctions against breach of basic human principles.

The writer is chairman and distinguished fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP)

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