Michael Gove: If Hamas is the victim, why is Ramallah so quiet?

IT'S been one of the longest-running conflicts in the world, a case study in how difficult it is for modern states to fight counter-insurgency wars against determined terrorist groups.

But in the days just after Christmas a massive offensive appears to have changed the terms of trade. Battle-hardened troops have made significant advances against their opponents. The terrorists have been using civilians as human shields, just one factor amid many in this conflict which has provoked calls for outside intervention, but at the moment the conflict rages on without foreign intervention to separate the contending forces on the ground.

Gaza? Not quite. My first paragraph is actually an account of what's going on at the moment in Sri Lanka, where government forces launched a roll-up operation against the separatist Tamil Tigers just over a week ago. As it happens, the Sri Lankan authorities appear to be on the brink of a significant victory – demonstrating, as in Iraq, that it is possible for conventional armies to defeat modern terrorist or militia groups. But, telling as that development may be, the most significant thing about the Sri Lankan conflict is how little we have heard about it. If you compare the coverage secured by the conflict in Gaza, and the reporting of what is happening in Sri Lanka, the disparity is stunning.

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And part of a curious trend. Like most BBC viewers I have been moved beyond words by the human suffering which has been reported in horrific detail every day. But coverage of the conflict in Gaza has eclipsed entirely reporting from Congo, where hundreds more died last month, from Somalia, where civilians are caught in the most horrendous conflict, and from nations such as Zimbabwe or Burma, where the infliction of unbearable suffering on innocents has long been a tool of state policy.

Why so much coverage of one conflict and so little of others? And why so little context, analysis or understanding? If this is a struggle between Israel and the Palestinians then why are the streets of Ramallah so quiet? Indeed why are the streets of Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Tunis so muted? Why so much concentration on the position of politicians, and the precise kind of ceasefire they favour, and so little on the political position of Arab leaders? There has been a great deal of focus on Israeli tactics and very little examination of the strategic context – the nature of the real threat Israel faces.

Whatever view one takes of Israel's actions, either in moral or military terms, no proper judgment of this conflict is possible without context. And that is what so many seem to miss. Hamas is not a national liberation movement, it is not a force dedicated to establishing a free and democratic Palestine. It is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamist organisation which wants to unite the Islamic world in submission to its own, austere and totalitarian, view of Islam.

In all the reporting of events in Gaza how much attention has been paid to the ideology and history of Hamas, to the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood's founder Hassan al-Banna and the preaching of Hamas leaders such as the late Sheikh Yassin? How much space has been given to analysing the Hamas covenant with its proclamation that the Jews were behind the French revolution and its prediction that 'The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out, 'O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him'."

The reason there has been so relatively little support and agitation on Hamas's behalf among Arab leaders is their recognition that Hamas does not want to see Palestine take its place among other stable Arab nations, Hamas wants war in Palestine to be the launch pad for a jihad against those it considers apostate secular rulers in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere. Worse than that, as far as other Arab states are concerned, Hamas, like its sister party in Lebanon, Hezbollah, is a tool of the Iranian regime and Iran's ambitions to become the dominant regional power in the Middle East threaten their own interests and security.

If the Arab political context matters, so, just as much, does the Israeli strategic position. Israel also recognises that the greatest threat it faces comes from Tehran. The Iranian president has made it clear he would prefer a world without Israel and is busy acquiring the nuclear weapon technology to make that dark fantasy a terrifyingly plausible reality. Faced with that threat, Israel feels it needs to do everything it can to show it will confront, and challenge, Iranian power. Hence the willingness to defy world opinion to defang Iran's proxy soldiers in Hamas. Again, you don't need to think Israel's current tactics wise or right to appreciate why it feels it has to show Iran it means business.

Because, viewed from Israel's position, the world doesn't seem willing to confront Iranian aggression. The world hasn't prevented the Iranian nuclear programme advancing nor has it stopped Iran shipping missiles and munitions to Hamas and Hezbollah.

What the world has done, however, has shown itself all too ready to fit events in Gaza into a ready-made template where Israel is once again the wicked colonial aggressor. That is why, when conflicts rage around the globe, the focus is once more on seeing which western politician can find the strongest language to condemn the Jewish state. All I can say is that sometimes it is appropriate to condemn a little less, and understand a little more.

Michael Gove is Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families