The impossible conundrum

Imagine an area or corridor from Manchester to just short of Rutland Airport, say 26 miles long, and about five miles wide at one end, say from Manchester to Peru, and about nine miles wide at the other end. Then put 1.7 million people in it - in other words, almost three times the entire population of Vermont. That would be Gaza in Vermont.

But no, it wouldn't. Because you have to imagine further that the whole area is under siege from outside its borders, with strict limits on what can come in and what can go out.

Now imagine that the rest of Vermont, from Rutland to the border with Canada, to the east into New Hampshire, and to the south as far as Amenia in New York State is a country of 8 million people. The area from, say, Bennington to Amenia is mostly desert and very thinly populated. The population centers are in the north which have felt themselves under threat from one direction or another since the founding of the country almost 70 years ago. At its narrowest point it is some nine miles wide - about the length of Manhattan and it has sought to expand its strategic depth by occupying areas to the east and establishing settlements. Over those 70 years it has developed a mindset that it is not playing the strategic game on the halfway line but on the five-yard line. In other words, it cannot afford to lose even one try, ever. In the circumstances, it is very prickly, easily roused and determined to fight for its security with every sinew.

In 'Gaza-mont' there is deep resentment at the way they have been treated by their neighbors to the north: Not only were families dispossessed 70 years ago of land they regarded as their historic home but since then they have been treated as less than dirt. The most militant group, determined to make the country to the north pay a price, have managed to accumulate large stocks of rockets - some by smuggling and some by local manufacture - and have adopted a policy of launching them daily against their perceived foes.

In the past four weeks well over 3,000 have been launched. Many have fallen into empty fields, but gradually their range and accuracy have improved and seem likely to do so if not stopped.

More recently they have adopted a new tactic of building deep tunnels with the aim of popping up in the middle of farms, settlements and even urban buildings such as schools and perhaps hospitals to launch surprise attacks on whoever they meet, and possibly taking hostages and spiriting them back through the tunnels for potential use as political pressure points.

You are now the prime minister of the country in the north. Your prime responsibility is the security of your people. What are you going to do? You decide to take robust military action with the primary objective of destroying the tunnels and eradicating the rocket threat. You give notice to the people of 'Gaza-mont' by telephone, television, radio and dropping leaflets to leave buildings that you have designated as targets.

Inevitably, however, in the crowded circumstances, there are many casualties and they mount steadily day by day. Whole families are killed, children are left without parents, people flee - but they have nowhere to go. They shelter in United Nations-run schools, say MEMS and Burr and Burton Academy, the positions of which are well known to the military of the north, and then even they are subject to artillery shelling with yet more deaths. The power station is knocked out, drinking water is in short supply, hospitals cannot handle the flow of wounded. Approaching 2,000 people are killed. The resentment grows ever deeper.

The international community cries out "For God's sake, stop this madness!" But the bombs and shells continue to rain on Manchester, Dorset, Danby, Wallingford, Peru and places in between. The destruction is enormous.

In order to stop the bloodshed, each side is setting conditions that are totally unacceptable to the other. 'Gaza-mont' wants the siege lifted absolutely and without reservation. The country to the north insists that the rockets should be halted for ever, there should be no more attacks by tunnels or by any other means, and that 'Gaza-mont' should formally recognize the country's existence.

The people of 'Gaza-mont' continue to suffer, and the country to the north is winning the military war but losing the war of the social media. Sometime in August the fighting will stop, but there is no long term solution yet in sight. The conundrum of finding a road to peace and development is impossible. Living here in Vermont, we don't realize how fortunate we are.

Derek Boothby lives in Manchester and is a former UN arms control official.


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