The Romans fought three wars against the Carthaginians. The first two were deadly battles between great empires, but the third was simply a siege. The Romans found a pretext and used their superior forces to surround Carthage. The encirclement lasted four years. The Carthaginians defended themselves for as long as they could. But it was hopeless. Ultimately with the Romans in control of the land and the sea around the city there was only ever going to be one outcome. When the Romans finally broke in they killed all the men and sold the women and children into slavery. The city was destroyed and the ground ploughed up and sprinkled with salt to prevent a settlement of the area again.
They were a thorough lot, the Romans. But they were humans the same as us. We have to accept that that is the way humans behave sometimes. If you find yourself in the position to totally wipe out your enemy, it is a tempting prospect. We all know that the chances of the world are highly unpredictable. What is to say that in the future the situation might be reversed? Better to get in quick while the going is good. It isn’t a noble sentiment. It isn’t one that you will admit to publicly. You might not even admit it to yourself. And it is easy to find justifications. The anti-Carthaginian hawk Cato ostentatiously produced a pomegranate in the Senate in Rome pointing out that it had been purchased in the market in Carthage and was still fresh. That was how close the enemy were!
The situation in Gaza is a great parallel to the Third Punic War. Israel finds itself in a position of such strength and security, it is hard to imagine that anyone anticipated it. It has the backing of a superpower that has no rival. It has a huge military machine and ample trained manpower. And its enemies have never been weaker. Iraq and Syria are divided and preoccupied with their own problems. Egypt is under the control of a regime that has no interest whatever in getting involved with the conflict. And it has friends – some genuine some paid for – throughout the media and political elites all around the world.
So with all these factors in its favour, now is the time to deliver the knockout blow. The incursion into Gaza is designed to weaken the Palestinians and reduce them to an insignificant rump that will never be able to challenge Israel again. Whether the claims that it is simply a security operation to eliminate a particular threat are a cynical presentational ploy or a subconscious rationalisation it is hard to say. It might well be the latter. The Israelis would not be the first people to end up believing their own propaganda. But the actions speak for themselves. Destroying schools and hospitals has the effect of making it hard for the Palestinians to live normal lives, and so deprives them of the capacity to build their strength. Destroying the power station will also force the Palestinians to devote more of their energy to simply staying alive. Quite apart from those killed by rockets, bombs and snipers there will be many more Palestinian deaths than would otherwise be the case. In a sense this is continuation of the blockade which the Israelis use to control the amount of food that the Palestinians have access to – a potent form of control of population size.
So it is a mistake to think of this as a conflict that can be solved by negotiation. There is no solution. There was never any prospect of the Romans and the Carthaginians sitting around a table and coming up with a road map to peace. There was no concession that the Carthaginians could have made that would have placated the Romans. In fact, one of the pre-war demands the Romans made was that the Carthaginians should hand over all their weapons to the Romans. Amazingly, the Carthaginians accepted that demand and handed them over. Likewise there is no concession that will unlock peace in the Middle East. It is simply that one side wants the other dead. And as things stand, it doesn’t look like anything can stop them achieving it.
Postscript – another parallel between the current fighting in Gaza and the Third Punic War wasn’t apparent when I wrote this. The Israel Defence Force is obviously in no danger of losing in any meaningful sense. They have the weapons and their opponents don’t. But the conflict is now in its fourth week and Hamas are still fighting. They aren’t doing any damage and they are wasting their time and their people’s lives. But they haven’t been eliminated. The Israeli army of previous years would have been a lot more surgical and would no doubt have hit their communications and command much more effectively. The current generation seems to be mainly pounders relying on air strikes and artillery.
There were comments at the time of the Third Punic war that the legions weren’t up to their previous standard. It seems that fighting from a position of overwhelming strength dulls the brain and slows the wits.