The Guardian

‘There is no alternative’ is the last resort to defend morally wrong acts

In Israel’s attack on Gaza, as with the Rwanda scheme, other options are always available

Kenan Malik

B ‘ut what is your alternative?” It’s an important question in political debates when a particular policy or action is being challenged. It can also be a way of deflecting from the flimsiness, both moral and practical, of the plan facing scrutiny.

So it is with two issues that dominated the news this past week – the government’s Rwanda scheme and Israel’s military assault on Gaza. In both cases, there is an important debate to be had about alternatives. But before we get to that debate, there are also cogent reasons for rejecting the original policy, irrespective of what the alternatives may be.

The dismissal by the supreme court of the legality of the Rwanda deportation policy has thrown the government’s “stop the boats” policy into disarray. After the verdict, Rishi Sunak announced that he would introduce a new law to declare Rwanda a safe country – a law to change the facts, as former supreme court judge Jonathan Sumption, no liberal, mockingly observed.

Supporters of the Rwanda scheme, when faced with criticism, generally fall back on the question, “But what is your alternative?” Alternatives there are. Nonetheless, to insist that one needs to provide an alternative before one can reject the forcible deportation of anyone who arrives without proper papers to a country to which none of them has ever been, or wants to go, and without any consideration of their claims for asylum in this country – a policy that not so long ago would have been limited to the far-right fringes – is to render moral lines meaningless.

Even if the Rwanda scheme were morally fit, it would still be practically useless. Its supporters claim that a surge in illegal migration is undermining Britain’s capacity to defend its borders. The real issue is not uncontrolled immigration but the closure of legal routes for asylum claimants, leading many to make the dangerous crossing across the Channel, and a sclerotic asylum system.

Over the past decade, the backlog in processing asylum claims has risen about 15 times as fast as the numbers claiming asylum. The Rwanda scheme would mop up just a tiny fraction of that backlog. That is why, as I have suggested before, such schemes constitute performative policymaking, creating policy not to solve a problem but to allow politicians to be seen doing something.

The rejection of the Rwanda scheme is not dependent on having an alternative, but on its moral baseness and its pointlessness as a practical tool. Many campaigners have, nevertheless, set out realistic alternatives, the starting point for which is the creation of safe legal routes for asylum seekers, and of a claims process that does not leave them in limbo for years. It’s not opponents of the Rwanda scheme but opponents of safe routes and a properly resourced system who need to answer, “But what is your alternative?”

There are similarly both moral and practical issues at the heart of the debate over Israel’s assault t on Gaza, in response to the Hamas as terror attack on 7 October. The e devastation being wrought on n Gaza has led to increasingly vocal calls alls for a ceasefire. Supporters of the military campaign argue that such calls deny Israel the right to defend efend itself, embolden Hamas and ignore gnore the plight of the hostages taken en on that day.

And yet, among the fiercest opponents of the Gaza war and d supporters of a ceasefire are friends riends and relatives of those killed or r taken hostage. Ziv Stahl, who survived ed the Hamas slaughter in Kfar Azza, observes that “indiscriminate bombing in Gaza and the killing ng of civilians uninvolved with these hese horrible crimes are no solution”. In a eulogy for her brother Hayim, who was murdered in Kibbutz Holit, Noy Katsman urged Israel “not to use our deaths and our pain to bring the death and pain of other people or other families”.

It is a bitter irony that many of those murdered or abducted by Hamas were among the most committed to Palestinian rights and freedoms. Those who continue their work insist that Hamas’ savagery should not become a reason for collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

Punishment, though, is what many at the heart of Israel’s establishment now want to impose. “You wanted hell, you will get hell,” Maj Gen Ghassan Alian, coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, told Gazans. Or, as Giora Eiland, former IDF strategist and a previous head of Israel’s National Security Council, put it: “Israel needs to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, compelling tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf … Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” Unless we believe that anything is permissible in the name of “Israel’s right to defend itself”, then somewhere there must be red lines.

The importance of the ceasefire debate is to address that issue, and to insist that in devastating Gaza and imposing collective punishment, Israel has crossed a line.

AThe demand must be for Hamas to release all the hostages and for Israel to cease its bombardment

s with the Rwanda scheme, beyond the moral question lies the practical one: to what extent can Israel’s all-out assault achieve its aims of rescuing the hostages and eliminating Hamas as an organisation?

So far, laying waste to northern Gaza has helped to achieve neither. There is little reason to imagine that doing the same to southern Gaza will make the goals easier to achieve. Even if Israel could eliminate every last member of Hamas, the devastation of Gaza will probably create a new generation of Palestinian resistance and, given the paucity of any political alternatives, may well drive many towards organisations organisation even more nihilistic and extreme than Hamas.

“But what is your alternative?” The immediate immedia demand must be for Hamas to release all the hostages andd for Israel to cease its bombardment. bombardmenn To bring to justice the perpetrators perpetrat t of the 7 October attacks may be b easier in conditions of relative ca calm than in all-out war.

Beyond that th lies the reality that there can be no military solution to the conflic ict – the attacks themselves on o that day made clear the illusions illuss of security. The starting point poinn for any political solution is thh the acknowledgement of Israel/Palee Palestine as a shared land of 7 million Jews J and 7 million Palestinians,, and the need for equal rights for both, whether within a single state or two states.

“To hold everyone’s humanity – that is the task of the hour,” wrote Jewish writer and activist Joshua Leifer, citing a friend in Jerusalem. That may seem utopian. But what is your alternative?

The Observer