Stephen Games

That war when one side surrendered to the other to save lives

Spoiler alert: It wasn't Hamas -- evidently, the world doesn't want them to stand down
An Azerbaijani and Turkish girl demonstrating support for Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Istanbul, Turkey. Picture: Umut Çolak (VOA: Public domain)
An Azerbaijani and Turkish girl demonstrating support for Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Istanbul, Turkey. Picture: Umut Çolak (VOA: Public domain)

While all eyes have strayed from the conflict in Ukraine to the conflict in Gaza, no one has been noticing what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In September, the Turkish-backed state of Azerbaijan conducted a lightning incursion into the landlocked island of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Russian-backed ethnic Armenians had held since capturing it after the USSR broke up in the early 1990s.

In what remains one of the most astonishing political events of modern times, the Armenians stood down instead of fighting back. In doing so, they avoided the violence and bloodshed that have marked previous encounters between the two groups. Then, rather than risk the persecution they feared that the Azerbaijanis might mete out on them, the Armenians—some 120,000 of them—simply packed up their possessions and retreated across Azerbaijan to Armenia proper. 

There were tears and recriminations but the community took the view that a safe life in its homeland was better than an uncertain life in contested territory. 

A week ago, the story became even more miraculous. Armenia announced its intention to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory and the two sides agreed to normalise their relations, exchange prisoners and, by the end of this year, sign a peace treaty based on mutual respect.

These two sides have, in the past, been locked in deadly war, with some 38,000 killings between 1988 and 1994, and another 3,000 in the following 25 years. And yet, in late 2023, pragmatism finally overcame rhetoric and the two countries can now look forward to a future in which both can bloom and prosper side-by-side. 

Sarnaghbyur in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: PoliceMan100, (, CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s hard to know why this happened but it may have had to do with the Armenians’ growing loathing of Putin (in return for which the Kremlin banned residents of Nagorno-Karabakh from flying Ukrainian flags) and even—we do not know—the receipt of tangible incentives to realign themselves alongside Azerbaijan within Turkey’s more welcome sphere of influence.

Had something similar happened in Gaza, I wonder what the world’s reaction would have been. Would those who carry banners in support of the Palestinians and who casually accuse Israel of apartheid and genocide have berated Gaza’s leaders and accused them of an unprincipled climb-down? Would there have been protests that the people of Gaza City and Khan Yunis, not to mention the Strip’s 1.7 million “refugees”, had been betrayed by spineless apparatchiks without a grain of commitment to the Palestinian cause?

The only answer can be yes: that is exactly what the world would have said, because the world evidently wants the Palestinian people to be locked into permanent enmity with Israel, and to act as a lightning rod for the world’s hatred of its bullying neighbor. 

How do we know this? Because that is what we hear from the overwhelming majority of United Nations members, who last week voted for a ceasefire that would prevent Israel from defeating Hamas—in the name of “peace”. It is what we see, also, from the massive United Nations apparatus that keeps Palestinians in an enduring state of dependence, funding their complaints about the Zionist entity on its doorstep, and burnishing their sacred sense of victimization. 

Unembarrassed by this, UNRWA boasts that it is the largest agency of the United Nations, employing over 30,000 staff, 99 per cent of whom are locally recruited Palestinians, and registering nearly 6 million people as eligible for its services, compared with the 700,000 who took up residence in Gaza after the Arab attack on Israel at the founding of the state in 1948. And UNRWA is evidently adored by other arms of the UN, including UNICEF.

Had Hamas acted as the ethnic Armenians did in Nagorno-Karabakh, the world would have branded them as traitors. Or so one has to assume because no one has suggested that Hamas has behaved in anything other than an appropriate way in the face of Israeli rockets. Rather than backing down, and saving thousands of lives, Hamas has happily defied the IDF, sacrificing the Palestinian masses and goading Israel further by launching missiles of its own and threatening to replay October 7 again and again in the future, given the opportunity.

How can it be that less than a thousand miles away, one ruling faction—that of State President Samvel Shahramanyan—decided it was better to save lives and accommodate itself to reality while another ruling faction—that of Yahyar Sinwar (or possibly Ismail Haniyeh)—decided it was better for its people to hold out against reality and get slaughtered, and in the greatest possible numbers?

Yahya Sinwar (or possibly Ismail Haniyeh) has not been excoriated by the world. The world has not called for him to be captured, put on trial and punished for abusing those charged to his care, whether during this war or before it. Far from it. He is seen as heroic, a freedom fighter, and even—in a crass distortion of logic—a peace campaigner. His face flies on flags and his name is chanted in public gatherings, not only among the two billion Muslims who make up a quarter of the world but in the West among reasonable people and on campuses at respected universities. 

How shocked the world would be if he were to say, “I was wrong to take my people down this disastrous path. If only I had seen, as President Samvel Shahramanyan has seen, the potential that exists in forging an accord with those we have fought against so wastefully for so long.”     

Why do I think the world would have been outraged had Yahyar Sinwar (or possibly Ismail Haniyeh) fallen on his knees and begged the Palestinian people to forgive him? Because of the obduracy with which those who are paid to know better still cling to their hateful prejudices.

I used to admire the way that Sarah Montague handled interviewees on the BBC’s highly regarded weekday lunchtime news show, The World at One, and on the World Service program HardTalk. She is cool, composed and persistent and her questions are to the point. Her tone changes, however, when she gets Israel in the sight of her gun. In a sequence of interviews on radio yesterday she was especially egregious—not only in the words she used but in her tone of voice, exposing a bias inappropriate to someone representing the UK’s foremost public broadcasting channel.

Here, her repeated questioning of Ehud Olmert about how long he thought the war in Gaza should go on was provocative, because the idea of waging war by calendar is preposterous. Her quoting of a phrase used by former UK Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace—that Israel’s attack was a “killing rage”—was provocative because it is self-evidently something quite different. Her asking Olmert whether he thought too many innocent Palestinians had died was provocative because it implies that he has a favored death tally. Her suggesting that a one-off accident (the killing of the three hostages) was indicative of something more general about Israel is provocative because it promotes a judgement based on no knowledge of battlefield conditions. 

In all these cases, Montague acted exactly as a cheerleader for Hamas might have done, letting the listener know not just where she stood but where they should stand too. Instead of questioning a string of very objectionable value judgements, she endorsed them. 

In the same way, she appeared to accept, because she offered no challenge, the idea that Hamas could not be destroyed “because it’s an ideology”, that Israel has lost its moral authority, and that what is most urgently needed now is a rapid humanitarian truce, a set of notions which also serves to protect Hamas, which the BBC (like the three American university heads quizzed in congressional hearings recently) still refuses, to its shame, to call a terrorist, genocidal, racist, repressive organization that has totally failed to protect the wretched people it claims to represent.

Has this war gone on too long, as Montague asked? Absolutely. Have too many been killed? Absolutely. Could the war have been shortened and the number of deaths diminished? Yes, easily—by Hamas resigning, just as the Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh did in September, within 24 hours of Azerbaijani forces moving in. That was an honorable surrender, and the ethnic Armenians are greatly to be praised for it. There was a cost but the cost was face, not lives, and face is a trifle. By the end of December, Samvel Shahramanyan’s presidency will have been wound up and, with it, the post itself. He accepts this, in the name of the greater good. Now that’s real heroics. 

Exactly the same could have happened at any time in Gaza. And yet Sarah Montague and all the bien-pensants of the BBC and the liberal establishment of which I consider myself a member have done nothing to push for it. Instead, they ally themselves with the accusation that Israel is the shameful party. It is deplorable. 

In the most recent issue of the magazine I edit—Booklaunch—the cultural critic Keith Kahn-Harris has mused on the question of how those who have no skin in a game choose sides. Why do they find it so easy to cry with the Palestinians but not, say, with the Tamils (or the Sinhalese)? It’s a very good question and not one I know the answer to. But Sarah Montague, a supposedly impartial news host who adjudges that Israel has lost its moral authority, evidently knows better than me. She must do, because she represents precisely that inexplicable taking of sides. 

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, publisher and award-winning architectural journalist, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until Spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, habitually questioning its unwillingness to raise difficult questions about Israel, and was a board member of his synagogue with responsibility for building maintenance and repair. In his spare time he is involved in editing volumes of the Tanach and is a much-liked barmitzvah teacher with an original approach, having posted several videos to YouTube on the cantillation of haftarot and the Purim Megillah.
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