It's not a playground spat

One of the joys of being the father of a teenage son is getting to glimpse, thanks to him, videos that have gone viral. The latest was made in 2012 but it's spread anew among Jewish teens. It's a South Park-style cartoon that, without words, depicts the background to the hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

It shows a sweet boy, minding his own business in school, repeatedly struck by another boy - darker and wearing the green bandana of Hamas - who bombards him with pellets and paper planes.

The first child does his best to restrain himself, but the missiles keep coming. He moves to hit back, but stops when he sees that his assailant is hiding behind two cute and even younger kids. Still, the pellets keep coming. Eventually, the first boy has enough. He gets his revenge by giving the boy in the bandana a flick on the nose. That minor blow is sufficient to produce floods of tears from his victim, who promptly gets the sympathy of his teachers and the world's press - though he started it.

It is a beguilingly simple story, told with satisfying clarity. There is no mistaking who is right and who is wrong. It makes, in its own fashion, all the key points defenders of Israel - whether during this month's Operation Protective Edge or 2012's Operation Pillar of Defence - want to make. That any country whose civilians faced persistent hostile rocket fire would have to do what Israel has done and hit back; that one reason Palestinian civilian casualties are high is the cynical use by Hamas of Gaza's young and vulnerable as human shields.

Israel is not a well-behaved child picked on by a class bully

And yet the video is horribly misleading. Take those animated tears from the child avatar of Hamas. The cartoon suggests they're fake, a nod to "Pallywood", the well-worn claim that there is a cottage industry generating bogus film coverage of Palestinian suffering. But, much as Israel's advocates may wish it were otherwise, the suffering of Gaza is real. As I write, the Palestinian death toll stands over 200, with 80 per cent of those civilians and 21 per cent children. The tears of their mothers and fathers were not faked for the cameras. They are real and it is a matter of basic humanity to admit as much.

Much more troubling, though, is the assumption that Israel was minding its own business, doing nothing that could harm anyone, when Hamas struck out of a clear blue sky.

One doesn't have to get into the precise sequence of events of the last few weeks to see the flaw in that. For any depiction of Israel as a well-behaved child, picked on in an unprovoked attack by the classroom bully, omits the uncomfortable fact that Israel is not only the stronger party in the conflict with the Palestinians - but the occupier for 47 years of Palestinian territory. The settlements may be gone from Gaza, but Israel retains control of the Strip's airspace and waters, and, along with Egypt, its borders and, of course, still commands the West Bank.

The significance of this goes far beyond one small video. Too many imagine this conflict as some kind of playground spat, soluble by a firm display of force. But there can be no lasting military solution to this problem, a truth demonstrated by the fact that these eruptions of violence now occur with increasing frequency.

Ultimately, the only solution will be political, through negotiation and compromise, including sharing the land that both sides claim. That is the reality, even if it does not lend itself to a neat and colourful little film.

Jonathan Freedland is Executive Editor, Opinion, of the Guardian

    Last updated: 3:00pm, July 18 2014