The Hamas terrorist attack on Israel has prompted western democracies to rally to Israel and its right to self-defence. But, as John Baron warns, western powers must also do what they can to prevent global escalation, while keeping sight of the need for a long- term solution.
The hideous terrorist attacks of 7th October will reverberate for generations to come. Almost every Israeli family, and many in the Jewish diaspora, will know someone who has been killed, wounded or taken hostage. Images and news reports of the random but deliberate killings of Jews – as seems to have been Hamas’ main objective – will stir the darkest memories of Jews across the globe. After the greatest single slaughter since the Holocaust, Israelis and Jews around the world deserve both sympathy and support. The terrorists of Hamas deserve the strongest condemnation.
The British Government, in common with like-minded allies, has offered condolences to Israelis and powerfully asserted Israel’s right to her self-defence. There has been a welcome outbreak of political unity after these terrible killings, grim stories of which continue to emerge as journalists delve deeper and the survivors relate their experiences.
Similar feelings of the pain, grief and anger felt across Israel (and Jewish communities worldwide) were experienced across the West in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Even though Britain herself had not been attacked, there was still a feeling that we had all been violated: in Paris Le Monde declared ‘We are all Americans’. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it was right and uncontroversial that the United States and her allies responded militarily. Yet the West also made mistakes in its response – Iraq was invaded under a false premise, and the mission in Afghanistan wrongly morphed into one of nation-building with the Taliban now back in control – which Israel should heed as she considers the nature and extent of her response.
That there must be a response is obvious – Israel has the absolute right to defend herself, and in the face of the terrorist slaughter and hostage-taking must act and be seen to act. When governments worldwide state that they will not be beaten by terrorists, we accept and agree with this, and the Israeli Government, as in any liberal democracy, is accountable to its citizens. One remembers the words of President Bush at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11.
Notwithstanding this absolute right, the eyes of the world are on Gaza. Liberal democracies, quite rightly, hold themselves to a higher standard than terrorist organisations like Hamas, and in its response Israel must be proportionate. This includes ensuring humanitarian supplies reach innocent civilians and that they can leave the area if they wish. It is unrealistic to believe that no civilians will be killed, but these casualties must be minimised as much as possible.
For its part, the rest of the world needs to exercise patience and restraint, and when events happen not rush to judgement or credulously believe the words of Hamas – a terrorist organisation as well as the government of Gaza – are true. Rarely has accurate reporting or the exercise of critical judgment been so important
The potential for wider conflict is all too apparent. Despite differences in religion, Iran has developed strong links with Hamas, in addition to its very close relationship with Hizbollah on Israel’s northern borders. Statements from Iranian officials have tended to ratchet up tensions rather than the opposite, and have sufficiently concerned the Americans that they have sent in two aircraft carriers and their escorts. Britain too is pooling naval and aerial military assets in the area. Israel has long sought to avoid a two-front war: expanding the conflict to Lebanon, and possibly also to the West Bank, would be terrible. International diplomacy must lean hard into doing all it can to prevent this, and in this context the Prime Minister’s visit to the region is welcome.
Taking a wider view, the fact that the West, especially the Americans, are absorbed by another conflict will come as welcome news for the Russian-Iranian axis and their increasingly joint endeavours in Ukraine as the Iranians ramp up their military supplies to their Russian allies. China, whose officials continue to make worrying statements about ‘reuniting’ with Taiwan, will similarly welcome a dilution of Western attention. All in all, the potential for a much larger conflict is present, with a Western-backed Israel and a Russian- and Chinese-backed Iran as proxies. To this there would be no good outcomes.
Even when the proximate Israeli response is concluded, which could be many months or even years away, there will have to be a lasting solution for the relations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Defeating Hamas militarily will have to go hand in hand with defeating it ideologically. The latter is much harder, not least as conflict tends to embed cycles of violence.
However, as one who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, I understand that we in Britain know from our experience that it is possible to make large strides towards peace when the military, economic and political stars align – which in itself requires a large effort – and it is possible for communities to move from killing each other to living alongside each other, if not wholly at peace than not at war.
Ultimately, a form of two-state solution surely remains the best long-term end-state – as it always has been from the end of Mandatory Palestine. Significant progress was made in the 1990s towards this aim, but over the last two decades the process has largely run into the sand. It is difficult to see the policy of the current Israeli leadership of marginalising the Palestinian Authority (PA) whilst ramping up Israeli settlements as a durable strategy for long-term success.
The PA has many shortcomings, but it remains a vehicle of Palestinian leadership which does not share the nihilistic ideology of groups like Hamas. Recent polls indicating a majority of Palestinians disapprove of the PA should concern us all, and should be taken as a spur for its reinvigoration by the Israeli leadership, other countries of the region and the international community alike. Sometimes it takes a cataclysm like the recent attacks to jolt people away from the path of conflict and towards a better future. In this we all have a role to play: Jerusalem has long been described as a fulcrum of the world; what was true then is still true today.