James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.
Israelis woke to the unimaginable on Saturday. Hamas death squads had breached the border fence en masse and freely roamed the streets of southern Israel.
A doorbell camera captured an RPG-toting terrorist peering in. Whole communities were taken hostage or murdered. Families waited hours for rescue in safe rooms as their homes were burned to the ground around them. Festival-goers were massacred. Israelis of all ages were kidnapped into Gaza by celebrating Hamas terrorists, where they were grotesquely paraded and tortured.
It wasn’t only an unprecedented attack. It was unthinkable. The terrorists surged into Israel via air, land and sea. At least 700 Israelis have been killed as I write – a figure widely expected to climb. An unknown number of Israeli civilians and soldiers are today detained by Hamas across the Gaza Strip. As we approach 48 hours on, Hamas cells continue to target Israeli civilians many miles deep into the country.
It is no secret that Israel has to live with the daily threat of genocidal terror groups committed to its destruction. The country has developed world-renowned defence and intelligence capabilities to protect itself. And yet, as many Israelis celebrated Shabbat and the Jewish festivals, an extraordinary attack by a UK-proscribed terror group was being planned and executed on a chilling scale. An attack which seemingly caught Israel totally off-guard – painful echoes 50 years on from the intelligence failings which led to the Yom Kippur war.
Israel has been shaken to its core by the weekend’s tragic events. Friends in Israel have spoken of horrifying violence. Many commentators have labelled it Israel’s 9/11. This will be a watershed moment for Israel and the wider region.
The UK Government’s response was swift and robust. Full-throated support has been led by the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. The Foreign Secretary reiterated his recent assertion that “Israel’s security is our security” and criticised those referring to Hamas terrorists as ‘militants’ or ‘fighters’. The UK and Israel are closer than they have ever been and the UK’s support will be invaluable in the difficult weeks ahead.
Hamas’s attacks have generated an unprecedented level of cross-party unity in the UK. More than 300 parliamentarians of all political stripes have signed a message of support to the President of Israel. Many of the 250 Conservative signatories, which included a dozen Cabinet Ministers, will have visited the affected communities with Conservative Friends of Israel and have a first-hand understanding of the threats.
Much of the news coverage has followed a theme – why? Regular observers of the region will have seen the warning signs.
Iran’s fingerprints are everywhere. Iran has shown its hand in a desperate attempt to thwart the Abraham Accords which have ushered in a new era of Arab-Israeli peace. The Accords have also produced a club of regional powers with shared concerns over Iran. The prospect of Saudi Arabia signing a peace deal with Israel (and linked possibility of a Saudi nuclear programme) will have loomed large in Tehran’s calculations. Hamas is sending a message on behalf of Iran to the Arab world – and in particular Saudi Arabia – that peace with Israel will lead to violence.
Security experts warned that IDF readiness had deteriorated due to the ongoing protests over the Netanyahu Government’s controversial judicial review process. A number of Israeli reservists and pilots had walked out in protest. Real or not, Iran may has sensed an opportunity to exploit internal weaknesses. Hamas attempts to stoke division between Israel’s Arab and Jewish communities has thus far fallen flat. Against the backdrop of protests, internal warnings about a multi-front flare-up have grown dramatically in recent months. It remains to be seen whether this contagion will spread, but the signs were ominous this weekend with Hezbollah – armed with 150,000 rockets – causing unrest in Lebanon, and a terror attack on Israelis in Egypt.
Internal Palestinian dynamics are also at play. The Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and Hamas have a deep hatred of each other. The two organisations continue to vie for legitimacy as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, which all too often leads to violence and incitement as a means of establishing their credentials. The PA’s President, Mahmoud Abbas – 18 years into a 5-year term – is deeply unpopular, and surveys of Palestinians show large support for terror groups: 72 per cent according to one recent survey. The power struggle for his succession is already playing out before us.
Make no mistake, Hamas has its eyes on the West Bank in all of this. Abbas has already lost control of large parts of the West Bank to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, opening a new front against Israel. Israel and the PA have a difficult relationship but have largely worked together to keep terror activities at bay. It was an equation which worked until recently.
None of this will have been possible without Iran. An attack of such magnitude will have required extraordinary intelligence and military capabilities – something which Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps enforcers excel at. Preparations were likely discussed a few weeks back when Hamas’s senior leadership was hosted in Tehran by President Ebrahim Raisi. Hamas has boasted of being in receipt of $150 million from Iran each year. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Farsi-speaking figures have been caught on camera amidst the kidnappings into Gaza.
Israel’s security services have been consumed by threats from the West Bank for the last two years. Before this weekend, more Israelis (30) had been killed in terror attacks than any time since the Second Intifada of the early part of the century. The inevitable inquest will likely explore whether the security and political establishment had effectively turned its eyes away from Gaza.
Where does this leave the UK? In the immediate term, the Government will support an ally and, alongside the police, provide visible support to the UK’s Jewish community amidst an anticipated increase in antisemitic incidents as the conflict draws on. Looking ahead, prospects for a two-state peace process appear bleak, but the Abraham Accords have shown that transformational opportunities are within our grasp. The UK must counter Iran’s attempts to harm this new regional peace framework by using our extensive and historic ties in the region to expand its list of signatories.
UK Government policy on Iran needs to be clear-eyed. The country is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Under the watchful gaze of the international community, Iran has become a nuclear weapons threshold state. The U.S.’s apparent policy of appeasement is backfiring catastrophically, with sanctions relief and hostage release payments flooding into the coffers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. The UK can and should chart a different course.
Above all else, it is time for the UK to proscribe the preeminent terror group behind so much of the region’s suffering – the IRGC. The political support is patently there, if it chooses to.