Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
It is hard to think, let alone write, about what Israel is going through. The Jewish people have had more than their share of suffering down the centuries; but what can prepare you for the kidnapping of children, the slaughter of babies, the gleeful posting of murders on the victims’ Facebook accounts?
Imagine, too, what it must be like to be a civilian in Gaza right now: instructed by Netanyahu to leave before you are bombed, but trapped inside sealed borders; more valuable to Hamas as a dead propaganda display than a living non-combatant; denied electricity; sheltering from barrages.
Israel is right that there is a huge moral difference between deliberately targeting women and children, as Hamas does, and causing collateral damage in strikes against an armed adversary. But that distinction won’t mean much to those on the receiving end of retaliatory bombs.
Until a week ago, there was at least a prospect of a wider regional peace. Several Arab states were normalising their relations with the Jewish state, and there was talk of whether Israel might respond by recognising, in broad terms, the right of Palestinians to self-determination.
All that is out of the window now. No Israeli government can discuss a two-state solution when a Palestinian state might murder or kidnap Israeli children at the drop of a keffiyeh.
From an Israeli point of view, disengagement from the occupied territories has been a catastrophe. In 2005, Ariel Sharon ordered a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, dismantling 21 Jewish settlements. In 2006, Hamas was elected and, in 2007, it defeated its secularist rivals in a brief civil war. Since then, it has lobbed thousands of missiles at Israel, which has responded with airstrikes. This time, Israel seems almost certain to invade Gaza with land forces; and now, there is no talk of withdrawal.
The Arab rapprochement with Israel has, exactly as Hamas intended, been capsized. As the Israeli response intensifies, Arab media will be filled with images of horror from Gaza, making political normalisation impossible. At the same time, the conflict will drive a wedge between Arab nations and Western governments, which have no choice but to back an embattled democracy against terrorism.
There is little point in Britain or the US urging moderation on Israel. What Israeli government, after what has just happened, will hang back? Nor is there much point in friendly Arab states trying to restrain Hamas, whose aim remains the destruction of Israel. The two sides won’t agree to a temporary truce, let alone a political settlement.
It is tempting to say that there are no winners; but, alas, there are. Iran’s government newspaper yesterday revelled in the number of dead Israeli civilians, running a cartoon of a Hamas paramilitary holding celebratory balloons showing “1K”.
The links between Hamas and Iran are nothing new. Israel has always viewed Teheran as its real strategic opponent, and the ordnance spraying out of Gaza was largely paid for by the ayatollahs.
But what of the other winner, Russia?
Here, the situation is more complicated. Vladimir Putin likes to pose as a defender against Islamic fundamentalism, and had been working with Israel in Syria. But once Russia was thrown back on Iran for drones and sanctions-busting, it was only a matter of time before it aligned its regional policy with that of the mullahs. Sure enough, Hamas leaders became regular visitors to Moscow in 2023.
The refusal of successive Israeli governments to condemn the invasion of Ukraine or join in anti-Russian sanctions, always discreditable, turned out also to be unreciprocated. Russian state media are dwelling lovingly on the terrorist attacks, portraying them as a defeat for the West. They suggest that Hamas acted now because Western arsenals are depleted by the Ukraine war, meaning that less ammunition is available for Israel.
Russian TV stations are also glorying in the pro-Palestinian demonstrations across Europe. Wagner’s destabilisation of Muslim African states, notably Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, has pushed into Europe many migrants whom Russia hopes will be turned against their host countries by precisely such conflicts as this one.
Speaking in Sochi last week, Putin spoke of the eclipse of Western power and the rise of alternative civilizational models. A war in Israel is, from his point of view, almost a second front against NATO. We are, in short, seeing precisely the multi-polar world that wokies drool over. Welcome to the post-Western order, in which wars multiply and violence begets violence.
It seems almost redundant, at this stage, to lament what might have been. I used to have a vision of a propertied, bourgeois Palestinian state, whose citizens were too busy making money to join militias. After all, in almost every country to which they have emigrated, Palestinians have proved enterprising and industrious.
I was so keen on this vision that I toured the region promoting it. Imagine a Palestine integrated into the global economy, I would tell Israeli audiences; a Palestine whose businessmen want to remain on good terms with their suppliers and customers, most of whom are necessarily in Israel; a Palestine whose propertied classes won’t tolerate lawless gangs or freelance rocket launchers.
The precondition, of course, was for Israel to remove the barriers around the Palestinian territories, which in turn depended on being able to trust the authorities there. This week, the baseless fabric of my vision dissolved, leaving not a rack behind.