Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
The full barbarism of Hamas’s attack waits to be uncovered. Every day brings news that another hundred Israelis were killed: children, their parents and grandparents, music festival goers, even bedouin tribesmen. TV reports of journalists picking their way through burnt-out Kibbutzim evoke the worst days of the Bosnian war. The State of Israel was created to stop this happening again. Last weekend, it failed.
Israelis find themselves returning to that recurring question of Jewish history: how do you defend yourselves against an enemy whose aim is, to quote the Hamas charter, your “obliteration”? The immediate reaction appears to replay previous bouts of fighting between Israel and Hamas, in which Israel pounds Gaza from the air, destroys its buildings, and hopes to kill Hamas’s military leadership and rescue hostages (in reality, more with special forces infiltrations for which the air campaign creates cover and chaos).
The script has become familiar: Israel knows it has a certain amount of time to weaken Hamas before the international pressure, often based on a naive understanding of international humanitarian law, to stop becomes unbearable, lest more Palestinian civilians be killed in the course of Israel’s campaign against the terrorist organisation. Then a ceasefire is arranged, a bruised Hamas licks its wounds, and reconstruction funding repairs the damage. This is of no comfort to the residents of Gaza, over whom Hamas imposes a militaristic dictatorship that periodically picks fights with their more powerful neighbour, and who are left to bear the consequences of their government’s aggression.
This time is different. Opinion in Israel has now settled that armistice with Hamas is impossible. The organisation will have to be destroyed and, while something worse might rise in its place, that’s a risk they’re now willing to take. Israelis are also more relaxed about international opinion. Terrorists motivated by the same ideology as Hamas have blown up commuters in London and Brussels, shot concertgoers in Paris and run tourists down in Nice. They will ask governments in London, Paris and Berlin: how would you react to 8,000 dead, in your larger countries, in a single day? How will you react to the tens of your citizens that were killed on Saturday?
This time, Israel’s constraints are practical. After all reasonable targets that have been hit, the next step would be a ground invasion. It would be foolish to assume that Hamas have not prepared for this, and Israeli forces would find themselves fighting a well-organised enemy in hostile urban terrain among a population that hates them. In the north, the IDF are exchanging fire with Hezbollah (the United States dispatched an aircraft carrier to dissuade Iran from intervening), while the situation in the West Bank is extremely tense. The main reason the Gaza border was so thinly defended was that a division stationed there had been moved to the West Bank.
There are competing interpretations for this move. The most benign is that faith in the electronic defences on the border with Gaza, together with a belief that Hamas would avoid a major war as long as it was allowed to receive money from Qatar (this seems to have been deliberate deception by Hamas), caused Israel to discount intelligence that pointed to Hamas planning a major operation.
A more damming hypotheses is swirling in some Israeli military circles: that the southern border had to be stripped of troops to protect settlers in the West Bank from Palestinians inflamed by the extremism of members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s own cabinet. Even public interviews with Israeli military spokesmen betray the distinct impression they expect that the official inquiry into the intelligence failure will end the career of the divisive Israeli Prime Minister.
Meanwhile the West Bank is on edge. An interview with Mustafa Barghouti, a senior figure in the non-violent Palestinian National Resistance (and no relation to Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a terrorism sentence in an Israeli jail), with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria indicated the extent of radicalisation of Palestinian opinion.
For around a decade, Israel has been more or less able to use physical security barriers to ignore the Palestinians. It now seems that this time has come to an end. Just as tactics needed to quell unrest in the West Bank might have opened up gaps that Hamas exploited from Gaza, tactics needed to destroy Hamas might spark off another uprising in the west Bank.
In 2004, during the Second Palestinian Intifada, Michael Walzer wrote of the “four Israeli-Palestinian wars”, two waged by each side. On the Israeli side, one war of self-defence, another to conquer the West Bank. On the Palestinian side, one for national liberation, the other to drive the Jews into the sea. Walzer, a moral philosopher, was interested in the moral status of each reason for fighting, but his concept has real world use. Insofar as the balance shifts towards the first in each set of wars, a peace settlement can be imagined. Insofar as it shifts towards the second, no compromise is possible.
Netanyahu’s appointment of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir to his government moved the Israeli war away from self-defence and towards conquest. Hamas’s military takeover of the Gaza strip in which it overthrew the Palestinian Authority in 2007 moved the Palestinian war away from national liberation of Palestine and towards obliteration of Israel. This weekend’s pogrom moved it further in that direction still.
If any hope can come out of this terrible weekend, it is that Hamas can be destroyed as a military force and the settler movement in Israel destroyed as a political force. The first step is the formation of an emergency national unity government in Israel to sideline Smotrich and Ben Gvir, suspend Netanyahu’s attacks on the rule of law, and inject much-needed experience into the state’s top leadership. A second would be the constructive involvement by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to promote an alternative to Iran-backed Hamas.
This is the minimum necessary to avoid a major conflagration that could put Israel in as much danger as it was in the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago.