Charlotte Leslie is Director of the Conservative Middle East Council, and was MP for Bristol North West from 2010-2017.
How do you write about this? How do you write about what happened on October 7? I remember feeling this after we had watched people jump from the flaming twin towers.
Words seem inadequate – or worse, flags of touristic intellectualism, waving serenely in front of torment. Who am I to offer any words in the face of such suffering?
I have tried to imagine an Islamist terrorist smashing into the cosy safety of my house and killing my family in front of me. But I can’t. It is literally unthinkable.
But the unthinkable must be thought and written about, as best we can. We owe it to the victims of the unimaginable to do whatever we can to prevent it from happening again. So, we must think – preferably before we write or act.
The poet T.S. Elliot wrote, in the voice of our creator: “I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate between futile speculation, and unconsidered action.”
There is plenty of futile speculation in the political sphere. We must not to add unconsidered action. This becomes essential if we are engaging, as we are, in the terrifying business of attempting to dismantle an already-detonating sequence of regional-violence-bombs. Lives literally depend upon it.
So, I must share with you another story. I share it emphatically not as an equivalent for comparison – suffering does not have equivalencies. But it is relevant.
This story, another I am unable to imagine, has been told to me in countless ways:
A night like any night. The family asleep. Then jerked awake by violent bangs at the door. They are here. The men (maybe women) in black. Guns. Yells. The door is down. Our house invaded, raided, overturned, our things thrown about in disgusted accusation. My lovely things – the little painted pot mum gave me… “What do you want?” I cry.
I am Palestinian. But I am not Hamas. I am not political. My politicians have all let me down. I am sick of them all… And then, my dread: my eldest, just started big school, arrested, taken away. I do not know where. They know there is nothing I can do.
Now my farm, our livelihood – the beautiful gnarled ancient olive trees my great-great-grandfather tended, my heritage but also my income. And here they are. The bulldozers. Down the trees go, the richness of centuries, branches crushed in seconds under iron. They know there is nothing I can do.
They have been building relentlessly over our land, land recognised as ours by the international laws. Building completely illegally. But where are the international laws? They are not here for me. The diggers are closing in on us, with the support of the government, and now even the army with them. But they know there is nothing I can do.
They know that there is nothing anyone is going to do to stop them; not the West, no one. I am, in their eyes, nobody. My existence is an international inconvenience. An embarrassment. And if I am wiped out somehow, perhaps, I think, perhaps people in closed rooms in important buildings are saying, “so much the better”.
And the worst thing? This has become normal for me. I realise that I have internalised the idea that I am no one. This has gone on, got worse, for generations. No one cares. I’m not even sure I have the energy to care anymore. Maybe that’s the intention.
That is the other story that has been told to me and I have seen, by Palestinians who simply want to live in dignity and peace.
But it is harder than ever, in the light of the atrocities committed by Hamas since October 7 to articulate this other story; i can be seen as an attempted justification for unjustifiable terrorism.
It is not. How could it be? But it is true, and it is real. And it would be cowardly to pretend it is not.
People and states close to the situation, such as Jordan, who care profoundly about the security of Israel (not least for their own national stability), know this story.
They have been warning that the pressure of the increasing denial of Palestinian rights, as defined under our own international law, is ready to blow. They have exhorted the international community to safely diffuse this pressure through legal means: by practically upholding our own laws.
We cannot blame the atrocities on any actor except Hamas. Perhaps there was nothing we could do to prevent it. But the international community’s failure to uphold its own international law without fear or favour has been a gift to Iran, Hamas, and anti-western Islamist militias.
Our inaction has fed the Islamist radicalisation machine and has also helped provide them with a literally captive, desperate audience in Gaza, and a despairingly isolated population on the West Bank.
Like all abusers, who care nothing for the lives of those they groom, radicalise and abuse, Hamas, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and others have predated on the despair of a people who find all legitimate forms of objection to their illegal treatment blocked: “See – no one cares about you. Only we care. Only we can get change for you. With our guns, bombs, and Jew-hate.” Palestinians in Gaza reluctant to accept Hamas’ narrative face down threats and bribes in resistance.
Now Hamas has not only brutalised Israel, but also razed to the ground hopes of Palestinians for a peaceful political solution. The only winners are Iran, and extremists on either side who require hatred and division for their identity, income, and power.
So, what should the West do? How do we best stand with Israel?
Perhaps the state that has paid the highest price of our previous interpretation of “standing with Israel” to mean turning a blind eye to sustained breaches of international law, to which we would otherwise react, is Israel itself.
The policy of pretending the so-called Palestinian issue is a thing of the past, safely swept under the carpet and superseded by other regional issues, patently has not worked, exploding catastrophically into crisis.
The devastating bombing and siege of Gaza by Israel does raise legal questions of proportionality and the illegality of collective punishment, (if we still hold our existing international law as valid). But who, in Israel’s situation, after such attacks, cannot honestly say they would not seek not only an eye for an eye, but five eyes for an eye, five teeth for a tooth?
But we must also be able to acknowledge at the same time, that this may not be the right response. Not only not right under various laws we can cite, but not right for the long term good for either Israelis, or Palestinians. Who both have a right to live in peace, under their own identities.
Hamas have made that prospect distant. Israel’s understandable reaction, likewise. But if we are to truly stand with Israel, we cannot tacitly buy into the narrative of the Palestinian people that Hamas sibilantly pushes us: that they are all terrorists. Nor can we allow ourselves to pretend the Palestinians don’t exist or don’t have the same rights as any other population. We must wise up.
Doing what we’ve always done has proved catastrophic. Perpetuating cycles of violence-and-vengeance risks not only unhealable traumatisation of both Israelis and Palestinians, but destabilisation of the entire globe. We in the West can no longer afford to take understandable, but unconsidered action – or inaction.