David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
More than two weeks have passed since Hamas terrorists massacred 1300 Israeli civilians. Even now, we are still learning shocking details of the atrocities involved.
The response of the two leading UK political parties was clear. Both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer condemned Hamas and declared their support for Israel in its right to defend itself.
They were right to do so. The 7 October atrocities were not just savage criminal acts (although they were certainly that), but also a carefully planned attack launched by the organisation that controls Gaza. It was an act of war by a hostile neighbour, led by a terrorist group that sees its principal objective being to kill Jews. No nation could tolerate such a situation; of course Israel is entitled to defend itself.
So far, so straightforward. But what does this mean? What exactly is Israel justified in doing?
The issue of proportionality has become a prominent one. I do not think I can improve upon the argument made by Daniel Finkelstein in The Times last week. Proportionality is not about counting up how many have been killed on each side; it is about identifying whether a military objective is a proportionate response to the Hamas attack; and, in pursuing the objective. were civilian casualties intentional and, even if they were unintentional, were they excessive in relation to the achievement of concrete military advantage.
The first question, therefore, is what is the objective? Removing the leadership of Hamas from Gaza is certainly justified. Israel is more than entitled to argue that it would be intolerable to allow a terrorist organisation to launch an attack of the sort we have seen and then retreat to its own territory until it decides it wishes to do so again…and again and again. The desire for Hamas to slaughter Jews will never be sated. Israel will not have defended itself if Hamas is left in control of Gaza.
Therefore, when we say that Israel has the right to defend itself, we are saying that Israel is entitled to remove Hamas. We should say so explicitly.
The second element is more difficult. Removing Hamas will be immensely difficult and will involve fighting in densely populated urban areas, creating enormous risks for both the Israel Defence Forces forces and Gazan civilians. Israel has been trying to weaken the hold of Hamas and reduce resistance before sending in ground forces. This is in furtherance of a military objective that is, I would argue, legitimate. But civilians have been killed and living conditions for millions are appalling. Determining whether this action is excessive will be difficult and contentious.
This reveals the bind Israel has been placed in. It was the victim of an act of unspeakable brutality but, at the point at which it takes action to defend itself, its enemies will portray the Israelis as the aggressors.
There is no doubt that Israel is not short of enemies. The reaction to 7 October of too many around the world, including in the UK, was partially to justify an act of terrorism as one of resistance and pre-emptively condemn any Israeli response. That Jews in this country have felt – with reason – unsafe is deplorable. When protesters chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, we should be clear what this means, that the state of Israel is wiped from the map.
The implacable foes of Israel are one thing – the “anti-colonialist” left who oppose any entity associated with the west, and radical Islamists. Israel’s problems, however, will also stem from decent people shocked by the actions of Hamas but who are understandably concerned about the suffering of Palestinian civilians.
On this point, the Israeli Government has not done its country any favours due to its approach to the West Bank settlements and its extremist members. Already, opinion polls show that a large majority of the public would support a ceasefire. Stop the killing on both sides – who can argue against that? Quite a few of us, as it happens. A ceasefire now would leave Hamas in control in Gaza, unpunished, undiminished and ready for the next opportunity to pursue its genocidal agenda. But one can see why the calls for a ceasefire have appeal.
It is an appeal that is only likely to grow. At a time when everyone carries a camera in their pocket, the consequences of every Israeli military action will be transmitted around the world. The memory of 7 October will fade; the focus will be on the people of Gaza. Even when civilian deaths are directly the fault of Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist groups (as is almost certainly the case with the Al-Ahli Hospital), Israel will get the blame in the eyes of some.
Israel has the moral right to remove Hamas, even though doing so will cause thousands of deaths of innocent Gazans. It is impossible to see how Israel can be safe while Hamas remain in control. The moral culpability lies with Hamas, not with Israel assuming it acts with due restraint.
The difficulty is that this is not an argument that is likely to be won in the court of public opinion, certainly not in the Muslim world and, very probably, even in the west.
Labour’s position, standing by Israel at a time of crisis, reflected well on Sir Keir Starmer. It was the right thing to do but it also demonstrated how the party leadership has moved on from Jeremy Corbyn. Some of Labour’s supporters have not moved on and, over time, will become more vocal.
Two moments in recent history are of particular relevance. The Iraq war in 2003 and its aftermath still reverberate. Questions about an exit strategy are very pertinent today for the Israelis. For many in the UK and elsewhere, confidence in military intervention was much diminished.
The second moment was Israel’s intervention in Lebanon in 2006 when, again, it faced a terrorist threat on its border. Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister at the time, was supportive of Israel. It was a position that expedited the end of Blair’s premiership. Labour is inherently uncomfortable with a pro-Israeli position.
It is not difficult to imagine that the issue of Israel and Palestine becomes a contentious one within the Labour Party. The Stop The War Coalition may re-emerge (I am not quite sure what happened to them, but I must have missed them protesting outside the Russian embassy); Corbyn might run for Mayor of London and attract enough votes to scupper Sadiq Khan. Starmer might have a problem again on his left.
It may be a little distasteful to mention such matters but this highlights how precarious Israel’s position is in terms of international support. Our politicians have so far been steadfast but the public less so. Israel has been wronged, it is entitled to respond but as it does so it will be increasingly seen as the aggressors. This is not right or fair but support for Israel will become increasingly unfashionable.