Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
Yes, but then what? What does Israel plan to do after it beats Hamas? Is it enough to dismantle the terrorists’ infrastructure, build a wider no-man’s land and pull out again? Will Israel be drawn into another occupation, possibly through proxy Palestinian administrators?
Or is there, as critics allege, a plan for the general displacement of the Arab population?
I have put the question to various Israeli politicians over the past week. The official line seems to be that, once Hamas has been destroyed, Gaza can be restored to the Palestinian Authority, which has continued to regard itself as the legal government of that unhappy stretch of land since being ousted in 2007.
But I’m not sure anyone thinks it would work. There was a reason Gazans turned against Fatah in the first place, and riding back in on Israeli tanks would do nothing to restore the kleptocrats’ authority.
So, to repeat, what next? Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself against such unspeakable wickedness as we saw on 7 October. Defending itself means annihilating Hamas, because Israel can hardly leave the paramilitaries to gather their strength and strike again.
Eliminating Hamas means taking control of Gaza, for Hamas is not a terrorist group that happens to operate from the Gaza Strip, but the de facto government of that territory, providing its prime minister, regional governors, and administration. Taking control of Gaza means an unprecedented military operation, with dreadful casualties on all sides.
And then what?
Perhaps Israel doesn’t yet have the answer. Before the abominations in its southern kibbutzim, its politicians were looking forward to a gradual improvement of relations with Gaza. Even the most hard-line had generally reconciled themselves to the status quo, seeing the occasional lobbing of ordnance across the border as a lesser evil than the house-by-house combat by which Israel tried (unsuccessfully) to stop the rockets in 2008.
My guess is that, having been caught off guard, Israel’s leaders have no idea of how things might end, and are scrambling to put a plan in place.
There is, though, a darker possibility. What if Israel’s leaders do have a plan, but can’t publicly admit it? What if, as their enemies allege, their real game is ethnic cleansing?
There are figures around Netanyahu who have called in terms for the relocation of the Arab inhabitants. One paper talks of “a unique opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government,” and points to the quantity of affordable housing in Egypt.
Israel, according to this argument, has tried everything else. Ruling the Gaza Strip made Palestinians hate it. Pulling out made Palestinians hate it. Perhaps, some commentators mutter, the time has come to acknowledge that Gazans are unacceptably dangerous as neighbours.
Quite apart from the moral objections, it is hard to see how pushing people into Sinai would make Israel any safer. Ethnic cleansing would turn the world’s neutrals against Israel while making its frontiers more dangerous. If sealing a 32-mile border with Gaza is hard, sealing a 128-mile with Egypt is impossible.
Israel’s security has rested since 1979 on, if not exactly a warm friendship, at least a correct relationship, with Cairo. That relationship would not survive the arrival of two million Palestinian refugees.
But failures, moral and strategic, happen in wars. It is impossible to conduct operations in built-up areas without collateral damage. If civilians are driven out of Gaza, there will be a temptation to bolt the doors behind them. It might be a crime. It might, worse than a crime, be a blunder. But the abominations of 7 October have created a horrible new context.
“More than 12 million ethnic Germans were kicked out of Eastern Europe after 1945”, a (non-Jewish but pro-Israel) friend declared in a text. “It was a crime against humanity. Hundreds of thousands of people died, including kids and by the law of averages some anti-Nazis. But what else were the Poles and Czechs going to do? Leave a potential enemy column in place?”
“No one can answer questions like that,” I texted back. “It’s what makes wars so monstrous. It’s why we punish people who start them”.
Not every problem has a solution. Britain sought one in Palestine with patience and fair-mindedness, first encouraging Jews and Arabs to share the territory and then, when that proved impossible, proposing a partition. It ended up being detested by both sides. Perhaps, as the Israeli novelist Amoz Oz wrote, there are some wrongs that can only be righted with other wrongs.
The best we can hope for is a speedy end to the fighting. That does not mean, as some are now demanding, an immediate ceasefire, for a ceasefire would leave Hamas holding its hostages and its armoury. No, a speedy end to the fighting means the demolition of Hamas as quickly as possible within the rules of war, and with maximum protection for the civilian population.
To stabilise Gaza requires a massive programme of economic, social and educational reform, designed to break the cycle of revenge. Neither Israel nor a Palestinian proxy is ready to take on such a task. Ideally, some sort of consortium, involving the US and Arab states, would assume the administration of Gaza. But few countries seem interested.
Some Israelis think the answer is to dissolve Palestine into the wider Arab community. They point to the population transfers that followed the 1948 war.
But whereas the Jews expelled from Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and the rest are now solidly Israeli, the expelled Palestinians have been denied citizenship in their new lands and held as refugees even after three generations. For their part, some Palestinians want to dissolve Israel full stop, killing or driving out its people.
It is sometimes said that Israelis and Palestinians understand each other better than Western liberals understand either. The enormities in Israel and Gaza have a long pedigree. Some of the most hideous crimes of 7 October were carried out in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, close to the border with Gaza. It was precisely here, in 1956, that Moshe Dayan, the eyepatch-wearing war hero and chief of general staff, delivered a eulogy for a young officer who had been guarding the kibbutz. Dayan saw his death as part of an inescapable conflict, which required not compromise but resolution:
“Let us not blame the murderers. Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years have they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and seen, with their own eyes, how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forebears dwelt. We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the mouth of the cannon we could not plant a tree or build a house. The millions of Jews, annihilated without a land, peer out at us from the ashes of history and command us to settle and rebuild a land for our people. But beyond that border lies a surging sea of hatred and vengeance, yearning for the day when the ease blunts our alertness.”
Seventy-seven years have passed and, for all the hopes of compromise, attitudes have not softened. No, there is no obvious plan. There is no easy solution.
“Lost in a haunted wood; Children afraid of the night; Who have never been happy or good.”