George Barnes is reading War Studies and Command at Kings College London.
Even now, two weeks after Hamas’ repulsive attack on innocent civilians, the mutilated bodies of parents, children and friends still line roads in the South of Israel. Until they can be reclaimed by Israeli authorities and returned to their families, they lie as a chilling reminder of the unfettered savagery unleashed by Hamas.
For anyone deluded enough to have been questioning whether Hamas should be seen as freedom fighters rather than terrorists, recent events should have put an end to any such debate. Indiscriminate rocket attacks and widespread desecration of murdered corpses have proved once again that Hamas is willing to perform unbridled savagery in the name of misguided political goals.
The UK’s condemnation has been swift and strong – and rightly so. Rishi Sunak stated his unwavering support to Israel and its “absolute right to defend itself and to deter further incursions.” James Cleverly flew to Israel as soon as he could in order to express our nation’s condolences and, whilst dodging rockets, reinforce the message of steadfast support. This initial response from our Government was undoubtedly the right one.
But we must remember that such statements are easy to make when the corpses of murdered innocents still line the streets. As the weeks progress, and Israel’s military response grows, the UK will inevitably see this position harder and harder to maintain. Yes, we are a steadfast ally of Israel, but at what point should a responsible ally, and full-throated member of the rules-based-international-order, temper such support?
Israel is at war with Hamas. As a result, it is obliged to operate under the International Law of Armed Conflict. This treaty forces combatants to employ three key principles when prosecuting any conflict: proportionality, distinction, and military necessity. In the crudest sense, why use large bomb to kill the driver of a bus (and clearly everyone else on board), when you could kill them using one shot from a sniper?
Although these three principles are expanded upon in great volume and legalistic detail, at their core, they are requiring only one thing – for signatories to fight humanely, and where possible, to minimise unnecessary suffering. Born out of the atrocities seen on the battlefields of Western Europe and the Pacific in the 1940s, they are a defining landmark on the journey to regulate unnecessary cruelty and suffering during war.
With scores of Israeli citizens held captive in stifling cellars under the Gaza Strip, and at severe risk of a gruesome execution, Israel’s initial response can be defended with relative ease. It has every right to use force to safely recover its citizens, and to neutralise the terrorist organisation responsible for such heinous crimes.
Hamas is widely known to exploit the urban sprawl of Gaza by operating from densely populated tower blocks, and to intentionally occupy buildings in order to use innocent civilians as human shields. As a result, the use of precision-guided missiles to destroy these legitimate military targets illustrates a clear effort by Israel to balance the principles of military necessity and proportionality.
Although it may feel uncomfortable (and rightly so), we must remember that not all civilian casualties are illegal if they are collateral from a proportionate, necessary and distinct military strike. But what if these precision-guided strikes become more frequent, and the targets harder to justify? What if Israel launches a full-scale invasion of Gaza?
Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric has been clear and unequivocal. His country intends to respond decisively, and with significant force: Hamas will “pay a very heavy price for their aggression.” Even before all the Hamas terrorist fighters operating in Southern Israel had been rounded up, Israel Defence Force fighter jets were launching bombs at Hamas command centres in the Gaza strip. Videos of whole tower blocks being destroyed and wounded Palestinian civilians being rushed to overstretched hospitals began to fill our news feeds, sparking protests across countries where many felt Israel had not been proportionate or discriminate enough in its use of force.
Condemnation has been swift, with reactions displaying varying degrees of sensibility and balance. A brief condemnation of Hamas by Hamza Yousef, for example, was swiftly followed by a lengthy diatribe against Israel’s initial riposte, even as the terrorist organisation continued to launch rockets against Israeli civilian targets.
Such criticism is predictable and unfortunately expected whenever a new Middle Eastern crisis raises its head. Although these opinions should not be ignored, their glaring bias means they must nevertheless be taken with a pinch of salt. As the air strikes have continued however, such remarks must be taken more seriously. And remember, this has all been before Israel’s highly-anticipated main counter-attack.
The greater Israel’s response, the likelier its use of force will be seen as disproportionate and irresponsible. A large-scale invasion of Gaza would inevitably create huge numbers of civilian casualties, and with Israel sealing off two of the three border crossing points, non-combatants would struggle to reach an area of guaranteed safety. To locate hostages or Hamas militant leaders, cities would have to be cleared street by street. Against an intensely hostile and well-armed militia (thanks Iran), the civilian violence and suffering would be extreme.
Having purposefully shut off electricity and basic amenities to Gaza, as well as resisting calls to establish large scale humanitarian corridors, Israel would be actively hampering the ability of non-combatants to find medical assistance, shelter, and safety. When it comes to International Law, Israel is beginning to enter uncomfortable territory. It is imperative that innocent civilians are given the fair and humane treatment they deserve. Isreal cannot treat them as an awkward inconvenience in their campaign against Hamas.
This places the UK in a difficult position. And not just morally – cutting off humanitarian aid and targeting energy sources draws uncomfortable parallels to Russian strikes on Ukrainian power network. One can almost hear the accusations of hypocrisy from the Kremlin.
Allies have a critical role to play in such a scenario. For the UK, this does not mean limitless and guaranteed permanent support, or conversely, abandonment of a country which has just suffered its most inhumane attack since the Holocaust. Instead, it entails the UK adopting the role of a critical friend.
The UK has a world-class suite of diplomats, military officials, and politicians, who together can shape and influence Israel’s response. It’s worth noting that although Mahmoud Abbas refused to meet Joe Biden recently, he met nonetheless with the Prime Minister during his own visit to the Middle East.
Publicly criticising heavy-handed elements of the Israeli response, whilst providing consistent overarching political support, does not have to be disingenuous. The two can go together. If anything, such an approach can deepen the bonds of friendship between Israel and UK, whilst simultaneously allowing the UK to advocate for and defend core British principles. With our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary publicly calling for Israel to have greater humanitarian consideration for the people of Gaza, it is clear our Conservative Government is already embracing this constructive approach.
Perhaps most importantly of all, a carefully calibrated and adaptive approach by the UK to Israel could help constrain the cycle of escalation and mutual revenge that is all too familiar in the Middle East. As Gandhi famously stated – “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Fortunately, it’s looking as though our Government is doing its best to make sure this does not become a reality