Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass…”
There is a lot of genocide in the Old Testament – unsurprisingly, perhaps, for vendetta is the default ethic of a tribal species like ours. The places where the Hebrew Bible was composed, whether Canaan in the Fourteenth Century BC or Babylon in the Sixth, were typical of almost every human society, until an eye-blink ago, being based on blood-guilt and collective punishment.
Jews have attracted more than their share of collective animus down the ages. The Holocaust shocks us because it happened at a time when we thought we had embraced the notion of personal responsibility. The Nazis brought the morality of the Bronze Age to post-Enlightenment Europe.
The essential wickedness of the Holocaust lay in the denial of the possibility of innocence. Whatever your story or your opinions, whether you were male or female, adult or newborn, the fact of being Jewish condemned you. That same wickedness lay behind the abominations of 7 October.
The natural response to such horrors is to want to hit back in kind. Israel, being a law-governed democracy, has so far tempered this instinct, in the sense of not carrying out tit-for-tat murders. There is, though, a danger that, in pursuing its legitimate objectives – rescuing the hostages, disabling Hamas’s infrastructure and removing the terrorist group from Gaza – it is heedless of civilian losses. Indeed, some Israeli politicians go further.
Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space of the talk in Jerusalem of “a unique opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government”. An Israeli official and a Likud MP separately got in touch to tell me not to worry: such talk was idiocy coming from the kind of extremists who gave Israel a bad name. There was no way that their country would ever engage in ethnic cleansing.
I was glad to hear it. But, since then, such talk has only intensified. A similar proposal was circulated by the Intelligence Ministry; Benjamin Netanyahu’s office did not deny it, instead describing it as a hypothetical “concept paper”.
Ram Ben Barak, the former director of Mossad, said in a TV interview that the solution was to give 100 countries 25,000 Gazans each. Amichai Eliyahu, the Heritage Minister, told a radio station that dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza was one among a range of options.
And let’s not forget how Netanyahu himself frames the conflict. Alluding to the verse with which I opened (1 Samuel 15:3), he told his countrymen: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”
As a thought experiment, how would we react if Vladimir Putin said something similar? Is Eliyahu’s nuclear musing substantively different from Dmitri Medvedev’s? What would be our response if Russia ordered Ukrainian civilians to evacuate lands east of the Dneiper? If it bombed Polish airports in a preventative move, as Israel has bombed Syria’s?
Recall that, when Russia cut off Ukraine’s energy, Britain, the US and the EU called it a war crime.
Obviously the two situations are not analogous. Ukraine was attacked without provocation by a country that had promised to guarantee its independence. But the rest of the world is unimpressed by what it sees as Western double standards.
To our eyes, there is an obvious distinction. Israel, like Ukraine, is a democracy. And frankly, Israel is unlikely to attack us whereas, quite apart from cyberattacks and nuclear sabre-rattling, Russia technically carried out two acts of war when it struck at targets living under the Queen’s peace.
But that does not impress the global south, who see us acting out of realpolitik and dressing it up in moralising language.
Unlike Ukraine, which Britain was honour-bound to support as a signatory of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, neither Israel nor Palestine has a direct claim on us; our legal responsibility ended on 15 May 1948. I take the unfashionable view that the British Mandate was an exemplary exercise in trying to be fair to all sides, but it ended up making us detested all round.
Still, we should try to uphold the same principles that we proclaim elsewhere. We have no practical ability to halt the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, or the cultural genocide against the Uighur. But that doesn’t mean we keep silent.
We should stand, always and everywhere, for freedom, self-determination and human rights. We should back Israel in seeking to recover its kidnapped. We should condemn violence by West Bank settlers. We should support the eradication of Hamas.
We should warn Netanyahu against any suggestion of prolonging the war for reasons of domestic politics. We should sanction figures in either side who call for genocide. We should oppose proposals to remove the population of Gaza, whether deliberately or through a reluctance to be too picky about how Hamas is bombed.
Numbers are almost impossible to verify. The Health Ministry in Gaza, run by Hamas, claims that more than 10,000 people have been killed. IDF sources anonymously brief that the real number may be 20,000.
Such a figure would represent nearly one per cent of the population killed in under a month. Some were terrorists, but some were children. There comes a point when the rate of collateral damage means that bombing cannot be called surgical; Anthony Blinken is reportedly pleading with Israel to use smaller bombs.
I don’t pretend that any of this is easy. The distinction between Hamas and ordinary Gazans is necessarily blurred when Hamas is the government of that unhappy strip of land. It has been blurred further, both by Israeli hardliners who maintain that all Palestinians support terrorism, and by those Western Leftists who now complain about the elision that they themselves made when disgracefully excusing Hamas’s atrocities.
Still, we should hold true to our values. Israel is a friend that has suffered an outrage; but it is no more entitled than any other country to commit outrages in response. We should say so, not because we want to shore up our relations with Arab states, still less to appease any domestic constituency.
Rather, we should say so because we care about an international order based on rules. Every country has an interest in that order – Israel, in the long run, more than most. Urging moderation will be as unpopular now as it was before 1948, and probably as ineffective. But it is still the right thing to do.