James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.
It’s only when you walk around somewhere like Kfar Aza that you begin to truly grasp the scale of devastation and horror unleashed by Hamas on 7 October.
It confronts you the moment you drive into the kibbutz. Homes burned to the ground. Wall calendars stuck on October 2023. One of the streets had even become known as the “street of death”, with its young residents butchered in nearly every home.
Hamas’ tactics recalled the depravity of ISIS, with homes set alight as terrified residents sheltered in their safe rooms and the premeditated use of rape as a weapon of war.
This was the story of just one community.
Like many others, I had woken on 7 October to the shocking footage of Hamas gunmen firing indiscriminately from a pick-up truck in the Israeli city of Sderot. It was something previously thought impossible.
Sderot – like Kfar Aza – is a place Conservative Friends of Israel have taken many parliamentary groups to visit. Sderot is now a ghost town; its 30,000 residents only numbering a couple of thousand. It was chilling to see the former police station which Hamas had brutally seized, now razed to the ground.
The IDF showed us the weapons Hamas used that day. It was a well-planned attack, with explosive devices customised in Gaza to fit the precise shape of the security fence along the border. Large quantities of Russian machine guns were displayed alongside Iranian drones.
Hamas had even used advanced Chinese weaponry, including grenade launchers. Questions remain whether Chinese arms were provided via Iran, but it’s clear evidence of China’s preparedness to challenge our allies and interests.
Conservative Friends of Israel had been set to fly to Israel on the 8 October with a group of MPs. We’d planned to visit Israel’s northern border with Lebanon to better understand the danger posed by Hezbollah and its 150,000 missiles.
CFI’s visits to Israel’s south had been fewer in recent years as attention had turned northwards. Within Israel’s security establishment, the threat posed by Hamas in Gaza was thought to be greatly diminished. Hamas was apparently more interested in stability and entrenching its control. It had sat out a recent outbreak of violence when Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired hundreds of rockets at Israel.
How bitterly wrong they were.
Survivors of the Nova music festival massacre spoke of their extraordinary tales of escape as they drove through heavy gunfire. Rami Davidian, a farmer from a nearby town, told us of how he had rescued more than 700 youngsters that day as he hurriedly shepherded people to safety with nothing more than his car.
His phone number was circulated by survivors and he received hundreds of messages with pin locations from those desperately seeking rescue. At one point he even engaged five Hamas terrorists holding a young woman he had been trying to find and in Arabic managed to convince them to leave the area on the pretence that the IDF were closing in.
The Nova exhibition in Tel Aviv features the awful imagery now forever synonymous with that dark day. The bright yellow portaloos pockmarked with bullet holes. Burned cars. The Coca-Cola fridges that panicked young people took shelter in at the festival bar. It’s an exhibit that ought to be brought to the UK; a powerful way to communicate what seems to many people distant and unimaginable.
Much has been said about the infamous 47-minute video compiled from footage filmed by Hamas and CCTV cameras. It is relentlessly harrowing. The expressions of joy from those committing their atrocities bluntly confirms the reality of Hamas and its genocidal doctrine.
I can’t help but think that we will be reckoning for a long time to come with the abject failure of the police to stop flagrant expressions of support for Hamas on the streets of the UK. The normalisation of support for a proscribed terror group warrants major soul searching and a suitable policy response.
Israel is experiencing a deep trauma. The reminders of 7 October are everywhere with posters for the 130 still cruelly held in captivity on bridges, buildings and clothing.
As a small country, it’s practically impossible to find anyone in Israel without a personal connection to that dark day. Our hotel, like all others, was full of evacuees, some of the more than two hundred thousand across Israel’s north and south still unable to return home. A restaurant worker discreetly told us that she had survived the horror at Nova.
The British Government’s response hasn’t gone unnoticed in Israel. It’s deeply and sincerely appreciated, with the Prime Minister repeatedly singled out for his moral clarity. One person recounted how their young child had told them: “It’s okay, America and Britain understand”.
This heartening support was reiterated this Monday as Rishi Sunak and 200 of his parliamentary colleagues, including 20 Cabinet members, joined CFI for its annual lunch. The UK-Israel relationship is stronger than ever and goes much deeper than the current crisis.
Intense fighting has now continued for more than 100 days. Israel has degraded much of Hamas’ fighting capabilities, leading to dramatically reduced rocket fire.
Too many lives have been lost, and Gaza’s long-suffering civilian population is now experiencing a major humanitarian crisis, cynically worsened by Hamas. But while the IDF has begun winding down its major operations, the expectation is that smaller military actions will continue for some time as Hamas’ leadership remains at large within the tunnel network beneath Khan Younis.
Talk has understandably turned to the day after this terrible conflict ends. HM Government is absolutely right that Hamas must have no role in Gaza’s future, since it has exploited every previous ceasefire to rearm and prolong the painful cycle of violence for Israelis and Palestinians.
While Israel’s allies and Gulf partners – behind closed doors, at least – agree that Hamas must be destroyed, the painful reality is that the politics of Hamas has purchase and appeal in the region; Hamas was elected by the people of Gaza. Major confidence building efforts are needed to show that a different path is possible.
The UK and US have called for a revitalised Palestinian Authority (PA) to administer Gaza. This may end up being part of Gaza’s future, but significant challenges lie ahead for that plan. The PA is deeply unpopular in the West Bank due to widespread corruption, and has lost control of a number of cities within the area to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The PA’s endorsement of extremism should trouble Western and Arab capitals. The UK has long failed to condemn the PA’s practice of paying salaries to convicted terrorists (now including those Hamas fighters behind 7 October). British-taxpayer-funded teachers also deliver a PA-produced curriculum rife with incitement to violence and antisemitism.
The ending of these practices must be essential preconditions of further support; neighbouring Arab states have shown in recent years that major curriculum reform is possible.
They have also shown that peace with Israel isn’t just possible, but desirable. Crucially, Saudi Arabia has indicated that peace with Israel remains on the table, which would offer a decisive step towards regional stability.
As with so much in the region, it comes back to Iran. The prospect of Hezbollah entering the war is now keeping Israelis up at night. As Iran’s premier terror franchise, Hezbollah’s capabilities are far in excess of Hamas.
In countering Iran and its terror proxies, it is time the UK was clear-eyed. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has made Hezbollah into the force it is today. The IRGC’s expanding activities in the UK beggar belief. As we stand with our ally Israel against Iranian aggression in the region, surely the best course of action is to deal the fundamentalist regime in Tehran a blow – and proscribe the IRGC?