Destroying Hamas is in Britain’s interest. We should be backing Israel to achieve it

Mourners gather around the coffins of British-Israelis Lianne Sharabi and her two daughters, Noiya,16, and Yahel,13, during their funeral in Kfar Harif, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023
Lest we forget: Hamas's October 7 pogrom is why Israel is fighting in Gaza - Ariel Schalit/AP

Most of us will hardly be able to imagine the bestial horror and extreme violence that engulfed the unfortunate inhabitants of the small kibbutz of Be’eri, near Gaza, on October 7. But there are survivors to tell of what happened. And if you heard, as I and a small number of House of Lords colleagues did while visiting Israel last week, a young woman describe the murder and kidnap of her family, in the blackened, twisted, burned-out wreck of a childhood home, you got a glimpse behind the awful statistics of that horrific day.

I can only speak for myself in the conclusions I draw from that visit. But one point was obvious to me and, I think, to any visitor, if maybe less so to those who see only the awful images of the subsequent war in Gaza: the fact that Israelis now, once again, feel beleaguered and insecure in their own country.

Israelis are well aware that polling shows that majorities in Gaza still support Hamas and the October 7 attacks. They believe that much of Palestinian opinion is unreconciled to Israel’s existence.

They are in no doubt that the intention of Iran and its many proxies, including Hamas, is to destroy their country if they can – if not directly, then by trying to make it insecure and hard to live in (and let’s not forget that, even now, nearly 150,000 Israelis are still displaced from their homes because it’s too dangerous for them to return). That is why their state’s failure to protect them on October 7 came as such a shock and why the country remains in trauma while so many hostages are still in Gaza.

But Israelis are also determined to remedy that situation – and rightly so. Benjamin Netanyahu may not be popular, but his policies are. Repeated Israeli concessions have failed to provide security: it’s obvious to us all now that the earlier withdrawal from south Lebanon and then Gaza just put heavily armed Iranian proxy forces on Israel’s borders.

That is why there is now wide support for the defeat and destruction of Hamas, for the political resurrection of the Abraham Accords, especially the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and above all for the robust handling of Iran. Many Arab states in the region are also privately quite happy with those aims. Israel sees a reputation for military strength – the best reputation to have in a region like the Middle East – as the way to achieve them, and if that means temporary unpopularity, then so be it. As one Israeli said to us: “Israel is only ever popular when it’s Jews that are being killed.”

These wider Israeli objectives surely ought to be British objectives, too. That is why those making British policy towards Israel need to be so careful in how they proceed. There has been a tendency to slip back to the UK foreign policy comfort zone, which is to view international relations as a matter of treaties, UN conventions and a rules-based international system which, when mechanically applied by lawyers, delivers the “correct” response for any situation; and to look down, self-righteously, on any country that doesn’t see it like we do.

In this case, the system says the right response is a ceasefire and the full application of international humanitarian law. That shows one obvious problem with this process-based approach to foreign policy: “garbage in, garbage out”. If we focus entirely on Israeli application of international law, we will get the wrong answer.

Israelis rightly point out that Hamas fighters sheltering behind civilians is a clear violation of the laws of war. So is taking hostages. So is building tunnels under churches and mosques. So is firing rockets from hospitals. What is Israel supposed to do: just let that happen? Instead, it is reacting in the only way possible, by doing everything it can to comply with international law itself, and accepting the losses that come with bitter urban fighting in which Hamas is quite happy for civilians to be casualties.

The other problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually offer a solution. A ceasefire would leave Hamas in being, able to reconstitute itself, and with no incentive to release hostages. There would be little real chance of moving on to reconstruction and the installation of some minimally capable, non-destructive administration in Gaza. And Israel’s enemies, notably Iran, would draw the conclusion that, in a crisis, Israel would be allowed to hit back, but would always be stopped by the West from fighting to a finish.

We can’t allow this to happen. It’s a difficult case to make just at the moment, especially after the sad and distressing airstrike on World Central Kitchen aid workers, but Israel must not just be allowed, but enabled, to win this war. That’s because it’s in our own national interest that it does so. Our rivals around the world see international relations not in terms of law but of power. If Western countries don’t have the stomach to face down our enemies – and Islamist extremism, in the form of Hamas or anything else, is definitely our enemy – others will calibrate their actions accordingly.

At some point, Western policymakers need to show the moral clarity over Gaza that they showed, generally and until recently, over Ukraine. Too many people are too polite to draw the parallels, so I will. Ukraine and Israel were both attacked by a neighbour. Both are defending themselves. In both cases, it’s in our national interest that the aggressors lose.

The main difference is in the achievability of the attacked country’s aims. In Ukraine, we have often claimed, quite casually at times, that the only solution is the outright military defeat of Russia and the downfall of the Putin regime – aims surely near-impossible to achieve. In Gaza, by contrast, Israel’s objectives are within reach. Hamas bit off more than it could chew and can be destroyed. Yet we call for a ceasefire before the job is done.

The end of Hamas would be a real blow to Iran and its allies, and a real win for the West – if we can just let Israel finish the job, and begin the long and difficult process of reconstruction and deradicalisation. That’s why we should be backing Israel: because doing this is not just in Israel’s interests – but also in ours.

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