Devastating and fast-moving events in Israel and the Gaza Strip – including a catastrophic explosion at a Gaza hospital on 17 October caused it seems by an errant Palestinian rocket – will leave many observers reeling and desperate. Yet we must try to assess why this conflict has erupted now, how events will develop, and how British progressives should respond.
The Hamas attack of 7 October that initiated this war was unfathomable in scale and brutality. Some 1300 Israelis were murdered, many with sadistic cruelty, and around 200 abducted, including women and children. Rockets have continued to target Israeli towns daily. Israel has responded by declaring a war aimed at eliminating Hamas in Gaza, and its air campaign has already cost thousands of lives in Gaza. This is an irreversible turning point for the Gaza Strip and the wider region.
Explaining Hamas’s decision to launch their attack, at this moment, is not simple. Israel was blindsided, reflecting its own misperceptions about Hamas’s intentions.
Hamas has always been committed to replacing Israel with an Islamic state through violence, with a long record of terrorist atrocities. But as the government in Gaza it also appeared to pursue a pragmatic agenda to stabilise the beleaguered territory and consolidate its own control. Hamas maintained a ceasefire that followed the major escalation in May 2021, even when Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller Gazan faction, fought with Israel. In return, Israel had gradually eased elements of its blockade, including allowing 15,000-20,000 thousand Gazans to work in Israel. But assumptions that Hamas preferred for now to garner these benefits rather than renew fighting, proved false.
The scale of Hamas’s act reflects strategic aims to safeguard overarching goals, rather than address Gaza’s humanitarian situation. The first issue mentioned by Hamas Political Chief Ismail Haniyeh in his speech on the day of the attacks was Arab normalization with Israel. That Saudi Arabia was contemplating normalization without a clear Israeli commitment on Palestinian statehood threatened a new nadir for Palestinian national politics, and a major blow to Hamas’s ultimate goal of eliminating Israel. This coincided with the most extreme right-wing government in Israeli history, including ministers inciting violence against West Bank Palestinians, and challenging the status quo on the Temple Mount/Al Haram al Sharif.
The perception that Israel was, paradoxically, also at a vulnerable moment, may have further influenced Hamas. Since December Israel has been led by an inexperienced and dysfunctional cabinet. Israel’s defence minister warned in March that divisive judicial legislation, which triggered mass protests including many reservists ceasing to volunteer, was threatening Israel’s security.
As a result of Hamas’s actions however, Israeli society has largely coalesced around the goal of destroying Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s call-up of over 300,000 reservists represents most of its available forces. A key centrist opposition party, led by former IDF Chief of Staff and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, has joined a war cabinet designed to marginalise Prime Minister Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners. Previously Netanyahu showed no interest in paying the costs of toppling Hamas. For many Israelis that calculation has changed.
Hamas’s attack exceeded the sum of all Israeli nightmares. Israel lost more people in one day than in four bloody years of the Second Intifada (2000-2004). Most Israelis know a family in mourning. The hostage situation is no less agonising. But it is not just grief, horror and rage that shape Israeli decision-making. Hamas exposed Israeli vulnerability in a region full of enemies, including Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has far greater capabilities than Hamas. From the Isreali perspective, to restore deterrence, Hamas must pay a price outweighing the damage it inflicted – a high bar. More than that, Israeli communities living close to Gaza, and to the Lebanese border, now face unacceptable insecurity. Israelis believe Hamas must be removed to restore the possibility of normal life in those areas, and deter Hezbollah. Israel also has unprecedented Western support, with Hamas now appearing no better than ISIS.
However, a ground invasion to remove Hamas carries great risk. Israel is not interested in a long-term reoccupation, but the operation would likely take months, with uncertain prospects. IDF troops facing entrenched fighters would use firepower greater than seen until now. This explains Israel’s drastic call on civilians to leave the northern Gaza Strip. Israeli casualties, and significant further harm to Palestinian civilians, would likely be considerable. Meanwhile Iran, facing the loss of a key asset in Hamas, is threatening to intervene, with Hezbollah already exchanging fire with Israel on the Lebanese border. The US is deploying aircraft carriers, supported by Royal Navy ships, to bolster Israeli deterrence there. For all these challenges, it is unclear how Hamas can be removed without this ground operation. A complete siege on the Gaza Strip without humanitarian aid is not diplomatically sustainable. The Biden administration is clearly working to get aid in, despite calls from some in Israel to link this to the release of Israeli hostages.
Progressives in the UK may feel despair. But those committed both to Israel’s welfare and legitimate Palestinian humanitarian and political rights, must hold to both those values. They must keep in mind that hopes for future Israeli-Palestinian coexistence depend on Hamas failing, and support steps that try to leverage this catastrophe, ultimately, into change for the better.
President Biden has led the way, combining unstinting support for Israel with a consistent reminder of humanitarian obligations. Keir Starmer has rightly aligned with this tone. As the destruction and harm to Palestinian civilians escalates, support for Israel is likely to become strained. Humanitarian appeals will more likely be heeded by Israel, coming from interlocutors who get what this war means for Israel’s long-term security.
Proposals for a post-Hamas Gaza are surfacing, but the explosion at the al-Ahli hospital prevented Biden discussing this directly with Arab leaders during his visit. The Palestinian Authority is ultimately the only Palestinian alternative, but too weak to cope alone. So, whilst toppling Hamas could open a new vista for the Gaza Strip, it would need a huge commitment from Western actors and their Arab allies. Further down the line, the damage to Netanyahu’s credibility may also bring a more moderate Israeli leadership.