Israel’s only option is overwhelming force

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 10 October 2023. © Richard Kemp

Israel must use whatever force it can bear to strangle the terrorist groups who massacred, brutalised and kidnapped its citizens and are willing to do the same again. That may sound like callous warmongering, but it is not. When a country faces a vicious enemy that is intent on the murder of its people, a responsible government has no choice other than to stop it in any way it can. And please don’t say that, in Israel’s case, it can only be resolved with a political solution – because there won’t be one in the foreseeable future.

Hamas doesn’t want peace and prosperity for its people. It doesn’t want a two-state solution. What it does want is the annihilation of the Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea – in other words, all of it. Read its founding document, where this is spelt out in black and white; the events of the last few days show conclusively that the Hamas charter isn’t just hyperbole.

Like Islamic State, which the group resembles in both method and ideology, Hamas is not susceptible to any form of political bargaining, compromise or negotiation. That much has been proved time and again in previous rounds of violence, when it was handed political concessions only to unleash terror again once it had rebuilt its military capabilities.

Thus Hamas can only be stopped by being defeated. That means crushing its will to resist, something which is only attainable by eliminating fighters in large numbers and destroying combat capability through devastating military force. If Israel fails to do that, it can only result in interminable conflict in which many more people on both sides will die.

The consequences of such an outcome go well beyond this immediate conflict. We saw how the West’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 emboldened Vladimir Putin to launch an invasion in Ukraine six months later. Now we risk emboldening terrible actors in the Middle East, who seek not just to strike but permanently destroy our allies.

The US and the rest of Nato wield the greatest military capability in the world by a huge margin, and Israel has one of the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East. But power is made up not just of tanks, guns, combat planes and warships. It is underpinned by the political will to use them.

Israel is surrounded by a ring of fire, just waiting to be ignited. In the north, in Lebanon, there is Hizbollah, also funded by Iran, with huge stockpiles of missiles primed and ready to be fired into the civilian population the length and breadth of Israel. In the east there is Syria, with Iran working hard to replicate a similar base of attack to the one it has so painstakingly developed in Lebanon. The West Bank, too, is a powder keg, already smouldering fiercely and ready to explode.

Failure by Israel to crush Hamas in Gaza now, after the outrages in the past few days, would provoke each of these factions to greater violence than we’ve seen so far. Their leadership has to understand the devastating consequences of taking on Israel in a fight. Use of overwhelming force may increase the violence in the short-term, but it is ultimately de-escalatory. It would help prevent a multi-front war and save lives on all sides.

The need for a demonstration of hard military power has consequences even further than Israel’s immediate ring of fire. Iran threatens not only Israel but the entire region. Saudi Arabia has been interested in normalising relations with Jerusalem predominantly because of its strength against Iranian aggression.

If Israel does not come out of this war victorious, what is Saudi’s motivation to go through with the negotiations process? And normalisation now holds out pretty much the only prospect of an eventual settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, assuming that is even possible. No matter what Saudi might say publicly, it also has a direct interest in seeing Hamas defeated, given its fear of similar Islamist threats to itself and its Arab neighbours.

Let’s not underestimate the immense challenges and complexities in defeating Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. But it must be done, and done quickly, in order to restore Israel’s credibility as a state with protected borders. The alternative would be an ever more volatile region on the verge of explosion.

Of course, overwhelming force is not always a clean process; there will be narrative and PR difficulties. That is why Israel needs the understanding and the backing of Western governments now more than ever.