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Israel’s past approach to Hamas failed, says ambassador

Tzipi Hotovely says Hamas is barbarous and must be destroyed. But why did Israel allow it to grow stronger?

By Alona Ferber

Since Hamas’s brutal 7 October attack, one Israeli government representative has appeared on UK newscasts more than most: the country’s ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely. Armed with a wall of official talking points, the 44-year-old diplomat has demonstrated that she is one of the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunchest allies.

Hotovely was in Israel, at her in-laws, when Hamas struck. A religious Jew, she was preparing for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, her three daughters excited to go to synagogue. She recalls waking at 6.30am to a rocket siren and realising after the second siren two hours later that something serious was happening.

“I turned on my phone and slowly we started to realise that this was a war,” she told me in an interview this week, speaking in our native Hebrew. In the coming hours, Hamas would brutally kill 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, and kidnap more than 200 hostages. “I don’t think there is any Israeli who doesn’t feel they are traumatised from these very difficult events. It’s a collective trauma that the state of Israel has never, never experienced.” This was a “watershed moment”, she said, switching to the English with which she has grown accustomed to discussing the conflict in her many recent press appearances and briefings in the UK.

In Israel, the horror of 7 October reverberates, as does the ongoing fighting. Around 200,000 Israelis are internally displaced, between the conflict in Gaza and the threat from Hezbollah in the north. More than 350,000 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reservists have been called up. Hamas still holds 218 hostages. Four have been released so far, including two elderly women, 85 and 76, on Monday night (23 October).

But the country that Hotovely represents is led by a government with a track record in abdication of responsibility. While the IDF, the head of military intelligence, and the head of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency) intelligence have all admitted the failures that allowed 7 October to happen, Netanyahu has yet to utter a word of contrition. Polling shows as many as 80 per cent of Israelis hold him responsible.

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When it comes to the public anger, “there is no question at all that these feelings are justified”, Hotovely told me. But the ambassador insists now is not the time for blame. After the war there will be a “proper inquiry”, she said, but for now the “public sentiment is that we need to defeat Hamas”.

And what of the challenge of uniting the country, which since January, has been bitterly split over Netanyahu’s plans to curtail Israel’s judiciary, and its oversight on his government’s powers? “The nation is united,” Hotovely insisted, “the war cabinet has added opposition members, the opposition is also supportive, so at this moment there is a full unity in the nation and support for the aims of the war.”

[See also: The deadly logic of existential war]

These aims, as Hotovely reminded me repeatedly, are to defeat Hamas. But if that were to happen, what then? She compares Israel post-7 October to the US post-9/11, which invites a key question: America’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to catastrophic mistakes and deadly entanglements that are yet to resolve themselves, with terrible consequences for the region and the world. What happens the day after Hamas is defeated? “This is how the world works,” she insisted. “First you win the war, [you don’t] make plans for after winning the war.” Hotovely compares current events to the Second World War, one of her common rhetorical habits: “The Marshall Plan was not decided when they were planning D-Day.”

Hotovely is the youngest ambassador to represent the Jewish state in Britain, and the first woman ever to do so, though she was a controversial choice when she got the job in 2020. Hundreds of British Jews signed a petition to block the appointment of Netanyahu’s political protégé, citing Hotovely’s extreme right-wing views, which include support for annexation of the West Bank and the belief that a Palestinian state would be “a danger to Israel”. 

When I asked her about Israel’s military response to Gaza following the 7 October attack, the ambassador uses blunt terms. It’s a fight between “barbarism” and “civilisation”, between “democracy” and “terrorism”, Hotovely told me, a line she has used repeatedly. In interview after interview, when asked about the devastation of Israeli strikes on the 40km-long coastal enclave – now more than 5,000 killed, more than half of them children, according to Palestinian officials — she repeats that the Israeli army doesn’t target civilians; it is Hamas who puts them in harm’s way. 

According to reports this week, hospitals in the Strip are unable to function as they struggle to deal with the dead and wounded from the war, while coping with a lack of supplies and water. On 9 October, the defence minister Yoav Gallant announced a “total siege” on Gaza, cutting food, water and fuel. Could she explain how this helps weaken Hamas, when we know those most affected are civilians?  

“The premise for the question is wrong,” she told me. First, she said, cutting those supplies “is not a tactic”. Israel has been allowing humanitarian supplies into the Strip, she said. (Following international pressure, on 23 October a third convoy of aid was allowed into the Strip.) Hotovely noted that Hamas stole aid and fuel supplies from United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). (This was initially reported but then walked back by UNRWA.) But then she added that “there isn’t a situation in war that you give supplies to the enemy” and that it is Hamas’s “obligation to feed its people”. But “Israel is not trying to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.

As the days go by, with an expected Israeli ground offensive on Gaza looming and more footage of the devastation of airstrikes – dead children pulled from rubble, churches destroyed, Palestinian families wiped out – emerges, Israel’s window of opportunity for launching a ground invasion seems to be shrinking.

In our interview, Hotovely repeatedly reiterated Hamas’s genocidal and terrorist characteristics and the brutality of the 7 October attack. She is frustrated by what she believes are unfair comparisons, of equivalence between dead Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government has also been frustrated by the growing criticism of its actions in Gaza, and Jews worldwide have been rightly horrified by conspiracy theories over the details of the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. On 23 October, the Israeli government press office screened raw body-cam footage filmed by Hamas during the attack for the press, which left journalists in the audience sobbing. The footage showed, among other atrocities, the murder of small children.

I asked the ambassador if Israel has a credibility problem. And what can be done about it, aside from showing snuff footage to the media? Like most of her answers, Hotovely reduced the issue to a simplistic binary of good vs evil. People must choose, she said, between believing Israel, a democracy “that investigates itself” and believing an unreliable “terror organisation”. (Many Israeli and global human and civil rights groups would dispute that Israel does adequately investigate itself.) “Hamas is like Goebbels,” she said. “It’s propaganda.”

Many critics have said Israel’s actions in Gaza look like collective punishment, or even revenge on a mostly innocent population. Netanyahu himself said the government would exact “vengeance” for 7 October. Online, calls to “wipe Gaza off the map” are too common for comfort. Hotovely insisted it’s not vengeance Israel is attempting to deliver, but protection of citizens. Why use words like “vengeance” then, I asked. To scare Hamas? “I think we are getting confused,” she said, taking me back again to one of her main talking points, “Now the question is what is the aim of the war.” That is, to ensure that “Hamas is not on our border”.

After an hour of speaking, there is still much that does not make sense. If, as she told me, Hamas are like “Daesh [Islamic State] militants” or like “serial murderers” on the doorstep, why did the government not do more to secure the region or act sooner to crush Hamas? In fact, as has been widely discussed since Hamas’s attack, Netanyahu’s years-long policy has been to allow the organisation to grow stronger. The government allowed Qatar to transfer funding to Hamas.

After 7 October, Hotovely admitted, Israel “understood [the former approach to Hamas] was a failed conception” – but again, now is not the time for such questions. “This is a matter for an inquiry after the war.”

But Israel’s existential threats are not limited to Hamas. The West Bank is riven with tensions, with settler violence against Palestinians in recent weeks at their highest levels in years. Meanwhile in the north, Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, with an enormous arsenal of missiles, is a major threat. Even if Israel was to defeat Hamas, how can the government guarantee Israel’s security?

“We are a nation built on deterrence,” Tzipi Hotovely said. “Deterrence created by our response to the actions of Hamas.” Again, the ambassador suggested that the very premise of the question, of even doubting the Israeli government’s actions, was wrong. “If Israel doesn’t finish the war in Gaza there won’t be a safe border in any direction,” she added. “The Middle East cannot look the same after the war.”

[See also: The strange discord of being British and Jewish]

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