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1 November 2023

Heeding the lessons of history

Israel has the right to defend itself, but the razing of civilian infrastructure in Gaza will not eradicate Hamas.

By New Statesman

In June 1982 Israeli troops invaded Lebanon in an offensive codenamed “Operation Peace for Galilee”. The campaign’s stated aim to drive Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) militants out of striking distance of Israeli settlements in the north of the country. But senior Israeli officials, including the then defence minister Ariel Sharon, always intended to go much further, forcing the PLO out of Lebanon altogether, and installing a friendly government in Beirut that would be more amenable to Israel’s interests.

The ensuing conflict succeeded in displacing the PLO, whose chairman Yasser Arafat agreed to move his headquarters to Tunisia after a two-month siege of Beirut. But this did not bring peace to Israel. Other Islamist groups emerged, most notably Hezbollah, replacing one threat on Israel’s northern border with another, and miring the Israeli military in a 15-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in an ignominious retreat in 2000. 

Armed and funded by Iran, Hezbollah metastasised into a significant military and political force within Lebanon. Today Hezbollah is the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, with leader Hassan Nasrallah and his Iranian backers pondering whether to open a new front against Israel amid the ongoing assault on Gaza

Israel’s 1982 invasion also ultimately failed to establish a more biddable government in Beirut. It joins the many instances of misguided military adventurism before and since that have sought regime change as the solution to an ­intractable problem – a list that includes Iraq, ­Afghanistan and Libya. 

Then, as now, Israel has the right to defend itself: the national unity government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu after Hamas’s sadistic slaughter on 7 October of more than 1,400 Israelis, the majority of whom were civilians, must restore security to a grieving and traumatised nation. It also must ensure the release of the at least 229 hostages being held in Gaza. Similarly, the US president Joe Biden is right to warn of the rising threat of anti-Semitism afflicting communities far beyond the Middle East. Anyone who doubts the menace of anti-Semitism need only watch the horrifying footage from Dagestan in southern Russia on 29 October, where a violent mob stormed an airport searching for Jewish passengers arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv. 

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[See also: The fatal flaw in Israeli deterrence]

Yet we must also condemn the horrors now being inflicted on civilians in Gaza, where Unicef says that over 3,400 children have been killed and more than 6,300 injured in air strikes. Twenty-one of Gaza’s 35 hospitals, where thousands of terrified families are sheltering, have been attacked. Food, water and basic medical supplies are running out. There are credible reports of doctors performing emergency Caesarean sections without anaesthesia and using washing-up liquid to clean wounds. 

These events will not make Israel safer. The razing of civilian infrastructure in Gaza will not eradicate Hamas, whose political leadership resides in Qatar, nor will it eliminate its murderous ideology. Similarly, the escalation of settler violence against Palestinians on the West Bank, where Hamas has no authority, will only further stoke tensions. As the US and its allies discovered after 9/11, military campaigns that are conceived in a desire for revenge, and which fail to limit casualties among civilians, only generate more recruits for extremists.

Even if Israel succeeds in killing every Hamas fighter in Gaza, without a coherent plan for who will govern the impoverished enclave afterwards Benjamin Netanyahu’s government risks merely repeating the mistakes of its predecessors by substituting one threat with another. 

Britain has no influence over the Netanyahu government. Calls for a humanitarian ceasefire will be ignored. Yet silence will be viewed as complicity. The failure to demand a halt to the violence undermines the moral authority and international standing of the UK and US in large parts of the world. Without a humanitarian ceasefire a terrible situation will become even worse for the civilians of Gaza, who cannot escape the conflict in the besieged strip, and the Israeli hostages held by Hamas. Equally, without addressing the root causes of the conflict and the sources of Hamas’s power, a war of total destruction on Gaza will not bring security to Israel. Rage is not a strategy. This is a moment to heed the lessons of history and avoid marching back into the traps of the past.

[See also: The Labour revolt over the Gaza war]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts