MPs must decide precisely what they think Israel’s war is for

As parliamentarians face a ceasefire vote this week, a few tough questions serve to cast doubt on the case for continuing the bloodshed in Gaza

November 13, 2023
Pro-Palestine demonstrators in Parliament Square last month. Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
Pro-Palestine demonstrators in Parliament Square last month. Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

What are the MPs being pressured to vote against a ceasefire this week being asked to vote for?

It’s a serious question, because many immediate answers—more than 4,500 children being killed, more than three-quarters of Gazans being displaced, more premature babies being denied incubators—aren’t ones that any decent parliamentarian could support as ends in themselves. 

The only justification for using Britain’s marginal influence to demand anything other than an immediate end to the slaughter must be the belief that, ultimately, continuing the fighting can achieve something positive.

The hoped-for gains might concern the security of Israelis, the taming of a jihadi threat, or the broader political stability of the region. Like most of the MPs facing the decision on how to cast their vote I am no expert, but one can still ask questions to test the plausibility of the claimed advantages at each level. I’d hope conscientious MPs would do the same. 

The desperation of Israelis for security after the mass murder unleashed on them on 7th October is completely understandable and deserves serious weight. So too, though—if we believe that innocent lives on both sides of the fence are equally precious—does the rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The death toll there is fast racing towards 10 times that in the original atrocity. 

To be justified by immediate security, ongoing destruction would have to bring overwhelming, enduring and finally indispensable gains: that is to say, there could be no alternative path to tolerable safety. Is that plausible? Shouldn’t a superbly equipped army with over half a million troops and reserves be able to substantially defend the 25-mile border with Gaza, if enough of it were deployed there? A simmering political blame game within Israel on the security failure that let the terrorists break through last month suggests more could have been done than was actually done. 

The requirement for enduring security brings us to the need to tame the militant Islamist threat, whether that be in the form of Hamas or some other incarnation. Every country on earth would be out to disable an organisation that had inflicted a crime like 7th October against its people; few would be shy about trying to kill its leaders. But Israel is not talking about disabling or decapitating the organisation, rather “destroying” it. 

Does this seem achievable? The 20 years that Nato recently devoted to being defeated by the Taliban should surely give pause to those of a hawkish mindset. The 10,000 Gazans already dead means 100,000 Gazans grieving, and doesn’t grief often harden into hate? Is the threat really best tamed by allowing both numbers to rise to 20,000 and 200,000—or more—before pressing pause? Or might the effect of continuing simply be to swell the ranks of future jihadis? 

The tentacles of Hamas’s rule extend to every lever of civilian administration. Is there any reason to expect the indiscriminate smashing of its governance to play out more happily than the ruinous “de-Ba’athification” which the Americans imposed on Iraq after toppling Saddam? If not, then what exactly is the plan for the failed statelet that will be left on Gaza’s ashes? 

This brings us to the question of a political strategy for lasting peace. A different Israeli government might have one: the Israeli government that actually exists does not. 

While western leaders still mouth homilies about a two-state solution, Israel is energetically concreting over the possibility with new roads and settlements in the occupied West Bank. The disgraced prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has encouraged the West Bank’s separation from Gaza even where that meant indulging Hamas, in order to kill off the very idea of a single Palestinian state. 

“Divide and neglect” obviously isn’t plausible after 7th October, so what comes next? Netanyahu insists he isn’t after a fresh permanent occupation of Gaza, but also gives a thumbs down to the Palestinian Authority moving in. So what does that leave? Perhaps a multilateral administration co-ordinated through the UN? That possibility seems remote given that a record-breaking 100 UN employees have just been killed in the conflict, and Israel wilfully disdains the body, recently calling for the secretary general to resign

Beyond violent rhetoric about reducing Gaza to a “city of tents,” the nearest we have got to a glimpse of a “plan” came from leaked official Israeli papers which floated the displacement of Gaza’s 2.3m people into the badlands of Egypt’s Sinai desert as a preferred option. 

Even if such a vast ethnic cleansing operation were conscionable, would it be wise for Israel? Mightn’t militants working away from the siege-like restrictions Israel places on Gaza prove even more of a threat? 

And what of the political effect on its giant neighbour, which is resolutely against the mass absorption of Palestinian refugees? Egypt is a bitterly divided society, which elected an Islamist government after the Arab Spring, and reverted to secular rule only after a coup. Doesn’t an influx of millions of refugees in the most charged circumstances imaginable sound like the sort of emergency that could unbalance it, and shift the balance of forces back towards Islamism? What would that mean for Israel? 

A few awkward questions, then, are enough to stir suspicions that the continuation of the Israel’s current campaign could easily do more harm than good. It is, however, important to acknowledge that the alternative course of a ceasefire in which an (albeit weakened) Hamas still has rockets has its own problems. Some suggest that the ideal would be neither the continuation of the war as it stands, nor a ceasefire as such, but rather a very long humanitarian pause, coupled to heavy diplomacy (including the threat of war crimes prosecutions) to force Israel to change its war aim to the more realistic one of disabling, rather than destroying, Hamas. 

But that isn’t on the cards, and nor is it the question confronting MPs this week. Instead, the choice they face is between supporting the carnage for now while leaving the thinking till later, or deciding instead that the time has come for stopping the killing and starting to think, the conclusion President Macron has now reached. Many MPs will privately sympathise with his judgment that it has become implausible to say “we want to fight terrorism by killing innocent people.”

I fear the real thing MPs are being asked to vote for this week is the same thing that propelled Britain into the Iraq war, namely the belief that Britain is best served by hitching its fortunes to America and subcontracting its foreign policy to Washington. We can call for restraint when the White House does, but not a moment before. 

Is that a good enough reason for standing by while thousands more are killed?