Israel must know that destroying Hamas is beyond its reach

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The writer is former chief of MI6 and UK Ambassador to the UN

In the Yom Kippur war, 50 years ago this month, the attacking armies from Egypt and Syria had a clear goal — to recover some of their territory and their dignity from the defeat by Israel six years earlier. Had Jordan’s King Hussein sent his forces into the conflict, Israel’s very existence could have been at stake. Israel faced a fight to defend itself.

The brutal Hamas assault on October 7 had a different purpose. Through attacks like these, terrorist organisations want three things: to instil fear, to draw attention to their cause and to provoke overreaction. Terrorism alone doesn’t undermine an established state.

Israel has every right to respond. Now the immediate rage has passed, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet are thinking through their options more carefully. We should expect search and destroy missions inside Gaza City to take down as much of Hamas’s military as they can and to try to rescue hostages. But Israel’s security chiefs know the goal of destroying Hamas is probably beyond their reach. Hamas has a political base and extensive external support from Iran.  

Urban warfare is tough. We witnessed in Aleppo and Mariupol whole cities being flattened to defeat a dug-in force. Retaking Mosul from Isis — the only recent attempt to conduct such a campaign within the rules of war — took US-led forces nine months and cost thousands of civilian deaths. Israel doesn’t have that time: its military knows it will be up against demands for an early ceasefire.

The second challenge will be, what comes after? The priority after a major terror attack is to prevent a repeat. I understand that one option Israelis are considering is to seal off the whole Gaza Strip with a double barrier, a new one some distance inside Gaza territory in addition to the current border wall, and to close all the crossings into Israel.  

But that leaves the question of who will administer Gaza and its citizens. Israel has no appetite to occupy it again. The West Bank’s Palestinian Authority can’t ride in on the back of Israeli tanks. Egypt, understandably, refuses to absorb 2mn refugees, a step that would serve the agenda of some hard-right Israelis who want to drive Palestinians out of their homes. 

Some international administration of Gaza is called for. The UN has done this before in Namibia, Cambodia, Bosnia and East Timor. The US did it in Iraq after their ill-fated invasion. Mistakes were made, but in each case an administration kept the country going and an international military force held the ring so a new government with local support could emerge.  

In Gaza, the challenges would be huge. Any such presence would have to be led by Arab countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia that would be acceptable to Israel and have standing with the people of Gaza. Others like Pakistan, Indonesia and the Gulf States could contribute. A UN-approved administration would require a Security Council mandate, and Russia and China would only sign up if this was an Arab-led initiative. An alternative would be an Arab League mandate, but that alone may not carry the necessary authority.  

Meanwhile, Israel faces severe threats from Iran and its proxies, especially Hizbollah in Lebanon. The current crisis may expand to embroil the wider region, though both Tehran and Hizbollah have talked tough while behaving with caution. Rocket exchanges across the Israel-Lebanon border have stepped up dangerously but neither side will want to open a new front.  

Iran will go on supporting Hamas and Hizbollah, and proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen too, as long as it pursues an ideology of Islamic revolution. Change of some sort is coming, however: the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is 84 and the regime is preparing for a transfer of power with no agreed successor in sight. It’s fantasy to think that a liberal figure might emerge. But as we have seen with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping in China, new autocratic leaders can upend established policies, especially when the economy is crying out for it.  

The Middle East is already changing for the better — an evolution which Hamas’s assault is trying to reverse. Israel is becoming an accepted part of the region with closer ties to the Gulf. After making a series of mistakes in his early year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now transforming Saudi Arabia. He has also cut funding for Wahhabi mosques around the world which removes one driver of extremism.

As military action steps up, the awful humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens and we face the risk of violence from misguided groups in our own countries, we must keep in mind the longer-term goals of stabilising Gaza and finding a path to an enduring solution. 


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