Grinning Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh’s V for Victory sign beside the rubble that was his house reminded me of Saddam Hussein’s spokesman Muhammad al-Sahhaf’s wild claims that the Americans were on the verge of surrender as their tanks poured into Baghdad during the shock and awe of 2003.
But lies, deception and self-delusion are cornerstones of Hamas’s way of war, so grotesque celebrations of victory among the ashes of their most crushing defeat in 27 years came as no surprise.
Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now admits that Hamas is to blame for the death, desolation and destruction in Gaza.
An unprovoked war of aggression that has deliberately crushed their own people.
Those who give Hamas’s mirage of triumph even an iota of credence are simply playing into its hands, helping to deceive the desperate people of Gaza and contributing to the terrorist group’s resurgence.
Hamas’s military resurgence is of course possible. They have been defeated but not annihilated. Understandably, many Israelis believe the IDF should have been unleashed to complete the destruction of Hamas.
Would that have been possible? In military terms, yes. Perhaps over a lengthy war of attrition, at the cost of many more Israeli military casualties, and with responsibility for Gaza, its 1.8 million people and its reconstruction as the toxic prize. And without any certainty that it could be handed over to the Palestinian Authority or even to an international administration to run.
I do not doubt the IDF’s military prowess or courage, both convincingly demonstrated over the past few weeks. But Hamas has had a long time to prepare the ground in Gaza and we should not forget the heavy toll taken against equally capable US and British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents using improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks.
Even more effectively than al-Qaida, Iraqi Shi’ite militias or the Taliban, Hamas are adept at using human shields – it is their fundamental strategy.
An operation to eliminate Hamas would have led to the killing and brutalization of thousands more Palestinian civilians. That would have happened even with the IDF’s well-documented measures to avoid the deaths of innocents on the battlefield – more advanced than any other army.
Whether the Israeli people would have been prepared to pay such a price is not for me to say. No doubt it was a part of the prime minister’s calculations on which direction this conflict should take.
But the international community would have found it intolerable, especially with a cease-fire requested by Hamas. And popular or not, Israel must take account of the views of the world in which it has to live and upon which it depends for so much.
Western armies have inflicted permanent military defeat on terrorists before. In the 1950s Britain defeated the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising and France defeated the Algerian independence movements. Both countries fought vicious, unrestrained and brutal terrorist organizations with terror of their own – widespread torture, summary executions, disappearances, collective punishment, reprisals.
Many of their actions were illegal under international law as well as British and French domestic codes.
Today’s jihadis, including Hamas and Islamic State, are at least as barbaric and dangerous as 1950s terrorists in Kenya and Algeria. But under the 24/7 global media spotlight, could any Western government conduct such actions today – even if they wanted to do so? And without measures that match their own brutality, can these terrorist groups actually be finished off? The same does not always apply outside Western democracies. The Sri Lankan government finally put an end to the Tamil Tigers’ uprising as recently as 2009, with the US State Department estimating civilian casualties as high as 40,000 in the last four months of the war alone.
Facing constraints similar to those faced by Israel, the US has not defeated al-Qaida and NATO has not defeated the Taliban. Britain neutralized the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, though principally through intelligence penetration developed over a costly 30-year campaign. And even then, splinter groups emerged that to this day plan and conduct terrorist attacks, subversion and intimidation in Ulster.
In a reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” it is now time to continue the war against Hamas by political means.
It is not in the interests of the Palestinian people, Israel or the international community to continue with a version of Islamic State in Gaza.
The international community share with Hamas culpability for civilian deaths during the 50-day conflict in Gaza. As I wrote in a paper published in April by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s Friends of Israel Initiative, the failure over several years of the international community to take any action over Hamas rocket fire amounted to tacit encouragement.
By condemning Israel for defending itself against previous rocket barrages in 2008-09 and 2012, the international community validated Hamas’s human shield strategy.
All of this must now change. If the events of the past few weeks in Gaza have not convinced the world, the orgy of violence by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ought to have done.
The international community must work to aid the people of Gaza and to undermine and delegitimize Hamas.
The US and the EU in particular, as well as regional states, should be pressuring Qatar, Turkey and Iran to end their support for Hamas.
Responsibility for reconstruction in Gaza should be removed from the UNDP and UNRWA whose work has helped further Hamas’s aims.
Internationally controlled mechanisms, approved by Israel, must be put in place to ensure that materials supplied for reconstruction are not again diverted into engines of war.
All 28 EU foreign ministers have demanded that Hamas and other Gaza terrorists disarm, and it looks likely that the US will table a UN Security Council resolution along these lines.
If the EU and the US are to be taken seriously they must consider carefully the extent of any aid provision to Gaza in the absence of compliance with their demands. Improving the lot of the Gazan people should be demonstrably linked to removal of Hamas’s terrorist capability.
Hamas’s arsenal has been seriously depleted. The international community must ensure it stays that way. As I recommended in my April paper, international military and intelligence forces should work to monitor and interdict efforts to re-supply Hamas such as we saw with the Klos C weapons shipment from Iran that was destined for Gaza earlier this year.
Israel should also be supported in its own actions to prevent terrorist attacks from Gaza. Responsible nations should accept the need for Israel to control materials coming into the Strip, and should refrain from patently false accusations of illegal blockades or an illegal occupation.
These irresponsible allegations suggest an equivalence between Israel and Hamas and encourage and legitimize terrorism.
The UN Human Rights Council’s Schabas Commission is about to commence its investigation into the Gaza conflict. This looks set to be a re-run of the now discredited Goldstone investigation into the 2008-09 conflict in Gaza. Judge Goldstone’s report – falsely accusing Israel of war crimes and crimes against humanity – encouraged Hamas to continue and refine its rockets, tunnels and human shields strategy. Too many UN members supported it or abstained. Any country that does not vigorously reject a similar report by Schabas will have blood on its hands if there is another round of fighting in Gaza.
The author is a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan.