A million Palestinians have become human shields for Hamas

The people of Gaza have been granted just 24 hours to relocate, prior to the expected Israeli ground invasion. The world can only brace itself for what happens next – a humanitarian disaster on an unimaginable scale, says Sean O’Grady

Sean O'Grady
Friday 13 October 2023 18:57 BST
Palestinians with their belongings flee to safer areas in Gaza City after Israeli airstrikes
Palestinians with their belongings flee to safer areas in Gaza City after Israeli airstrikes (AFP via Getty)

From the first reports of the Hamas terrorists’ invasion and rocketing of southern Israel, the fear was always what Israel would do. There was always going to be a response. It was always going to be one of overwhelming force. Retribution and revenge. Blood would be spilled.

The tactics and methods of the Hamas “fighters” – cowardly men spraying civilians at bus stops with fire from AK-47s and throwing grenades into homes – were consciously designed to tap into the darkest fears of the Jewish people, with their long history of persecution. Going door to door looking for Jews to abduct or kill is a terrifying echo of the past.

Hamas, and the Iranians who sponsor them, knew this. They undertook their campaign with the aim of inflicting maximum pain and provoking maximum Israeli retaliation. They made sure that the kidnap, execution and slaughter of innocents, including babies, would be especially painful and provoke an unusually savage response.

It was a trap. Now, less than a week on, Israel has fallen into that trap.

Perhaps it was inevitable – an unavoidable, defensive reflex of a nation under attack. Benjamin Netanyahu declared war, with all that entailed, and promised a long struggle. Israeli ministers talked about razing Gaza. Some million Palestinians have been ordered by the IDF to go south for their own safety, within 24 hours. As a result, the EU and the UN have turned against Israel.

Hamas, cynical as ever, have told people to ignore the warning. Gaza is running out of water, fuel, power and medicines, and the hospitals are full. Around 350,000 of the 2.2 million Gazans are homeless. Blockaded by Egypt and Israel, they have nowhere to go.

We know what will happen next – a humanitarian disaster on an unimaginable scale.

Hamas are still lobbing rockets at Israel: further provocation. Israel should respond, and its government has a sacred duty to do so. The “how” is the more difficult bit.

The invasion could happen within days, with mass civilian suffering, and it will alienate world opinion. Just as Hamas and Iran desire, Israel’s friends in the West will grow more divided. The Arab and Muslim states that have made their accommodation with Israel – Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia – will grow more hostile. America will have Israel’s back in the end, but Israel cannot assume that such support will always be unconditional.

Israel, for all the flaws in its recent governance, is a civilised, democratic state, and has to live up to the standards expected – respect for international conventions, the rules of war, and proportionate response. The terrorists want nothing more than to drag Israel into replicating their own atrocities.

All that said, the principal objection to Israeli strategy is that it won’t work. Even assuming that Israel’s war aim of ending Hamas’s ability to operate in Gaza is an honourable one – and the whole world would be better off without Hamas and its allies – it is hard to see how the present policy delivers that result.

If one million innocent Palestinian people do the impossible and evacuate the north of Gaza, that doesn’t mean the Hamas gunmen will be hanging around with the hostages waiting to be found and eliminated. They will melt away, as ever. They will deliberately use hostages and the civilian population as human shields, which makes Israeli tactics even more hazardous.

But even if Hamas did not do that, it would be impossible to destroy them, because that’s the nature of terrorist organisations. They come back.

One million people aren’t going to relocate within 24 hours, when there’s no fuel for cars and chaos reigns. They will therefore remain as human shields for Hamas, and their deaths will appal the world.

Western allies of Israel will find it impossible to explicitly back such a policy. Even Grant Shapps, the government’s default choice to defend the indefensible on the media, avoided an endorsement of the expulsion of a million people from their homes when he was subjected to close questioning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. All he could do was criticise Hamas for their habit of embedding themselves in civilian populations, and praise the IDF for their early warning system. He didn’t say the policy was a good idea or that it would work, still less that it was morally or legally defensible.

But if this is total war, seeking the unconditional surrender of Hamas, is it so different from when the RAF bombed Dresden during the Second World War, or when America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945? If the Allies wanted “regime change” in their own war of survival back then, why shouldn’t Israel do the same?

The only answer is the practical one – which is that it won’t work. Hamas cannot be defeated using such methods as the IDF is using. Indeed, the tactics will only strengthen Palestinian resistance and the support Hamas can call upon in the wider world.

Hamas will emerge stronger from all this.

Israel, so grievously the victim, cannot allow itself to become the perpetrator of crimes under international law and surrender the invaluable moral ground it now holds. The bombing, the forced relocations and the imminent invasion are a terrible blunder. Israel is getting entangled in a terrible trap.

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