It is time for Britain to make a pro-active contribution to halt Hamas’ vicious cycle of violence and secure peace for Palestinians and Israelis
On 1 December 2014 my colleague Grahame Morris led a Westminster Hall debate on ending the conflict in Palestine. I spoke in that debate and championed my belief that the two-state solution was the only way forward.
Many friends of Israel and those that long for a Palestine State share that opinion. The problem we have in the UK parliament is that people want to put that solution in a chronological order that doesn’t create an environment for peace.
My Westminster Hall debate next Wednesday on the role Britain can play in helping prevent a return to hostilities is designed to create that environment, rather than being a semi-colon pause before the next debate about violence in Gaza.
Last November, Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to reiterate the message he had just delivered to the International Congress on Extremist and Takfiri Orientations from the Viewpoint of Islamic Scholars.
“The West Bank will surely be armed just like Gaza,” pledged Iran’s supreme leader.
There is nothing idle about Iran’s threats, which underline a growing rapprochement between the Islamic republic and Hamas, the Islamist terrorists who – despite agreeing to cede power last year when the Palestinian ‘unity’ government was formed – continue to control the Gaza Strip.
Having fallen out over who to back in the Syrian civil war, it appears that Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran have decided to set aside their differences and concentrate on something they can all agree upon: their shared hatred of Israel. Iran is believed to have resumed financial aid to Hamas; Khaled Mashaal, the head of its political bureau, will visit Tehran next month.
This week sees the six-month anniversary of the end of Operation Protective Edge. Sadly, Iran’s renewed support for Hamas is just part of the incendiary mix which threatens to plunge Gaza and Israel into another war which will, once again, have tragic consequences for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
That’s why, alongside this Wednesday’s debate, Labour Friends of Israel is launching a ‘Stop the War’ campaign and we’re calling on people to write to their MP and the Foreign Secretary to propose some concrete steps that we as a nation can take. Last summer’s war caused a great deal of division and anger, but surely working to prevent such violence re-occurring is a cause we can all unite around.
The task is an urgent one with evidence now mounting that, as it has done on three occasions over the past five years, Hamas is preparing to provoke a war with Israel.
While Operation Protective Edge led to a degrading of its military capability, Hamas learned an important lesson about the psychological impact on ordinary Israelis of its terror tunnels and the fact that, for the first time, over 80 per cent of their country was within reach of the Islamists’ rockets.
Less than a month after the ceasefire, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar publicly pledged that the group would ‘build new tunnels’ to replace those destroyed by the IDF. In November, Hamas weekly Al-Risalah published an account by a reporter who accompanied members of the Al-Qassam Brigades who were working in shifts around the clock to do just that, and there have been media reports about ‘sightings of what appear to be massive excavation operations along the Gaza Strip border fence’.
At the same time, Hamas is attempting to renew its depleted arsenal of rockets and mortars. Due to Egypt’s destruction of 1,800 smuggling tunnels, Hamas is working to construct a new generation of home-produced rockets. It is using ‘dual-use materials’ and trying to smuggle materials in by sea: two weeks ago, Israel announced that it had intercepted a boat carrying liquid fibreglass bound for Gaza.
Hamas is also carrying out regular rocket tests over the Mediterranean, firing large volleys and seeking to enhance or refine strategies to cheat Iron Dome.
Finally, in November Hamas announced the formation of a new ‘popular army’, aimed at recruiting young men aged between 15 and 21. Some 17,000 youngsters took part in ‘vanguard of liberation’ training camps last month. Videos released by Hamas show drills involving simulations of tunnel attacks and attempts to kidnap IDF soldiers.
In contrast to Hamas’ remilitarisation, the idea that any future Palestinian state will be ‘non-militarised’ rested at the heart of the Oslo Accords and all subsequent diplomatic initiatives. Moreover, reconstruction, lifting the ‘blockade’ of Gaza by Israel and Egypt and demilitarisation are intimately linked: the first two are inseparable from the last.
So what steps might be taken to move forward on all three fronts?
First, the British government and allies must pledge that the desire to secure a nuclear deal with Iran does not reduce pressure on Iran to bring an end to its other destabilising policies in the region.
Second, the UN Security Council should pass a resolution imposing sanctions on any nation which attempts to transfer weapons to Hamas and other militant groups. But it should go further and provide for disarmament inspectors who would oversee the destruction of rockets, mortars and other heavy weaponry in Gaza.
Third, implementing that disarmament process will require Hamas’ cooperation. So it should be presented with a clear choice by Israel, Egypt, the Quartet, the Arab League and PA: disarmament in return for development. As the Labor MK Omer Barlev has proposed, a two-year process would see Israel agreeing to the building of an airport and opening of a seaport in return for disarmament. Neither would open before that process was completed, but work on raising international funding and tendering for the airport could begin as soon as Hamas signs up.
There is no doubt that – despite its new-found cosiness with Iran – Hamas is in a weakened state. Egypt no longer turns a blind eye to its smuggling tunnels, while international isolation and economic collapse has undermined Hamas’ standing among the people of Gaza.
At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas accuses Hamas of operating a ‘shadow government’ in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority refuses to foot the salary bill for the organisation’s unpaid – and increasingly angry – 40,000 employees.
Recent history suggests, however, that this is when Hamas is at its most belligerent.
In June last year, when its reconciliation agreement with Fatah was already under pressure, Hamas responded by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers and provoking a war.
It is time for Britain to make a pro-active contribution to halt Hamas’ vicious cycle of violence and secure peace for the people of Gaza, Israel and the much longed for State of Palestine.
Michael McCann MP is a vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel. Follow him on Twitter