Dame Anne McGuire, MP, Chairman, Labour Friends of Israel
Next Wednesday, Michael McCann and other colleagues in Labour Friends of Israel will lead a Westminster Hall debate on the contribution the UK can make to preventing further conflict in Gaza.
Through our ‘Stop the war’ campaign, we are determined to raise awareness so Britain does all it can to halt this recurring violence.
Last summer’s war caused a tremendous loss of life, fear and suffering in both Gaza and Israel. Six months on from the end of Operation Protective Edge, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that Hamas is preparing for another war against Israel, as it has now done on three occasions in the past five years.
One of the key lessons that Hamas took from last summer’s war was the psychological impact its tunnel network had on Israelis.
Less than a month after the ceasefire, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar publicly pledged the group would “build new tunnels” to replace those destroyed by the IDF.
Sadly, it appears none of this is bombast as there is increasing evidence tunnel reconstruction has started.
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”.
Hamas is also attempting to renew its depleted arsenal of rockets and mortars. Owing 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: last week, Israel announced it had intercepted a boat carrying liquid fiberglass bound for Gaza.
It is also carrying out regular rocket tests over the Mediterranean, firing large volleys and seeking to enhance or refine strategies to cheat the Iron Dome. Finally, in November, Hamas announced the formation of a ‘popular army’, aimed at recruiting 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. There is real disappointment that last spring’s much-heralded reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah has left the territory in a state of chaotic limbo.
Added to this incendiary mix is Iran. It has been engaged in a rapprochement with Hamas and is believed to have resumed financial aid to it.
Last November, Ayatollah Khamenei vowed: “The West Bank will surely be armed just like Gaza.” Preventing a new war requires a drive towards demilitarisation.
The idea that any future Palestinian state will be demilitarised rested at the heart of the Oslo Accords and all subsequent diplomatic initiatives and is accepted by the PA.
Moreover, reconstruction, lifting the ‘blockade’ of Gaza by Israel and Egypt and demilitarisation are intimately linked: the first two are dependent on the last.
So what steps might be taken to move forward on all three fronts?
First, the British government must pledge that the strong desire of the US and Western powers to secure a nuclear deal with Iran does not reduce pressure on it over its other destabilising policies in the region.
Second, the UN Security Council needs to be firm, by resolution or other means, that none of its members should be involved in the transfer of 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 Labour MK Omer Barlev proposed, a two-year process would see Israel agreeing to the building of an airport and opening of a seaport in return for disarmament, with initial development work on raising international funding and tendering for the airport starting as soon as Hamas signs up, ready for full operation at the end of the process.
Peace will be difficult, but will only happen if we all play our part – the UK included.