Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Israel, Gaza and the realities of war

If the violence is to end, a political solution must come from within

Artillery Row

The news that at least 17 Britons are still listed missing, dead or kidnapped in Gaza remains shocking. Hundreds more bearing British passports are trickling south through the Rafah checkpoint into Egyptian territory as I write. Other brave medical staff have elected to stay in Gaza’s already overcrowded hospitals, working in candlelit basements without basic medicines. To the west, British warships, led by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Lyme Bay (a logistics support vessel) and RFA Argus (the Royal Navy’s emergency medical ship, with a capacity of 100 beds) have been deployed in defence-speak as “a contingency measure to support humanitarian efforts” with a company of 100 Royal Marines.

Nearby lurk the destroyer HMS Duncan, under NATO command, and frigate HMS Lancaster, part of the UK’s permanent naval presence in the Persian Gulf. They are supported by patrol flights of Poseidon P-8 aircraft and other types to monitor any transfers of munitions from countries such as Iran or Russia to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Never has the permanent UK presence on Cyprus, spread between the airbase at RAF Akrotiri and infantry battalion and signals monitoring stations around Dhekelia, been so relevant and appropriate. They are a reminder to “Little Englanders” of one of the core purposes of UK defence assets: to protect our people overseas. That is why our service personnel do training with never enough equipment, over the horizon, in the eventuality of exactly the crisis that is now developing.

These UK assets have joined the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 12 already in the region, spearheaded by the aircraft USS Gerald R. Ford, laden with squadrons of sophisticated F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, guided-missile cruiser Normandy, and destroyers Thomas Hudner, Ramage, Carney and Roosevelt. They are supported by fleet oilers and supply ships, whilst Reaper drones and KC-46 air-refuelling tankers will extend the range and duration of military participation, operating in conjunction with the Israelis.

Regardless of whether one’s sympathies lie with Palestine or Israel, this is not war-mongering. The worried outside world is trying to ensure no leakage of the conflict whilst re-establishing security, as Iran and Russia aim to stir the volatile Middle Eastern pot. Left unchecked, any regional nervousness would likely affect oil exports and at the very least cause fuel prices to skyrocket, if not trigger the proliferation of fighting. This would be unwelcome news for us all as winter approaches. With the US Army taking the Western lead in supporting Ukraine, its navy is now prominent in calming anxieties over the bubbling Gaza–West Bank Palestinian enclaves. These vessels can provide assistance with helicopters for carrying supplies, including aid, ashore. Their huge magazines of weapons offer a menu of options in containing the current crisis if events get out of hand. By chance, earlier this year, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Americans had mounted Exercise Juniper Oak-23, led by the USS George H. W. Bush strike group, which envisaged a similar scenario of unrest.

Gaza was the concern of Hamas, not Hezbollah, but he was keeping his options open

Whilst the West can try to contain the situation militarily, the political solution to Israel and Palestine can only come from within. It will probably not involve Israel’s prime minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, chairman of the Likud Party and already fighting for his political life before the current crisis. He is under attack by the right for allowing the October 7th attacks to happen and from the left for political corruption. He will probably not survive the aftermath, whenever that is. Neither will Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Fatah Party and president of Palestine, who turns 88 this month. Despite being Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, he is seen as weak. His writ is only respected in the West Bank, where other organisations challenge him, including the suicidal Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades (enjoying what the Israelis call “a murky connection to Fatah”) and the Palestinian Mujahideen Movement (aligned with Iran), all unified only by their hostility to Israel.

Gaza is run by the more militant Hamas, with whom the IDF is currently locked in mortal combat. Although two of its leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, are based in Qatar, the IDF are blasting tunnels and tower blocks to kill or capture four Hamas commanders within the Gaza strip. They are Yahya Sinwar and Mahmoud Zahar, who run its political side from within Gaza; and Mohammed Deif and his deputy Marwan Issa, in charge of the deadly al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military arm. They have a rival in the even more vicious Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second largest armed group in Gaza. It rejects any political peace process and sees a military victory over Israel as the sole means of attaining its objective of establishing an Islamic state across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Its al-Quds Brigades claim they hold dozens of Israeli hostages. They operate as a clandestine organisation, with compartmentalised cells, in contrast to the mass mobilisation favoured by Hamas. They are probably clashing with Hamas on negotiations over hostages, the tactics of using civilians to shield their activities, and a range of other issues, even if their ultimate objectives and core Islamist beliefs remain similar.

They are not the only players, with the far-left Marxist Ali Mustafa Brigades of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine having published online videos of storming Israeli watchtowers on 7 October. The Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees and the Salah ad-Din Brigades are also known to have taken part in massacres of Israeli settlers. Israel is naturally aware of these differences, but is trying to use the current invasion of Gaza to complete the well-nigh impossible task of killing them all in a quest for future security.

Some 120 miles north of Gaza, exchanges across Israel’s border with Lebanon have continued at a much lower intensity, but with casualties to both sides. At present no more than border skirmishes, they provoke Israeli and Western fears of a new front opening with a regional actor far more powerful than Fatah or Hamas: Hezbollah, said to be equipped with tens of thousands of rockets and well-trained foot soldiers. In a much-anticipated speech on 3 November, its leader Hassan Nasrallah stated that whilst Gaza was the concern of Hamas, not Hezbollah, he was keeping his options open. In other words, there would be no immediate escalation, but leaving a fear that events could still spin out of control. His words came as a surprise and relief, as they indicated his displeasure with Hamas. Whilst not pouring petrol on the fire, he was keeping the fuel can at his side, however.

Many in Israel are likening the Palestinian attack, dubbed Operation Al-Aqsa Flood (named after the ancient mosque in Jerusalem, a scene of frequent clashes with Israeli police and settlers) to the 11 September 2001 attacks in America, when 67 Britons perished. Amongst the names of the missing or killed in Gaza that we know is Nathanel Young, a 20-year-old who attended a Jewish school in North London. He was serving with the Israeli Defence Forces. Jake Marlowe, 26, who went to the same school, was working as a security guard at the Supernova music festival, where at least 260 were killed when it was stormed by militants.

The war graves reflect the fact that British uniforms were once a common sight

These young men were gunned down near the Salah al-Din Road, Gaza’s main north-south highway, running from the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border to the now-closed Erez checkpoint, which once allowed access to the north. Not far from there lies a British War Cemetery. Sited in Gaza City’s Tuffah district, there is a second one near the Egyptian border at Deir al-Balah. Inside, most of the 4,000 headstones and memorials commemorate young Britons, and others from the Commonwealth, who fell battling Ottoman forces in the three battles of Gaza in 1917–18, with more from the Second World War and 30 from the troubled 1945–48 period, when Palestine was still a British responsibility. Nathanel and Jake will not be alone, for there are nine other Youngs and three Marlowes whose headstones sit in the two Gaza cemeteries. The age of most of the fallen is between 20 and 30.

At this time of November Remembrance, triggered by the massive loss of life during the Great War, but observing all sacrifices made by Britons and Commonwealth personnel up to the present day, the Gaza–Israel unrest is a reminder that the region has long been associated with Britain. The war graves reflect the fact that British uniforms were once a common sight, still remembered with affection by some. Over twenty years ago, in one of Gaza’s rare moments of calm, I managed to visit the main cemetery and meet Ibrahim Jaradah, who tended the graves, as had his father and grandfather. He had been awarded a British medal, the MBE, for his services to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Why do you do this? I asked him. “It is important to respect all dead people, whatever their nationalities,” he told me, leaning on his spade. “If the people in Gaza didn’t respect or accept the cemetery, you wouldn’t see it like this.” A very fair argument, I thought. Having visited several war cemeteries in zones of current conflict, the ones in Iraq, as here, with their immaculate rows of graves, are a testament to the gardeners’ hard work under the toughest of conditions. Though probably shell-battered by now, I saw those in Gaza as an oasis of calm in the city of 2.3 million. They were subsequently damaged by shellfire in 2009 and missile strikes in 2021. There are reports they have been hit again. Ibrahim has since died, but his son and grandson carry on his work. In the current crisis I do not know if they are alive or dead, but Ibrahim’s last words to me still ring in my ears. They were what he told all his visitors: “We are affected by the young ages of those buried here. We hope callers will understand this is the effect of war. Peace is the best thing in the world.”

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