The Path to Peace in Gaza Lies in Defeating Hamas

Israel cannot continue living with a Hamas-controlled Gaza. The untenability of having Hamas on Israel’s border has long been clear. However, to dismantle and disarm the group was always going to involve grievous civilian bloodshed and the inflaming of anti-Israeli opinion—a prohibitive proposition for Israel prior to 7 October.

Yet now Israel finds itself facing this task anyway, which is a reminder to the world that tolerating the intolerable—even grudgingly, because the alternatives are too difficult—is never sustainable in the long term. This was demonstrated on 7 October.

The world should absolutely insist that Israel follow the rules of armed conflict. We should hold it to account if it fails to meet that standard. We should expect higher standards of democratic, law-abiding societies than we expect of lawless terrorists.

But we must also understand that we can’t hold a law-abiding society to such a standard if that means there would be no assured pathway for it to guarantee its future security, which is what we would be doing if we ask Israel to accept the continued control of Gaza by Hamas. We would be asking Israelis to live in perpetual fear of their state—as well as themselves and their families—being attacked and wiped off the earth.

We can demand that Israel minimize civilian casualties and hold it to account when it fails. (The very fact that the civilian toll is the foremost consideration serves as an important reminder that Israel is at war with Hamas, not Palestinians.) But we cannot demand that it enter a truce that relies on the word of terrorists whose raison d’être is Israel’s destruction. The group that carried out the 7 October attacks is not transforming into a peace-abiding actor.

As invaluable as the laws of armed conflict are, there is no goal of international law that says a nation must accept, in perpetuity, such a grave security threat as Hamas poses to Israel.

And Israel can’t keep Hamas at bay forever. Even accepting that 7 October represented a colossal intelligence failure on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the ruthless determination of Hamas will always drive it through whatever cracks it can find in Israel’s defenses. And however sophisticated Israel’s security apparatus might be, all armor has vulnerabilities.

Hence the pathway to long-term stability and security cannot begin with the continued rule of Gaza by Hamas.

So where does this leave us? Nobody pretends that Israel’s military operation will automatically create peace.

What Israel must do is disarm Hamas and neutralize the extreme threat that it poses, while it embarks on a renewed and genuine effort at a long-term peace solution. However difficult that will be, it is the only way forward.

It needs to convince the Palestinian people and its regional neighbors that it is genuine about finding a pathway to peace. Acknowledging the anger that is building among Palestinians and Arabs as a consequence of the costs of its pursuit of Hamas, Israel will need to demonstrate a heartfelt effort that may not sit well with all individual Israeli citizens in the wake of 7 October. It will be monumental, but it is the only way. A two-state solution—however cynically it has been abandoned by some in Israel, intentionally sabotaged by Iran and its proxies including Hamas, and despairingly written off by many objective commentators—remains the best hope.

There will be no quick fix. It will require Israel to work over the long term, including with the US and Arab countries, to persuade the majority of Palestinians that Hamas and its ideological confederates were only ever an obstacle to peace and, in fact, an obstacle to a Palestinian state becoming a reality. Only by neutralizing Hamas will this process have a chance.

And while many people will argue, rightly, that an ongoing conflict risks creating more extremists, terrorism, like all security threats, takes both intent and capability. Sadly, there are many people and organizations worldwide who mean harm against Israel and often the West more broadly. These individuals and groups are prevented from succeeding by being denied the capability.

To allow Hamas to control Gaza is comparable to accepting al-Qaeda’s control of land in Afghanistan or Islamic State’s control of territory in Syria and Iraq. There are reasons the military battles to degrade and destroy the operational capabilities of these terrorist groups were and remain so important. Allowing them to plan operations from ungoverned spaces is a fundamental obstacle to long-term peace.

It is this capability that Israel must now remove while working longer term to defuse the intent. A genuine peace effort by Israel can start to erode the drivers and influence of extremists, but it needs the breathing space that Hamas’s neutralization can create.

We are all horrified by the death and suffering of war. For there to be less violence and bloodshed, the world needs Israel to chart a responsible course of removing Hamas and pursuing peace.

Justin Bassi is the executive director of ASPIThis article is published courtesy of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).