As a British Jew in Brussels with a history of work in conflict zones, it was traumatic to witness the atrocities of October 7th and the deep suffering of my Israeli relatives. I stand with them. But it has also pained me to see the deaths and desperation of Palestinian civilians and subsequent decline in European support for Israel. The current military approach risks being unsustainable and creating longer term security risks and unpredictable ripple effects. It is vital that Israel explore other means to achieve its goals of deterrence, hostage release and security. Ukraine’s war effort offers useful lessons.
Despite initial waves of solidarity with Israel among many European leaders, the heavy-handed military response has created an impression of collective punishment, as pictures from Gaza travel the world in a heartbeat. It doesn’t matter that Hamas terrorists lurk in tunnels – images of terrified patients, families on the move and children buried in rubble send a more powerful message. Demands to liberate hostages have been eclipsed by the focus on Gaza’s civilians. Pre-existing biases, antisemitic tropes and lies have spread fast through social media – a beast that cannot be controlled. This is fuelling radicalisation, igniting the Arab (and European) street and alienating regional and international partners. It is Israel now on the receiving end of international pressure not Hamas – all exactly as the terrorists intended.
It is well past time to change how Israel is perceived, even if these perceptions are sometimes unfair and do not tell the whole story. International and regional support is a currency Israel needs, and must be weighed against any military advantage. Winning the information war and reducing extremism are crucial components of any counter-terrorism strategy. It is therefore vital to stop playing into Hamas’ hands by more actively safeguarding Palestinian civilians even at the expense of operations in Gaza. More emphasis should instead be placed on other hybrid security measures and the tools of diplomatic pressure, international law, information campaigns and economic coercion.
In the last two years, Ukraine’s President Zelensky has shown how to tailor diplomatic and grassroots campaigns to gain international support for its war against Russia by framing it as an existential battle to be waged on everyone’s behalf. This has generated mass support across military, political, economic, information and legal domains. It has also enabled Ukraine to maintain the moral high ground. The two wars and leaders are very different – but the tactics are instructive.
Perhaps Israel could have paused after the massacres, positioned its forces and then regionalised and internationalised the problem. Since this war is unpalatable and has wider implications, other actors with leverage should have been fully commandeered to help retrieve the hostages, dismantle Hamas and stop attacks on Israel from all sides. New peace initiatives should at least have been tested; Arab neighbours have an interest in preventing spill-over, preserving stability and neutralising Hamas. The EU, US and other partners could also have brought an impressive array of assets to the table. Forging a coalition against terrorism, as French President Macron suggested, would build commitment to a new regional paradigm. Maintaining public support would also have contributed to solutions to the immediate crisis and longer term security questions.
Am I being naïve? I grew up in the comfort of Europe while others defended Israel on behalf of Jews everywhere. Lessons from history also taught Israel not to count on others for survival. Furthermore, could anyone have deterred Hamas from its nihilistic mission to string out the hostage release and create more martyrs to the cause? Was a kinetic approach by Israel alone, fast and furious, the only way? Could more civilian casualties been avoided without overly compromising operations? What’s that worth in terms of humanity, legality and international support?
This war will create its own reality but Israel will need friends through all its phases, from freeing the hostages to permanently defeating Hamas to resurrecting peace initiatives and changing the narrative of occupation. The US is trying to mobilise Arab countries to help more, but thousands of Palestinian deaths and questionable targets have made this harder. The waning support for Israel must be seen as a strategic risk, and reversed through more emphasis on humanitarian concerns, more strategic diplomacy and more insistence that others share the burden.