The path to peace in Gaza lies in defeating Hamas

The prospect of an exchange of hostages taken by Hamas and prisoners held by Israel, to be accompanied by a pause in fighting, is of course welcome news. It’s a constructive moment in the tragic seven weeks that began on 7 October.

The question is what happens once the exchange takes place. For all the temporary relief, the so-called truce cannot be permanent given that Hamas’s control of Gaza is the foremost obstacle to long-term peace. The negotiation has come about because Israel’s response to the October terror attacks and hostage-taking has put Hamas under immense pressure. Indeed, this is why Hamas took the hostages—anticipating an unyielding Israeli military operation, the terror group knew it needed leverage to extract concessions from Israel such as today’s hiatus in fighting and create domestic challenges for the Israeli government.

It is also why Hamas won’t return all the hostages (releasing about 50 but keeping 180). It is looking to hold on to its bargaining chips in the hope that Israel will be persuaded by a global community tired of the horrors of war to extend the pause indefinitely. Indeed, once Israel resumes its operations, Hamas will no doubt claim that it’s the Israelis who are restarting the conflict without justification. In pushing this strategic messaging, it will draw on the Iran-backed web of proxies to exploit the genuine global sympathy for Gazan civilians while also stoking the flammable fringes of the debate occupied by less well-meaning participants such as antisemites.

The discussion of a ceasefire inevitably appeals to our urge to find a modicum of optimism amid the carnage, but it doesn’t change the reality that Israel faces: Hamas does not want peace; it wants the extirpation of the Jewish state. The group’s long-term strategy is a fight to the death—backed by regional benefactors and sympathisers—to bring about the demise of the Jewish state.

A truce that leaves Hamas in control of Gaza will not be a permanent solution but merely a temporary pause in which Gazans remain controlled by a terrorist group that will abuse civilian infrastructure and resources to rebuild, rearm and return to its stated objective of destroying Israel.

Most other aspects of this immensely complex political problem involve difficult, but negotiable, trade-offs in which the parties could make compromises. That goes for territorial borders, the status of refugees and even the presence or otherwise of Israeli settlements.

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 an unfeasible standard that goes beyond international law and leaves it with no assured pathway 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 minimise 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 defences. And however sophisticated Israel’s security apparatus might be, all armour 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 neutralise 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 neighbours 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 neutralising 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 organisations 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 neutralisation 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.