On 16 October 2016, Iraq’s security forces, backed by a US-led coalition, began their campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State.
It would take another nine months before the terror group had been finally driven from its former de facto political capital and stronghold in Iraq.
The coalition campaign was bloody and costly. Thousands of civilians were killed, 600,000 people displaced, 40,000 buildings destroyed, and the cost of removing IS-planted explosives and rebuilding the city over the next five years would eventually cost around $50bn.
Throughout the military effort, there were no calls for ceasefires. As the former shadow foreign secretary, Rt Hon Hillary Benn MP, correctly recognised, the west was at war with a “fascist” menace which had to be defeated. It’s a label that, in the case of IS – an ideologically driven terror group which savagely murdered civilians, raped and enslaved women, and showed not an ounce of respect for basic human rights – was entirely apt.
It is a label which can equally be applied to Hamas: it, too, deliberately targets civilians, murders and tortures babies and children, and brutalises women. And, it too, has genocidal ambitions.
And yet, barely days into Israel’s military operation to dismantle and destroy Hamas’ military and political infrastructure, the calls for a ceasefire began. They have grown louder ever since.
Some are understandably driven by genuine humanitarian concern: nobody – not least Israel whose forces go to huge lengths to avoid civilian casualties – wishes to see the innocent suffer. That’s why, on Thursday 9 November, Israel announced the expansion of humanitarian pauses in swathes of Gaza. Other people, however, appear to be motivated by an instinct to hold Israel to a standard to which no other country is subjected. Israel – which suffered an assault in which over 1,400 men, women and children were brutally murdered and more than 240 taken hostage – is, alone among nations, expected not to defend its citizens from further such attacks.
This instinct – which, in some, is combined with a passionate loathing of the world’s sole Jewish state – cannot be indulged or appeased.
We have to be clear: a ceasefire would achieve nothing beyond allowing Hamas to return to the previous status quo, rearm itself and prepare for its next assault on Israel. We know this because this is precisely how Hamas has behaved since it seized control of Gaza in 2007. Every conflict it has provoked with Israel has been followed by a ceasefire.
And every time – five times in 15 years – Hamas has used this breathing space to rebuild its arsenal and attack Israel again at a time of its choosing, with more sophisticated and far-reaching weapons on each occasion.
Hamas has also repeatedly pledged that – if given the opportunity – it will attack Israel again as it did on 7 October. Just this week, Taher El-Nounou, a Hamas media adviser, declared: “I hope that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders, and that the Arab world will stand with us”. Given this stance, calls for a ceasefire are essentially a demand for Israel to lay down its arms, while Hamas fights on. This would be an historically unprecedented – not to say oxymoronic – ceasefire.
The Mosul example is instructive - and not simply because of the contrast between the pressure being exerted upon Israel to end its campaign against Hamas and the time afforded the coalition to drive IS from its Iraqi capital.
IS, for instance, seized control of Mosul in June 2014; two years before the US-led coalition began its operations. Hamas, by contrast, has had 16 years to embed and deepen its military strength. IS spent two years digging tunnels in Mosul; Hamas’s tunnels date back at least two decades – in 2001, for instance, it used a tunnel to explode a bomb under an Israeli military post – but were hugely expanded after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2007.
Today, experts at the Modern War Institute say that Hamas’ 300-mile labyrinth “amounts to an entire city of tunnels and bunkers under Gaza’s surface”. Indeed, they argue, IS’ more limited tunnel network “greatly contributed to the fact that it took over one hundred thousand Iraqi security forces nine months and required destroying most of the city to clear it of enemy forces”.
At the same time, like Hamas, IS sought to protect its fighters behind hostages and human shields. As Amnesty International reported as the fighting came to a close: “Civilians in west Mosul have been ruthlessly exploited by … the Islamic State, which has systematically moved them into zones of conflict, used them as human shields, and prevented them from escaping to safety.” No such language, though accurate, is ever used by such organisations to describe Hamas’ activities in Gaza.
Yet, while Hamas is a terrorist group like IS, this description – perhaps evoking notions of lone wolves or small cells of combatants – doesn’t adequately capture its military capabilities. Despite the tight restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt to combat the threat it poses, Hamas has, with Tehran’s assistance, developed enormous supplies and financial largesse, and turned Gaza into a massive military training camp and weapons arsenal. Amid and under schools, mosques and hospitals, it has concealed rocket launch platforms, military bunkers and command posts, and an extensive munitions.
Hamas has now built what is, in essence, a terror-military force. It has an estimated 30,000 fighters at its disposal (IS had between 3,000-12,000 defending Mosul); several thousand rockets (some with a range of more than 150 miles); plus a wealth of drones, mines, anti-tank guided missiles, grenade launchers and mortar shells.
In short, Hamas’ ethos – its willingness to use terror as a weapon of eliminationist war – may resemble that of a conventional terrorist group, but, thanks to Iran’s assistance, its capabilities are demonstrably different and more lethal.
The battle between Hamas and Israel is one between terror and democratic values. But, like Ukraine, Israel is also engaged in a struggle in which we have a direct interest. Iran’s axis of terror – of which Hamas and Hezbollah are central cogs – doesn’t just threaten the Middle East’s stability, it is also a potential danger to our security here at home. Indeed, at the time of the first coalition airstrikes on targets in Iraq in August 2014, IS had yet to claim a single attack on European soil.
The danger – correctly identified – was in the threat it posed. Israel however is responding to genocidal pogroms, not pre-emptively attacking a future enemy.
For its own sake – and ours – Israel must be given the time it undoubtedly requires to remove the threat Hamas poses both to its own citizens and to those of Gaza.
Andrew Percy is Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole