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The Israel-Hamas War: Searching for Moral Clarity Amid Conflict

Former British diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall reflects on the complexities involved in the conflict and why there are no easy answers – if any

A Hamas attack on Israel. Photo: PA/Alamy

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Ever since the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted, I’ve felt stuck in a moral maze, struggling to find moral clarity. On some days, I am caught up in the anguish and drama around the plight of the hostages and their families. On other days, I find myself horrified by the extent of destruction and loss of life in Gaza. 

On some days, I’m appalled by statements by Hamas leaders, vowing to continue their attacks on Israel. On other days, I’m appalled by statements by right-wing Israelis, including some in government, talking about Palestinians as animals who need to be destroyed. 

On some days, I am reminded of the long history of injustices towards Palestinians – the millions still living in refugee camps; the stifling restrictions on Gaza even before the 7 October attack; the humiliations of life under occupation in the West Bank; the never-ending expansion of illegal settlements; the harassment of Palestinians by militant Israeli settlers, who make no secret of their desire to claim the whole of the West Bank for themselves; the widespread use by Israel of collective punishment, and administrative detention, including of minors.   

On other days, I’m appalled anew by some additional reporting about the sheer savagery of Hamas’ attack on 7 October; or by fresh videoclips of misguided Palestinian supporters chanting antisemitic slogans, downplaying Hamas’ attacks or claiming they are justified as a result of Israeli occupation. The inability of the presidents of Harvard, Penn and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to give a clear answer before a congressional hearing the as to whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate their universities’ codes of conduct was absolutely shocking.  

Throughout this period, I realise I’ve struggled to find my own voice. Instead, I’ve tended to react to whatever others have most recently reported or said. I’ve also tended to hedge my comments with careful acknowledgement of the suffering of both sides. I’ve not taken a definitive, consistent stance, strongly in support of either Israel or the Palestinians.  

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Part of my caution is due to the fact that I genuinely believe that both sides have suffered and committed wrongs. 

Part of my caution is also due to concern about misinformation. It’s hard to tell which reports from the ground are accurate, and which are being exaggerated or distorted, in order to stoke up support or animosity for one side or the other. I don’t want to be played. 

I’ve also been heavily constrained by the fear of being accused of antisemitism, if I criticise Israel too much; or of overlooking the suffering of Palestinians, if I support Israel too much. 

Another big factor is simply my years of training as a British diplomat, which taught me to moderate and suppress my views on most issues. This was partly in the interests of maintaining so-called ‘balance’, or to avoid giving offence to another country, especially where the UK had other interests at stake. It was also partly because, as a civil servant, it was not my place to express my own opinion, but my duty to represent the views of the government. 

But with regard to Israel and the Palestinians, it’s not just diplomatic caution hampering my ability to see clearly. It’s the fact that, as a result of years of Western support for Israel, and the legacy of guilt from the Second World War, I have been conditioned to presuppose that Israeli acts in defence of their interests have more legitimacy than those committed by Palestinians. 

The plight of Palestinians, though certainly of concern, has always tended in Western capitals to be regarded as something of a secondary consideration, or even a situation largely of their own making, due to their failure to accept peace deals with Israel, even though these were always on unfair terms which entrenched many of the losses suffered by Palestinians since Israel’s creation. 

Overlooking the fact that many Palestinians are Christians, attitudes towards them are also shaped by the widespread sense of antipathy and distrust felt by many towards Muslims generally, as a result of the 9/11 attacks, and many other acts of barbarism committed by terrorist groups around the world, which openly claim to be acting in the name of Islam. 

This Western bias in favour of Israel played out very visibly for me when I was responsible in the mid-2000s for drafting the UK’s annual human rights reports. There was always a huge argument behind the scenes as to whether or not we should designate Israel, or at least Israel in its role as the governing power in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as a situation ‘of concern’ – generally something reserved only for the worst human rights offenders.

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We usually ended up covering the situation through references in our thematic chapters – for example on international humanitarian law, women or children’s rights, alongside criticism of human rights abuses committed by Palestinians. This at least served to acknowledge that there were problems within the Occupied Territories, but also gave our coverage a  ‘he said, she said’ flavour, without any sense of whether we held any particular side to be more in the wrong. 

I realise I’m feeling the same sense of cognitive dissonance now over Israel, that I once felt over Brexit – which ultimately led me to resign from the Foreign Office, because I could no longer reconcile what the Government was asking me to say about Brexit, with what my own eyes and ears were telling me. 

Having throughout my life tended to trust that British ministers largely behaved with integrity, it took me a long time to accept that Boris Johnson’s Government was not just inadvertently misleading people about Brexit, but was deliberately lying about it. 

Once the scales fell from my eyes about Brexit, I began to recognise that many aspects of our democracy in the UK were not as strong as I once thought them to be – and that the guardrails against abuse of power by the executive were far weaker than I had once trusted them to be. 

As a diplomat, it was repeatedly dinned into me that our entire foreign policy was based around support for the international rules-based system, centered on the United Nations and its various charters and conventions. Now we have British ministers openly toying with the idea of derogating from some aspects of international human rights and refugee conventions to pursue the Rwanda scheme. 

Robert Jenrick, who resigned last week as Immigration Minister, was even quoted as explicitly saying that the Government must put “the views of the British public above contested notions of international law” and that MPs are “not sent to Parliament to be concerned about our reputation on the gilded international circuit”. If he had his way, the UK would be no better than other states – only choosing to adhere to international law when it suited it. 

So how can I be sure that the UK is applying the right principles in its stance on Israel/Gaza now? 

The West’s strong support for Israel may have made sense in the early years of its existence, when it was a truly weak, vulnerable state, surrounded by more powerful, hostile states intent on destroying it. But does it still make sense today, when Israel is an established state and overwhelmingly the strongest military power in the region, the existence of which has largely been accepted by its neighbours? 

Does it still make sense to give the current Israeli Government such strong backing, when it is headed by an  individual under investigation on numerous corruption charges; when it has pursued policies designed to weaken judicial oversight of its actions; when it contains ministers openly opposed to making peace with Palestinians, and when it openly supports the construction of more settlements in defiance of international law? 

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Defenders of Israel say the war in Gaza could end overnight if Hamas simply released all the remaining hostages and surrendered. But it might equally be argued that Israel could end the conflict overnight if it agreed to end its occupation of the West Bank, dismantle its illegal settlements, and release all those Palestinian prisoners who it has detained without charge. 

I hear it argued that it’s unrealistic to dismantle all the settlements. But is it realistic to expect more than two million people to live in unsustainable conditions in the tiny Gaza strip and Palestinians in the West Bank to be corralled into ever more constricted spaces, separated by barriers and permanently patrolled by the Israeli Defence Force? 

I hear people repeatedly say ‘well Hamas started this war’ – but this ignores the fact that, for Palestinians, they have been fighting to secure their statehood since 1948. Just like for Ukrainians, the war with Russia did not begin in 2022 but in 2014, so for Palestinians, this has been a conflict which has been ongoing for years.   

It is argued Hamas is the one putting Palestinian civilians’ lives at risk by sheltering among them. But it could equally be argued that Palestinian civilians have nowhere safe to go, to separate themselves from Hamas, because of the tiny size of the Gaza Strip, and the sheer scale of the Israeli attack. 

It is also argued that Israel must be allowed to ‘finish the job’ of destroying Hamas, otherwise it will only be able to regroup and launch more attacks on Israel. I am no advocate for Hamas, the brutal rule of which has been immensely harmful to Palestinians as well as Israelis, but I still wonder if it is actually possible to ‘destroy’ Hamas – a political ideology as well as a military organisation.   

I also can’t help having the nagging suspicion that Israel doesn’t actually have a credible plan for ‘the day after’. To what extent is Israel’s current action part of a well thought through longer-term strategy; or to what extent is it an anger-driven form of revenge, which will only fuel the cycle of hatred and destruction? To what extent is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu motivated purely by the desire to shore up Israeli security and deter future attacks; and to what extent might his approach be part of an effort to save his own political skin? 

To what extent are the Israeli Defence Forces’ tactics in Gaza genuinely driven by military necessity? Are they really doing all that they can to minimise Palestinian civilian casualties?

I keep thinking there must be a rationale, a logic, a strategy, an outcome. But what if there isn’t one?

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Round and round and round my head these arguments go. 

I can’t put myself in the minds of the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s possible that they can both be wrong and both be right at the same time. 

However, I do believe that the US and the UK should have supported, or at least both abstained, on the resolution calling for a ceasefire in the UN Security Council last week. This is not because I naively believe that it will instantly lead to an end in the fighting but because, as leading members of the UN, they owed it to the UN Secretary General to heed his unprecedented call for the Security Council to take action – to prevent the situation developing into “a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region”. 

Both the US and the UK were – understandably – unhappy that the draft resolution did not explicitly condemn the Hamas attacks on 7 October. But their representatives at the UN could still have chosen to support or abstain on the resolution, while accompanying it with an ‘explanation of vote’, to put on record their condemnation of Hamas. This is a diplomatic practice which countries often use when voting on a resolution, when the wording doesn’t fully represent their views on any given situation.  

Both countries are reportedly unhappy about the rising death toll in Gaza. This was an opportunity to show both that they will not give Israel carte blanche in its response to Hamas’ attacks – and that they regard Palestinian lives as important as Israeli ones. 



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