Hamas militants (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

October 10, 2023   4 mins

How could Israel let this happen? As footage of Gazan motorbikes pelting through holes in Israel’s “smart” border fence started to circulate, of paragliders descending on a desert rave, of entire families being kidnapped or butchered in their homes, that was the question on every Western analyst’s lips: how could Israel let this happen?

The more important question, however, is this: what will the West itself do now?

Launched from land, sea and air, the attack was unprecedented in both scale and barbarity. It was a display of Isis-like savagery. But it was also the culmination of a sophisticated military operation, probably months in the planning and aided by at least one foreign power. As a result, more than 800 Israelis have been slaughtered, and no doubt more will follow in the days and weeks to come. Again: how could Israel, with its vast intelligence apparatus and decades of experience, let this happen?

The obvious answer — at least the one doing the rounds of the think tanks in Europe and America — is that Israel was distracted. And when facing such determined enemies as Hamas and Iran, who are always on the lookout for the perfect moment to strike, distraction amounts to suicide.

There is certainly some truth to this. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Israel, riven by internal discord over Netanyahu’s attempted reform of its supreme court, has been hamstrung for months. Instead of looking outwards to the existential threats on and within its borders, politicians have been infighting over judicial reform. And when the leadership of a civilian-led democracy becomes obsessed with such a complex issue, who leads the military? What good can tomorrow’s justices do for today’s victims of terrorism?

Yet the danger of distraction is not merely an Israeli one. It is just as prevalent, if not more so, in the US-led Western world. In recent years, old fronts have opened in the clash of civilisations (Samuel Huntington is proved more correct by the day). America is now involved indirectly in battles against Putin’s Russia and Iran-backed Hamas, while China is watching closely, perhaps eyeing up Taiwan. Between Khamenei, Putin and Xi, the new anti-Western Axis looks increasingly threatening. And how do we respond?

We can be partly grateful that both the UK and US have pledged to support Israel, as they pledged support for Ukraine against Putin. But these are not difficult decisions to make. A few words here; a press conference there. This is no substitute for strategy which, at present, is sorely missing.

In the UK, the two major political parties are busying themselves with the circus that is conference season, doing their best to emerge with some semblance of respectability. (Judging by the pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the Labour Conference yesterday, Keir Starmer has his work cut out.) In the US, the situation inspires even less confidence. While the Democrats see the return of Trump to the White House as a threat to democracy itself and the Republicans view 2024 as a test of election integrity, America’s enemies continue to circle, looking for an opening. The House of Representatives lacks a Speaker. A government shutdown seems inevitable. We are distracted, and they know it. In my view, it was as much the distraction of the West as the distraction of Israel’s politicians that emboldened Hamas and its backers to launch their war of terror.

None of this is to say that the issues that dominate the media cycle and political discourse are not important: immigration, crime, the climate. But are they existential? Certainly not when compared with the threat posed to Israel by its malevolent neighbours; and certainly not when compared with the threat of an emboldened Middle East to a West that has grown complacent about the threat of terrorism. In a well-functioning democracy, there would be clarity about the need to support Israel with more than fine words. We would not ramp up the rhetoric to the apocalyptic; we would not distract ourselves with internecine infighting.

Just look at how the West has attempted — and failed — to process the carnage in Israel. Caught in a Manichean trap that prioritises moral certainty over reality, anti-Israel activists have succeeded in distracting us further. They distort reality by pretending Israel is simply paying the price for its aggression; that it must, as former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn put it, end its “occupation” of Gaza. (Ironically, these very same people tend to be the ones warning Israel not to launch an invasion of Gaza — is it occupied or not?) Further distraction follows: in the form of protests outside Israeli embassies, in those contortions that enable activists to justify attacks on Jewish shops and restaurants.

As a result, many people are unable to agree on the few facts in this interminable conflict that are clear: that Hamas is driven more by its hatred of Jewish people than its love for the Palestinians; that Hamas routinely kills, tortures and persecutes Palestinians who seek peace with Israel; that, well before Hamas paraded the dead bodies of Israeli women down its streets, it used Palestinian children as human shields.

And now, there is the fact that Iran, Russia and China are looking on with glee. They see anarchy in Israel and a weeping wound in the Western alliance. The palaces of Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are all looking West, and what do they see? Activists in Time Square calling another intifada, Jewish schoolchildren being told not to wear their uniform, national broadcasters giving airtime to Hamas apologists. Our weakness is plain for the world to see.

So the West must decide. Do we degenerate into quarrelling factions or do we reassert our enduring values and highest ideals on the global stage? Do we stand with Israel in action as in word or do we fall into a chasm of distraction and division? This might just be the most important choice our generation makes.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her new book is Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.