Israel has right to defend itself from Palestinian militants' missiles but the chances of a lasting peace are falling – Andrew Bowie MP

As I descended into the stale darkness, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing, where I was. I could only imagine the fear of those above ground about the threat from within.

A tunnel, discovered in 2018, that Israel said was dug by the Islamic Jihad group, led from Gaza towards a kibbutz of Kissufim in southern Israel (Picture: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Such was my experience of entering a destroyed cross-border military tunnel, built by Hamas, discovered near Kibbutz Ein HaShlosha – a farming community in Israel close to the Gaza border.

When I first learned of the tunnels that Hamas had dug into Israel I imagined something on a par with The Great Escape – its occupants haphazardly shuffling towards Israel inch by inch through a small space, cramped airless space.

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Never did I expect to be faced with a concrete-reinforced tunnel six-plus feet high and a yard wide, carefully designed so that its terrorists could freely run through it with a weapon hoisted over their shoulder.

It had electricity. Lighting. Oxygen supply. Weapons caches. We learned that in some tunnels there was infrastructure in place to enable Hamas fighters to speedily transport kidnapped Israelis into Gaza. Medical bags with sedatives to assist kidnaps had even been uncovered.

I wondered, how much concrete had been poured into this tunnel alone, and the dozens of others that had been discovered? How much did this actually cost? The inescapable conclusion to both questions – a lot.

Money and resources that should have been – and in many cases were – allocated by the international community for civilian projects to improve the lives of long-suffering people of Gaza.

The tunnel stands as testament not only to Hamas’ determination to wipe Israel off the map and to the extent to which it has outright disregard for improving the lives of its own population.

A family huddles in their home with bomb technicians and police as sirens warn of an incoming attack on Thursday in Ashkelon, southern Israel. Their home had just received a direct hit from a missile that failed to explode (Picture: John Minchillo/AP)

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Gazans find themselves in an unimaginable situation. Living in a narrow territory overseen by an Islamist terror group.

Children go to schools from which Hamas launches rockets. Worshippers go to mosques adjacent to Hamas military infrastructure. Patients visit hospitals with Hamas leaders sheltering underneath. It is an impossible situation for both Palestinians and Israel.

Tunnels remain a major asset for Hamas. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) claims it has destroyed more than 60 miles of tunnels throughout Gaza in recent days which the group uses to launch rockets into Israel, transport its fighters, and coordinate military operations. The extensive network has become known as the “Hamas Metro”.

A fire rages in Khan Yunish in the Gaza Strip, following an Israeli airstrike (Picture: Youssef Massoud/AFP via Getty Images)

Hamas’s cynical tactic of hiding among its own population is made even worse by the more than 700 rockets that Hamas has fired towards Israel but fell short and exploded in Gaza, injuring and killing Palestinians.

These rockets have hit Gaza’s own electricity plant and sewage treatment works. Palestinian NGOs have recorded how families who died in the violence have actually been killed by these rockets. But Hamas has little care as to who they kill.

Such unfathomable disregard for human life was highlighted in a shocking audio recording broadcast by Sky News Arabia this week. The clip features an Arabic-speaking Israeli pleading with the Palestinian man on the other end of the phone to leave his home urgently as the building he was in would shortly be the target of an air strike. The man refuses to move his family and says he invites death as it would harm Israel.

Not that you’d know it from much of the social media commentary I’ve seen recently but this is a complex situation, full of nuance and legitimate interests of both sides. Of course, this is ignorantly discarded in the rush to deliver an eye-grabbing viral message.

Israel has an absolute right to self-defence. Indeed, in the face of the 4,000-plus rockets that have been fired towards its civilian population by internationally proscribed terror groups, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, it has a duty to protect its citizens.

Faced with sustained barrages, any democracy would be compelled to respond. Indeed, the UK has the right to defend itself against terror groups – and continues to do so thousands of miles away without much fanfare from those currently sending vitriol in Israel’s direction.

Equally however, the Palestinians have a right to an independent state. This must be given full-throated support with a new push for long-overdue peace talks.

The situation is complicated endlessly by Iran’s bankrolling and arming of Gaza-based terror groups. Time and again, with Iranian support, Hamas has been able to rearm and strengthen ahead of another ‘round’ of conflict. The international community owes it to the Palestinians to detach Iran from the Palestinian arena and break this cycle once and for all.

A new dynamic – the apparent political strengthening of Hamas among the would-be Palestinian electorate – should be sounding alarm bells in capitals around the world.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s dramatic cancellation last month of the first Palestinian elections in 15 years has opened a Pandora’s box.

Hamas has seized the moment to send an unmistakable message that it is literally fighting for Palestinians against Israel, after several decades of growing corruption by the more moderate Fatah party which runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Polling shows that Palestinians – and even Israelis – are becoming more hard-line in their views. The sad consequence of a shared failure by the international community to end Iran’s destabilising activities.

Peace remains possible but it gets harder by the day. While disrupting Iran with vigour must be a sustained focus, investment in people-to-people projects between Israelis and Palestinians is more urgent than ever.

The United States Congress has just established a historic peace fund to achieve just this and I call on the UK to join it as a matter or priority. I have seen some of these projects in action in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and it is incredibly important.

The region has suffered too much bloodshed for far too long. It is time this ended.

Andrew Bowie is the Scottish Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

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