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The End of the Future? Absence of peace in Middle East may escalate into global war

The End of the Future? Absence of peace in Middle East may escalate into global war
Smoke rises following Israeli strikes in Gaza on 15 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohammed Saber)

The heightened and explosive geopolitical environment means that without peace, this could escalate into a world war stretching from Taiwan to Ukraine and encompassing the entire Middle East.

Pro-Palestinian student groups in the US last week lauded the Hamas attacks on Israel as a “historic win” for the “Palestinian resistance” and held up “Rhodesia, South Africa and Algeria” as models of the defeat of settler colonies.

It was unlikely that this statement was written by a student of history, because these were very different roads to liberation.

In Algeria, the FLN’s choice of a full-on revolutionary terror campaign was met with extreme brutality by the French colonialists. More than a million people died, and a million people fled Algeria, which remained a shattered country for decades afterwards.

By contrast, in South Africa, as Peter Beinart wrote in The New York Times this weekend, the ANC was worlds away from Hamas in how it conducted the Struggle.

Beinart quoted the ANC as declaring that targeting civilians is wrong: “Our morality as revolutionaries dictates that we respect the values underpinning the humane conduct of war.”

This was also because the ANC of Nelson Mandela was concerned about what was to happen after apartheid, and wanted all South Africans to buy into a vision of a multiracial democracy.

The events of the last week or so have shown Israel and Hamas scooting headlong down the Algerian road towards mutual annihilation, killing any chance of peace.

If it continues, it will not remain within the borders of Israel and Palestine for very long.

The heightened and explosive geopolitical environment means that without peace, this could escalate into a world war stretching from Taiwan to Ukraine and encompassing the entire Middle East.

Taking the bait

The attacks were a humiliation for Israel. Its much-vaunted intelligence services were taken completely by surprise.

One of the most horrific atrocities was the massacre at an outdoor music festival in the woods near Kibbutz Re’im, where 250 young partygoers were gunned down, and some survivors taken as hostages.

The best-selling author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, explained the impact of these events on the psyche of Jewish people.

“It goes back to the deepest fears and the darkest moments of Jewish history… Everybody is now comparing it to scenes from the Holocaust or from pogroms. The state of Israel just disappeared for a couple of hours.

“Jewish communities were slaughtered. The comparisons are with the Einsatzgruppen — mobile killing units of the Nazis that in 1941 to 1942 would just come, surround a Jewish village and burn people in their houses or just shoot them all to death,” Harari wrote.

Hamas’s attack was clearly an attempt to provoke by tearing open the deepest wounds — the purest form of terrorism.

The attacks have been compared to Osama bin Laden’s attack on the US on 9/11, when Al-Qaeda baited US President George W Bush and the neocons into wars in the Middle East that it took 20 years for the US to extricate itself from.

“I fear that Hamas’s intention is to get Israel to retaliate massively and have the conflict escalate: a West Bank uprising, Hezbollah attacks, a revolt in East Jerusalem,” Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, warned within days.

Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, ignored pleas not to impose collective punishment on the civilian population of Gaza, by baldly announcing: “We are fighting human animals, and we will act accordingly.”

Israel is resorting to its default mechanism of unleashing terrifying military power in Old Testament-style retribution on the people of Gaza.

But the very predictability of this overwhelming display of violence means they have forgotten the most elementary lesson of Sun Tzu’s Art of War: to “mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy”.

Hamas has turned Israel’s greatest strength into its greatest weakness.

As the IDF prepares to invade the Gaza Strip, Hamas has had a long time to prepare its tens of thousands of fighters in urban neighbourhoods whose streets and underground tunnels they know by heart. If their record so far is anything to go by, they have some surprises in store.

Hamas, which is holding more than 120 hostages, is goading the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into a trap that will bring them into conflict with the population and inflame the Arab world. It is designed to break the Abraham Accords under which Israel created alliances with Arab states. Even longer-term relationships such as Egypt and Jordan will come under pressure.

Anger is already growing on the Arab streets, which saw massive protests at the weekend.

Israel was on the verge of making a deal for “normalisation” with Saudi Arabia, that would have set the final seal on a pact with its former Arab adversaries while offering almost nothing to the Palestinians.

That is on hold for now and could be off the table permanently, depending on how long the war rages — and how much it connects to regional and global conflicts.

Leadership failure

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an editorial pointing out what many US outlets did not dare express: 

“The disaster that befell Israel is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister … completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”

Israel was fractured politically by Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine the independence of the judiciary. His ruling coalition has grown ever more extreme, allowing settlers to run amok in the West Bank and attacking Muslim holy sites such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

A unity government was created following the attacks, but it is still headed by Netanyahu and includes extremists such as the violently anti-Arab Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who wants to rid the West Bank of Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers.

The Israeli right has become completely unmoored from mainstream Western sentiment. Henry Luce, writing in the Financial Times, commented: “Last Saturday’s killing was horrific, yet should come as no surprise. Gaza is the world’s largest open-air prison. Netanyahu has deprived Palestinians of hope for the future and peaceful outlets to express their frustrations. John F Kennedy, Biden’s original hero, said: ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.’”

A poll from the Israeli daily Maariv last week showed a massive drop in support for Netanyahu’s party, Likud, since the attacks.

Many Israelis blame Netanyahu for the events because of the failure of his policy of divide and rule, which was to tolerate, even support, Hamas in Gaza so as to avoid having to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The conduct of the war in Gaza so far by the IDF, whose bombing campaign has shown scant regard for the lives of innocent Palestinians, is rapidly alienating even its most sympathetic supporters in the West.

‘A huge earthquake’

US President Joe Biden has given full-throated support to Israel and sent two aircraft carrier groups to the region while warning Israel to proceed within the laws of war.

He wants to ensure that the response does not escalate into a conflagration that will draw the US into another war in the Middle East.

Because of its long-standing support for Israel, the US will get blamed for whatever Israel does, but so far neither Biden’s entreaties nor US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy appear to have done anything to moderate the vengeful nature of the Israeli response.

The need to break the cycle of violence gained urgency at the weekend when Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, after meeting Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, threatened to attack Israel if it continued bombing Gaza and warned the US that it would suffer heavy losses if it intervened.

“I know about the scenarios that Hezbollah has put in place. Any step the resistance [Hezbollah] will take will cause a huge earthquake in the Zionist entity,” he said.

The US has no desire to get into a war with Iran, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan says there is no evidence that Iran helped Hamas plan the attacks. They are probably hoping they don’t find any.

The conservative Stanford and Harvard historian Niall Ferguson echoes a growing concern in the West of a cascade of conflict and its likely consequences. He has bragging rights, as just weeks ago he predicted a major war in the Middle East.

Apart from Ukraine, there are wars from the Sahel through Sudan and Somalia to Syria and up to Azerbaijan and Armenia. There is tension in Serbia on the border with Kosovo and between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Days before the Hamas attacks, Russia and Syria bombed Western allies in Idlib.

“As with London buses, you can wait ages for one war and then several come along,” says Ferguson.

He believes that a fiscally overstretched US will soon face a nascent Axis-like combination of China, Russia and Iran, none of which condemned the Hamas attack, in three theatres: Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

Kyrylo Budanov, the Head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, agrees and he claims (without evidence so far) that Russians supplied satellite intelligence, infantry weapons and drones to Hamas — and that the world is on the brink of a major war.

What this does is create a massive imperative from above to find a solution, which seems more impossible the longer the fighting continues. 

The battered old roadmap

Growing up white in South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, we believed our world would go on forever.

When the colonial regimes up north gave way, one by one, to black rulers, people worried that the tide of history would reach us one day.

But mostly they believed it could not happen here. The myth of an invincible military machine, the “best in Africa”, itself an expression of white superiority, coupled with a lack of understanding or empathy for those of darker hue living in parallel worlds, allowed many to continue their lives as if we were a normal country.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when South Africa’s ruling class lost faith in itself, when the entire edifice of dehumanisation and propaganda was exposed for what it was — and when the leaders realised they had to find a path out of the abyss.

The turning point for Israel can be precisely identified: Hamas’s brutal surprise attacks on 7 October have torn holes in the Zionist state’s aura of invincibility.

Tareq Baconi, the president of the think tank Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, and a former senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told the New Yorker, “The scale of the offensive and its success, from Hamas’s perspective, mean that we’re actually in a new paradigm, in which Hamas’s attacks are not restricted to renegotiating a new reality in the Gaza Strip, but, rather, are capable of fundamentally undermining Israel’s belief that it can maintain a regime of apartheid against Palestinians, interminably, with no cost to its population.

“By challenging the myth of invincibility that Israel holds on to, it shatters the illusion that they can maintain this regime indefinitely, and that there will be Palestinian acquiescence to that.”

As the bombs keep falling and the world awaits an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, there is one message that can be taken away: this world cannot go on forever.

Even if the IDF eliminates every single Hamas operative and flattens Gaza, that still leaves the Palestinians. At some point, the two peoples will have to find a way to re-engage.

It might seem in bad taste to even mention the possibility of a political process when there is so much pain and rage on all sides.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s offer to mediate in the conflict is not crazy. Israel could be entering uncharted territory for which the only battered roadmap in existence might be the South African invention of a more inclusive society. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • ilike homophones says:

    only people with common sense should be in charge of this planet … … …slavery and apartheid, coupled with love, … …. … but without any cruelty, would heal this burning planet …. …. …..

  • Colin Braude says:

    A little timeline:
    1967: Israel seized Gaza after the Six Day War.
    2005: Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, relocating Jewish settlers from it.
    2006: Hamas wins elections (with a minority of the vote)
    2006—2023: No more elections held; Hamas uses international aid to build up Gaza’s military infrastructure and private wealth instead of its economy, its power and irrigation infrastructure, etc.

    Yet Hamas’ defenders insist that Israel is occupying the Gaza Strip.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Aw lets not let solid facts get in the way of other’s manufactured rage!

    • Ben Harper says:


      Israel is historically Jewish territory, according to the Bible and interpretations of contemporaneous archeology. Joshua entered the land of Israel in 1,400 B.C., the Kingdom of David was found around 1,000 B.C., the first Temple of Solomon was built in approximately 957 B.C., the second temple was built in approximately 515 B.C., the Hasmonean dynasty was founded in 166 B.C., Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 [C.E.], and the Jews exiled from Israel in 136 C.E. The Romans renamed the area Palestine as an insult after the Jews historic enemy, the Philistines. Even during the exile there was continuous Jewish presence in the land. No independent Arab state has ever existed in the area known as Palestine.

      Israel’s founding documents asked Arabs to stay. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, in the middle of an ongoing war with Arab nations reads, ‘We appeal in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions. Arab citizens of Israel have the same rights as Jewish citizens. 20% of all citizens of Israel are Arab. The vast majority of Palestinians live under Palestinian rule in the West Bank. All Arabs in the Gaza Strip lived under Hamas rule. Arab parties have sat in the Israeli government. An Arab sits on Israel’s Supreme Court.

      • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

        This is the worst cock and bull story that one has ever heard. Israel was created in 1948 during the Nakbah and if we are going to be claiming religious books as history the entire world will have to go to war. The existence of Israel at the expense of Palestinians is the reason that they will never have peace and Britain and the USA are responsible for the entire mess in the Middle East. We are not going to accept the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories even if bible thumping thugs are supporting the greatest human tragedy in the world. The drivel of Ben Harper ignores the reality of history and brings archeology to tell us nonsense. The Apartheid Israel government of Netanyahu and criminal Israel military must face justice at the Hague where the drivel of Harper will not hold. We have a lot of nonsense including the geriatric American President who has kept quiet when Palestinians have been on the receiving end of Israel brutality. The time for silence is over as well as inaction. We welcome the decision by both Turkey and Iran to support the Palestinian people and the warning to the criminal regime in Tel Aviv.

        • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

          Iran, Turkey and the honourable Cunningham Ngcukana. The paragons of virtue. What wonderful company you all make for one another …

        • Ben Harper says:


        • Ben Harper says:

          Go and watch the interview with the son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, Mosab Hassan Yousef, then you’ll see the truth. Your typical anti-west rhetoric is not surprising – typical of the cancer in SA, never your fault, blame someone else

        • Ben Harper says:

          So what you’re trying to say is that, according to you, history only dates back to the end of WW2 and archeology has no place or bearing on history.

          The fact you welcome Iran says it all and tells us all we need to know. Are you an eff or anc member?

          • Deirdre Lubbe says:

            Do some research. The simple truth is that Israel continue to annex & occupy Palestinian land in the West Bank, and their oppression of Palestinians should be a crime. Palestinians have been living in the area for more than 2000 years and history according to the Bible is not accurate, and never pretended to be. There have always been a minority Jewish population living in peace with the Palestinians, until Britain hashed it up in pursuit of oil & riches during & after the First World War. And again after the 2nd World War. But there’s so much more to it. Try being informed before you judge and shoot your mouth off.

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        Yes … off coarse … you were there when the bible was written ! Amen . The unrelenting hubris !

  • Henry Henry says:

    Just the Muddle East.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Cyril to mediate??? What a sick joke!! The man is spineless, immoral and a complete fraud. Besides having zero gravitas, credibility and respect, he is totally hypocritical and false. He portrays that he is fair, open-minded and caring, but in reality is treacherous, devoid of any integrity and 100% untrustworthy. His friends and those he closely identifies with and supports are the odious human rights abusers and murderers in the word like the evil monster Putin, the vile Iranian regime, the despicable Maduro from Venezuela, Mnangagwa from Zimbabwe etc etc. He could never be a bona fides mediator as he is completely biased, twisted and exceptionally untrustworthy as SA has come to realize and to our enormous cost. Actions speak much louder than the hot air words that he utters.

  • Peter Holmes says:

    The writer of this (in my opinion) balanced and objective article cites South Africa’s peaceful political transition. As he says, Mandela had a vision of a non-racial SA and, ultimately, bought into this (unbanning of the ANC and a negotiated transfer of power to the majority). The problem for Israel is, even if they wanted to, how do you negotiate with an enemy that has as its stated aim the eradication of your country and (as we saw two Saturdays ago) its citizens as well?

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    “South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s offer to mediate in the conflict is not crazy.”

    How much koolaid did that take? Hard to believe that anyone would actually think that. Apart from him being a low quality confidence trickster with an impressive record of not doing what he says he heads an organization that is patently pro Hamas.

    • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

      100% agree. A dishonest broker, and even the suggestion that this could be a possibility sets the tone and prejudice of this article

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    The historical parallels are obvious. Whether they will end in a global war depends on the prudent behavior of the powerful of our time and what lessons they have learned from history. The murder of the heir to the Austrian throne on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo was the initial spark for the First World War: Austria-Hungary saw its state existence threatened by the South Slavic nationalists supported by Serbia. Russia supported Serbia, Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary, France waited for an opportunity to revise the defeat of 1871, and Britain played its usual game of divide and rule on the continent. My assessment today: The regimes in Iran and Russia are playing with fire, but China will not currently escalate the conflict over Taiwan just to serve the interests of Tehran and Moscow. Since the attack on Ukraine, the USA and the West have shown that they have learned from Chamberlain’s mistake with Hitler: the destruction of the State of Israel will not be tolerated, nor will Iran arm itself with nuclear weapons. It won’t make any difference who is in power in Washington.

  • Alan Fine says:

    Good piece, Phillip

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      You would not think so … from the numerous responses ‘situated’ in the apartheid SA mindset , when the US and Israel were almost the only countries to endorse and promote that regime … till the end … and reserved the right to label anyone or organisation that opposed it …as ‘terrorist’ .

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    Your editorial slip is shows here Phillip van Niekerk.
    Where did you find your facts about Israel ever “attacking Muslim holy sites such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque”? There has never been an unprovoked attack on the mosque on Temple Mount. Arab demonstrators often pelt Jews at the Western Wall from that site, and occasionally the police / IDF need to go and quell this. Like any civilised people would. Except in an Arab country, where another religious site would not be allowed to even exist.
    Your colourful language like “Israel is resorting to its default mechanism of unleashing terrifying military power in Old Testament-style retribution on the people of Gaza,” without ANY column space describing the atrocities visited upon on Jewish teenage music festival goers, women and children. Jewish life is cheap, Arab life is “complicated”.
    And finally “South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s offer to mediate in the conflict is not crazy”. Are you serious? As if a morally bankrupt party, who has publicly declared sides, can even be considered as an impartial broker.
    Your piece is littered with these, and so many more, low-level innuendos – and is nothing, if not low-grade antisemitism …

    • Patricia Sidley says:

      Try as I might, I can’t see a hint of anti-semitism in this. If there are grounds for taking issue with facts state them. But it’s a cheap and low blow to cry antisemitism if you do not like the piece. There is nothing antisemitic about this or the author. I must declare an interest here. He was married to me once and there was no hint of antisemitism ever.

      • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

        I gave you three absolutely clear incidents, no more needed because the article (and therefore his position and prejudice) us so full of them. Just because you were once married to him and make a declaration that he isn’t, does not make it so.

        • Kate van Niekerk says:

          Well, as his Jewish daughter, when he stood by my side at the Chuppah for my Chabad-led orthodox wedding in June, he must have really been hiding his antisemitism well. There are no historical inaccuracies here, and you seem to have purposely skipped over the discussion of how horrific and significant that massacre was for the Jewish people and the devastating impact this has on a people dealing with generations of collective trauma. We should all be concerned about Israel’s reaction to what happened and the consequences it will have not only for innocent Palestinians but for its own people.

          • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

            “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” – Albert Einstein.
            Don’t mistake so-called “objective” journalists as the world’s moral compass. If it were 70 years ago, there would almost certainly have been a media conditioning people to consider “innocent” Germans. If the world had listened, Heaven forbid, there would have been no Chuppas for any Chabad-led weddings like yours today – because you wouldn’t have even existed.

          • Kanu Sukha says:

            Don’t waste your breath trying to reason with someone who is part of what one program deftly called the “Occupation of the American Mind” …. and others beyond.

  • Sipho Dlamini says:

    I remember that umkhonto we Sizwe did actually target civilians. In an oppressive, occupied country the oppressed have no choice, they must target civilians, they certainly can’t hope to have any effect on military targets. Also, they need to attract the attention of the world to their plight, best way is to attack civilians.

    • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

      Not even the Nazis decapitated children, or filmed their atrocities and broadcast them proudly. umkhonto we Sizwe took no civilian hostages, nor did they take joy in the murder of civilians. Supporting the raping of Israeli girls, desecrating their bodies, kidnapping babies and burning down homes with civilians inside is the OPPOSITE of fighting for freedom or “human rights”. Just so that we are clear!!!!!!!!!

    • Ben Harper says:

      Hahahaha, MK never once engaged military forces, they were and still are, cowards of the lowest form

    • Ben Harper says:

      Oh and have you conveniently forgotten that mk killed more if its own members than it did any other party?

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    “It is hard to pinpoint exactly when South Africa’s ruling class lost faith in itself…” – it happened in 1989 when the old Nats realised they’d lost the Afrikaner youth. We can thank the Voëlvry tour of Bernoldus Niamand, Kerkorrel, Koos Kombuis and the Gereformeerde Blues Band for creating that rebel movement.

  • Stephanie Brown says:

    A thoughtful perspective on an issue which has global implications. I found the comments from readers less thoughtful, on the whole. Entrenched positions and insulting people with different views is never constructive.

  • David Pennington says:

    The ANC idea of an “inclusive society” is to loot everything and give the people stuff all, pretty much along Hamas’s lines at the moment

  • I have to agree with Phillip’s take. The failure to recognize that each side has an existential right to exist, that only a unified State where ones racial origin is not a factor affecting where you live and what voice one has in day to day life. Surely the vision of One state that contains Jew, Muslim and Christian alike each giving respect and right to life, limb and property is the way to a lasting peace and example to the world.

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