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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS

World awaits the next chapter of the Israel-Hamas conflict with deep foreboding

World awaits the next chapter of the Israel-Hamas conflict with deep foreboding
Destroyed buildings on 22 October 2023 in the al Remal neighbourhood after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohammed Saber)

As events unfold in the Israel-Hamas conflict, beyond any of the underlying historical questions, a tangle of very dicey challenges and problems are front and centre — right now. For the US, these events impinge on domestic politics as well.

By the time readers see this article, the situation in the Middle East may have taken a dire, ruinous turn, or, perhaps, unlikely as it may seem now, there may even be modest green shoots of hope poking up and into view. At this point, though, the best we can say about things is that they are unstable — but heading south.

At the time of writing, the Israeli government was continuing to ramp up its pre-invasion military mobilisation and the positioning of tanks and other materiel for a powerful armed movement into the northern half of Gaza — but there had been no actual movement into Gaza. The presumed goal would be, as some leaders in Israel’s government have been saying, to end Hamas’s existence as a credible threat to Israel’s safety and security. 

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Israeli troops with a variety of military vehicles at a gathering site in an undisclosed location along the Israel-Gaza border on 17 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Hannibal Hanschke)

This is in response to the anger and grief in Israel that has taken hold in the wake of the barbaric Hamas assaults on 7 October in which more than 1,400 civilians were killed in Israel, with at least 200 more taken as hostages and thousands of missiles launched at population centres in the nation. 

The Israeli military mobilisation was coming together even as an increasingly chaotic, presumably temporary, migration of Gaza residents from the north of that sliver of territory to its southern half was taking place at the insistence of Israeli authorities. The justification is that those who stay behind (when that military movement takes place) will be seen as being potential or actual supporters of Hamas.

israel-hamas conflict

Residents search for victims in buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on 21 October 2023. (Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the Israeli military continues to pound Gaza by air, even as there are still missiles fired by Hamas in Gaza at sites across Israel, although they are largely being destroyed while in flight by the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system. Ominously, missiles are also beginning to be fired from southern Lebanon into northern Israel by the Hezbollah militia. This sets up the possibility of an expanded conflict that could easily encompass southern Lebanon and even adjoining parts of Syria. That could well encourage Iran to act to protect or support its client, Hezbollah. 

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Supporters of Hezbollah gather in support of Palestinians in Gaza in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, on 13 October 2023. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah / Getty Images)

There is also the possibility that the vaunted Iron Dome system may — in future — be overtaxed by missiles coming in waves from multiple directions. In the meantime, the US has moved two aircraft carrier battle groups into the eastern Mediterranean, complete with a force of several thousand Marines in case a decision is made to commit them to ground operations.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East Crisis News Hub

If such things actually occur, events might well be, as they say, truly off to the races. It would also mean policymakers in many places around the world should begin to examine how things unravelled in July 1914 with the assassination of the Austria-Hungarian archduke, or nearly did so in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These and other crises will offer lessons and admonitions for some sombre thinking about how a very destructive contest — and possibly an unconfined one — could happen here. Should things truly unravel, a whole range of outside players could be drawn in more directly and, at that point, nobody knows what could happen next.

Meanwhile, of course, there has also been the tragic explosion in the parking area of a hospital in Gaza City when it was crowded with people seeking shelter from the bombardment that was taking place elsewhere. The initial charge was that it had been an Israeli aerial weapon, and that generated growing tumult and angry demonstrations all across the Middle East in public squares and in front of embassies — denouncing Israel and the US.

In subsequent days, a sophisticated array of data, including satellite data, communications intercepts, and data from the Iron Dome system, has led the Israelis, the US and most recently the Canadians to believe the devastation was caused by an errant missile launched by the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.

Dual-track approach’

US President Joe Biden has given public comments binding the US closely in support of Israel’s security and its defence. But he also cautioned Israelis not to act out of rage and anger over the Hamas raids and the death and hostage-taking of Israelis dragged into hidden spaces in Gaza. He pointed to the US’s own deeply flawed experiences after the 9/11 tragedy which led to an agonising pair of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades — and all the blood and treasure lost as a result.

Biden quickly undertook a war zone visit to Israel to convey this dual message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet — and especially the more zealous right-wing war party in the Cabinet.

As Barak Ravid of Axios reported, “President Biden is taking a dual-track approach to the Gaza crisis: He’s standing staunchly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in public while trying to hold him back in private.

“Why it matters: The U.S. supports Israel but doesn’t want to get drawn into another large or protracted military operation in the Middle East. Threading that needle is Biden’s biggest challenge right now.

“Between the lines: Biden set the tone for the U.S. response in a speech just days after the Hamas attack on Israel, when he compared the group to ISIS. The speech was aired during prime time in Israel, and it was one of the most-watched TV events in Israel’s history.

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US President Joe Biden (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting on 18 October 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Miriam Alster)

“Biden has used that credibility delicately — he and Netanyahu have a fraught history. During their almost daily calls, Biden has avoided directly pressuring the prime minister, according to U.S. officials.”

(Most recently, it was reported Biden was pressing Israel to delay its planned military movement into Gaza to facilitate the release of hostages held by Hamas — and for the provision of humanitarian relief.)

Biden’s original trip was to include a stop in Amman, Jordan, to meet the Egyptian president, the Jordanian king, and the head of the Palestinian Authority — the body that has limited control over some of the West Bank. But, in the immediate aftermath of the explosion at the hospital, the Amman visit was cancelled by Biden’s would-have-been interlocutors even as he was about to board Air Force 1. Thereafter, a meeting in Cairo took place — but without a US or Israeli presence — to see if forward action could be formulated, but that meeting concluded with no public communique or resolutions for action.

A rising tide of anger

This came as the rising tide of anger across the region made it increasingly unlikely such a meeting by the US president could have had any positive outcomes — and much more likely there would have been negative ones.

A further ingredient to be added to the mix is the continuing nervousness of many of the region’s leaders over wrath emanating from the “Arab street” — from the massive numbers of un- or under-employed, disaffected young men eager to vent their feelings against something. This could be similar to the same combustible mix that fuelled the “Arab Spring” in many nations back in 2011. Perhaps the thinking has been it is better to have anger directed against a convenient external enemy which seems to have deeply traduced accepted norms, rather than towards the various governments. 

israel-hamas conflict

The first trucks carrying humanitarian aid head to Deir Al-Balah after crossing from Egypt into the Gaza Strip in Rafah on 21 October 2023. (Photo: Ahmad Salem / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

This all took place even as a humanitarian relief convoy of heavy trucks idled while waiting at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt after their entry to Gaza was denied — until Saturday, when an agreement was reached between Israel and Egypt over the details such as who would inspect the vehicles for weapons and how the contents would be delivered and distributed.

Meanwhile, as the aid trucks began to rev their motors at the crossing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked “our partners in Egypt and Israel, and the United Nations, for facilitating the safe passage of these shipments through the Rafah border crossing” after “days of exhaustive US diplomatic engagement in the region and an understanding President Biden reached with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his recent historic visit to Israel”. 

Before that point, the Israelis insisted that Hamas operatives could not be involved in any of this, especially since the Israelis were on record with a promise to finish off Hamas’s presence in Gaza, and that was even though Hamas had maintained a lock on Gaza since 2007, as they assembled rockets and built cross-border tunnels with much of the material from relief supplies that had been provided in previous years. 

Concurrently, to drive Gaza residents southward, the Israelis have shut down the provision of water, electricity and medical supplies to Gaza — and insisted those aid supplies must flow through Rafah, not through the several Israel/Gaza crossing points. The UN and international humanitarian relief bodies have insisted the welfare of Gaza residents is in real danger and heading towards catastrophe if supplies don’t begin to enter the territory immediately. Most analysts say the 20-truck convoy that entered Gaza on Saturday is just a drop in the bucket to address the need over the coming days, weeks and months.  

Linking Israel and Ukraine

As far as Biden’s political circumstances are concerned, he is the first US president to visit a combat zone — twice, in fact — where US military personnel are not engaged. As a result, one can visualise presidential campaign ads that show Biden in Kyiv, striding in step with the Ukrainian president across that church plaza as the air raid sirens wail, and then in Tel Aviv with another set of air raid sirens on the soundtrack as he delivers his message of support and caution to Netanyahu and his bruised nation.

This imagery will be in contrast to Donald Trump’s as he goes in and out of courtrooms across the nation, ranting and fulminating about his enemies and that mythical deep state designed to do him in. So far, at least, there have not yet been signs of a significant rise in Biden’s approval ratings, although polling data that takes full cognisance of events of the past week have not yet been released and it may take days before all the information is processed by citizens.

Still, polling is showing strong support for aid to Israel — especially among Republicans, given their embrace of the evangelical, fundamentalist Christian vote and its strong support for Israel — even as there is somewhat less fervent support for Israel among some Democrats, in a party that traditionally was almost in lockstep with Israel. The president’s challenge, now, is to effectively link aid to Ukraine with aid to Israel as two sides of the same coin in the defence of universal democratic values.

In this telling of it, the struggle is, on the one hand, a struggle against violent nihilism in the shape of Hamas, and on the other, in the form of the rapacious aggression of Vladimir Putin’s Russia against a neighbouring nation. The president’s political goal is to see such a link forged in the minds of many and then to get a joint emergency appropriation of billions of dollars in aid passed by Congress.

That task, in turn, has become infinitely harder because Republicans in the House of Representatives have been unable to agree on a new speaker of the House. Absent a speaker, no business can be conducted by that body. As things stand now, no one knows exactly how these congressional movements will proceed, and thus the fate of Ukrainian and Israeli aid, as well as the federal budget whose continuing resolution expires in mid-November. 

Thinking about the actual conflict in the Middle East, the challenge is what will constitute the next chapter, beyond the current military exertions. But there are crucial political changes that will be needed. Such a future will require political leadership in Israel prepared to look beyond the immediate issues — and especially to move beyond the paralysing political fortunes of the current prime minister as he twists and turns to avoid a conviction for corruption.

For the people of Gaza, that change will mean an active and successful repudiation of the deadly nihilist behaviour of Hamas against Israelis and Gaza residents — by the inhabitants of that same territory. It also means the Arab citizens of the West Bank territories must move beyond the sclerotic leadership of the current Palestinian Authority to manage an effective government and gain Israeli agreement on dealing with the illegal settlements in the West Bank.

These are three very big asks for the compromises and negotiations that will be required for something that even approaches a more peaceful future. It is not at all clear that pathways for such efforts exist now, which is a real sadness for those in the region and well beyond it. DM

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