Gaza and the Harbingers of Future Conflict

The shock of civilian deaths in the latest Israel-Hamas conflagration is both a marker and a warning. It is a marker because for the first time Palestinians took the military initiative, breaking out of their Gaza Strip confinement and attacking multiple targets inside Israel. The shock of civilian casualties on the Israeli side has prompted calls for revenge which have already led to unprecedented destruction and high civilian casualties in Gaza. The conflict is also a warning to Palestinian civilians who survive that their eviction from the enclave may very well be Israel’s desired plan after it demanded that more than one million of them move southward and possibly cross into Egypt.

The old logic of suppressing Palestinian resistance to occupation with increased violence—whether it is called brutal revenge as the right-wing in Israel has done, or more politely, regime change as some of Israel’s defenders in Washington think—will not work, not only because the violence keeps recurring, but because this time it will be far worse. Non-state actors in the region have become better connected, bolder, and more determined to fight. The only remedy is to root out the underlying cause and end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories once and for all. So far, however, American policy does not seem to be going in that direction.

The Failure of Arab Armies

Arab-Israeli wars since 1948 have invariably ended with Israeli victories, further annexation of Palestinian lands, and ever-rising western support for the victor. The sense of Arab humiliation after 1948, felt across the region, led to the rise (and later defeat) of Arab nationalism, then to the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and finally to the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and other regional non-state actors. This last development has been an attempt by popular movements to take matters into their own hands rather than depend on failed Arab regimes to resolve the Palestinian dilemma, whether by force or through a negotiated peace. The sense of humiliation was also felt intellectually in what was known in the late 1960s as the literature of self-criticism—books, essays, and poetry that reflected on the cultural and political reasons for consecutive Arab failures and for the continued debacle of the Palestinian people.

The ascendence of the PLO in the late sixties, and its promise to liberate Palestine through non-conventional means inspired Arab nationalists for a decade or so.

The ascendence of the PLO in the late sixties, and its promise to liberate Palestine through non-conventional means—guerrilla warfare—inspired Arab nationalists for a decade or so; an excitement tempered eventually by the dismal failure of the organization, both on the battlefield and in peace negotiations. That failure culminated in the departure of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and his forces from Beirut following the Israeli invasion of 1982. That invasion, merely three years after Israel signed its peace treaty with Egypt, is often referred to by Israel apologists as an incursion—completely glossing over the fact that Israeli forces reached Beirut, fought the Syrian Army in Lebanon, and remained in occupation of the south of the country for 18 years.

As a result of the defeat of the PLO and the occupation of Lebanon (with nary a shot fired by the Lebanese army which was divided by a brutal civil war), Hezbollah was founded, informally in 1982 and officially as a party in 1984. Hamas, with Israel’s blessings at the time, was formed in 1987 to take the mantle seemingly abandoned by a weakened PLO. Hezbollah engaged Israeli forces, and their allies in south Lebanon, in commando raids, car-bombs, and attacks on their headquarters, inflicting daily casualties which ultimately helped lead to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Hamas, by contrast, was initially unable to organize, weaponize, or train to effectively face Israel’s army in battle. Since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, however, other non-state actors, either directly sponsored by Iran (as in Iraq and Syria) or armed and assisted by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have proliferated, connected, and formed a network that in principle could mount coordinated attacks in any future region-wide confrontation with Israel.

The Failure of Diplomacy

Concomitant with the rise of non-state actors on the Arab side and the increasing dominance of the extreme rightwing in Israel has been the dearth of serious Middle East Peace plans over the last two decades. The last serious attempt was made by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s that culminated in the famous handshake between Arafat and Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, the Oslo Accords, and a last-ditch effort to launch the two-state solution in 1998. The George W. Bush years were consumed with the post-September 11, 2001, Global War on Terror and the consecutive invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively. Indeed, what former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice considered to be the birth of a “new Middle East,” transformed the first decade of the 21st century into a period of violence and the persistence of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Despite strong and inspiring speeches about democracy, President Barack Obama was reluctant to actively engage the Arab Spring.

Despite strong and inspiring speeches about the importance of civil society in fostering democracy across the region, President Barack Obama was reluctant to actively engage the Arab Spring of 2011 and launched a new Middle East Peace Process headed by former Senator  George Mitchel that foundered after a fruitless one-year effort. President Donald Trump certainly had no taste for an Israeli-Palestinian accord and instead launched the Abraham Accords, a “normalization” process between Israel and Arab countries that led to diplomatic exchanges between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, with the promise that Saudi Arabia would potentially join the bandwagon. These achievements, endorsed wholeheartedly by President Biden and his administration, had nothing to do with addressing the Palestinian problem, and to-date have arguably had no impact on it, save perhaps a negative one—strengthening Israel’s belief that it can have peace with the Arab world without making any concessions to the Palestinians.

President Biden’s recent visit to Israel, as it was bombing the Gaza Strip, attempted to achieve two incompatible goals: provide moral, political, and material support to Israel while trying to arrange some humanitarian aid to Gazans under fire. In its own defense, the administration has stated that it is pressing Israel not to harm civilians as it pushed ahead against Hamas. After his initial unbridled expressions of support for Israel, Biden has asserted that there must be a return to the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, dispatching the aircraft carrier Gerald Ford to the Mediterranean and the Eisenhower to the Arabia Gulf—meant as deterrents to a possible direct Iranian involvement in the war—may not be the best signal of a serious interest in launching a new diplomatic process to end the fighting. In fact, the White House has officially stated a lack of interest in calling for a ceasefire, and indeed the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to that effect. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby even stated that “A cease-fire, right now, really only benefits Hamas,” an incredibly insensitive statement, given the thousands of killed Palestinians and the continuing Israeli siege on millions in the Gaza Strip.

The Next War

As the death toll rises—currently over 8,000 Palestinian have been killed—it is hard to see how this ends from an Israeli point of view. The declared goal of eradicating Hamas seems like an impossible task, short of totally occupying Gaza and searching door-to-door for the organization’s fighters and officials. A few known leaders could be found, arrested, or killed, but identifying all Hamas rank-and-file members and sympathizers is not within the realm of reason. A prolonged aerial bombardment followed by a ground invasion could only lead to thousands more dead civilians. There is no escaping the carnage, as Egypt has refused to accept refugees in Sinai. Even if successful with these extreme measures, Israel is unlikely to be able to guarantee that Hamas would not continue to exist and fight. Hamas sympathizers across the Levant would be even more motivated after witnessing the pain inflicted on Palestinians to organize and work out other means of carrying on the fight against Israel.

Hamas sympathizers would be even more motivated after witnessing the pain inflicted on Palestinians to carry on the fight against Israel.

If the current war is not stopped, and sooner rather than later, the likelihood of a wider regional conflict becomes inevitable. Whether Hamas is ousted from Gaza or not, the lack of a comprehensive and durable peace will invite region-wide involvement, at least from other non-state actors but possibly also Iran. Here’s what the new military balance sheet looks like:

  • Hamas has become a more organized, better equipped and trained organization over the past ten years, as evidenced by the initial phase of this war in which it took the initiative and inflicted heavy damage on Israeli installations, military staff, and civilians. If, as is likely, it continues to operate in one capacity or another in the absence of a peace accord, it will continue to pose a threat to Israel for years to come.
  • Lebanese Hezbollah has since the last conflict with Israel in 2006, which most experts considered to have ended in a stalemate, has now become a much more lethal fighting force. It boasts some 100,000 fighters, a large stock of sophisticated missiles estimated at 130,000, and strategic and tactical experience gained from years of fighting in Syria in support of the Assad regime. The Party of God and its Lebanese and Palestinian affiliates in Lebanon have actually been involved in serious skirmishes with Israel since Hamas launched its attack on Israel on October 7.
  • Inside Syria, and in addition to a plethora of Islamist groups, a new Shia army was founded during a decade of war by Iran and Hezbollah on the side of the Assad regime. This army would certainly be mobilized against Israel and the United States if a wider war breaks out.
  • Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization—the three largest Iran-backed groups—have formed an “Operations Support Room” to monitor the situation in Gaza. Indications so far are that these groups are not making any independent decisions on joining the fight against Israel. Nevertheless, emotions are running high and the closeness of these groups to Lebanese Hezbollah strongly suggests that if the latter were to jump into the fray they would follow suit. As an indication of their solidarity and commitment, they’ve already started harassing US forces in Iraq based on the strong alliance they see between the United States and Israel and their collaboration against Hamas.
  • The Houthis (Ansar Allah) as a strong fighting force, now in control of northern Yemen, is another potential participant in a future war with Israel. The Houthi slogans against Israel and the United States have until recently been only that; but they have grown much closer to Iran and Hezbollah since the start of the war in Yemen. Based on both rhetoric and recent action—when they launched missiles and drones against Israel—they can now be expected to collaborate and coordinate with their partners in any military effort because of the war in Gaza.

US Policy

Controversy within the Biden administration is reportedly at a high pitch, although so far there is only one notable defector from its ranks: Josh Paul at the State Department. From the point of view of department area-experts, the current US posture is dangerously exposed. On the moral side, the administration is perceived in the region and in some liberal circles inside the United States as being effectively insensitive to Palestinian suffering and death. This damages the administration’s reputation, both at home and abroad, and hurts the morale of staffers and aides who believe the policy to be wrong.

From the perspective of the national interest, the combination of total military, intelligence, and political support for Israel, in light of the absence of a comprehensive peace initiative, risks pushing the Gaza war into precisely what the administration presumably seeks to avoid: a region-wide armed conflict. All indications are that American diplomatic and commercial interests in the region will be targeted. In Lebanon alone, a new state-of-the-art embassy is almost ready to open for business—a signal that the United States intends to upgrade its diplomatic presence in the region. However, the failure to stem the violence will be a huge obstacle in the road and would instead lead to the further deterioration of US influence in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Anas Mohammed