Middle East Trajectories Emanating from the War on Gaza 

Israel’s still unfolding war on Gaza is finishing its seventh month with no let-up in sight. The Palestinian death toll from Israeli operations has surpassed 34,000 while close to 78,000 have been injured. More than 80 percent of Gaza’s population, 1.9 million, have been displaced. At least 62 percent of homes, almost 300,000, have been rendered uninhabitable, and damage to infrastructure stands at some $18.5 billion. Famine and starvation have set in in many areas of the Gaza Strip because of Israel’s policy of denying the entry of food. The Israeli army is earnestly preparing to invade the southern city of Rafah where some 1.4 million Palestinians now live.

Several outcomes can be discerned at this time, all related to the unending war on Gaza. First, with Israel’s insistence on completely destroying Hamas and its denial of Palestinian rights, Israeli-Palestinian peace is now less likely than at any time in recent memory. Second, the situation on the Lebanese-Israeli border has become fraught with daily skirmishes, making all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah a distinct possibility. Third, the strategic equation in the region has shifted dramatically after the recent missile exchanges between Iran and Israel, making the Middle East more dangerous than ever before and American interests in the region more vulnerable than they have been in recent decades.

Palestinian-Israeli Peace Is Less Likely Than Ever

There have been wars, clashes, attacks, and counter-attacks since the Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1967. Specifically, the 2008-9, 2014, 2019 strikes on Gaza led to high civilian casualties and heavy destruction of property. However, the current war on Gaza is different. Not only are the casualties and destruction on a much larger scale, but also the intent of the Israeli decision-makers and right-wing settlers in the occupied West Bank seems much more ambitious. As early as January 2024, OXFAM reported that the civilian casualties among Palestinians had already exceeded those of any other conflict in the 21st century. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. From the early days of this war it was known that there were roughly 300 Palestinian casualties per day and that 70 percent of casualties were women and children. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed his alarm in January at the toll the war was taking on civilians in Gaza and termed it “unacceptable.” The psychological toll this has taken on Palestinians is hard to assess. Beyond the trauma, which is likely to last for years, it is a forgone conclusion that anger is at least one of the strong emotions stirring inside those who have witnessed first-hand the suffering of their loved ones and the devastation of their homes.

The current war on Gaza is different as the intent of the Israeli decision-makers and right-wing settlers seem much more ambitious.

Israel’s right-wing ministers and Knesset members have made clear from the start of offensive operations in Gaza that they aspire to far more than a military defeat of Hamas. Coupled with a steady harassment and dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank, the far right aspires to clear the area ‘from the river to the sea’ of as many Palestinians as possible to allow for an all-out expansion of settlements in both the West Bank and Gaza. This has been the case since the United Nations approved a partition plan in 1947 that divided Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Later, Israel rejected UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 that demanded its withdrawal from the occupied territories it acquired in that year’s war, clinging to its desire for total sovereignty over the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

In the current atmosphere of a genocidal Israeli war against Gaza, two generally contemplated resolutions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are equally difficult to imagine.

The Two-State Solution: Touted by the Biden administration as the official American policy, it stands very little chance in the face of geopolitical and emotional realities on the ground. The existing occupation encircling most Palestinian towns and the expansion of settlements already in place in the occupied West Bank leave little physical space for a potential Palestinian state. The Oslo Accords of the 1990s and the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations sponsored by former President Bill Clinton came close to achieving an agreement on a Palestinian state covering some 97 percent of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. In the end, the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes were obstacles that could not be overcome. The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin in 1995 arguably sealed the fate of the two-state idea for right-wing Israelis (who now are an electoral majority), and unleashed a wave of expansion in settlements in the West Bank, which contributed to the eruption of a second Palestinian Intifada in 2000.

In addition to frustration with the peace process and the rising anger because of the devastation in Gaza, there is increasingly precious little land the Israelis could set aside for a Palestinian state without displacing its own settlers, assuming a future Israeli government could even agree to that solution. There are some 700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and their number is likely to increase, further impacting Palestinian land, towns, and resources. Assuming some kind of home-rule for Palestinians in a future Palestinian state—not too different from what exits now—their land would be totally surrounded by settlements and security outposts. In fact, the large Ma’ale Adumim settlement, east of Jerusalem and jutting out toward the Jordan River, has plans to become connected to security outposts along the waterway, rendering a Palestinian West Bank not only land-locked but also divided in half. In other words, what is likely to be approved for Palestinians is cantonized along the lines of South Africa’s Bantustans where Blacks were forced to live under the apartheid system—a reality that did not change until it was dismantled under international pressure in 1990.

The One-State Solution: Some Palestinian factions and analysts have long advocated a one-state model where Arab and Jew can live side-by-side as equal citizens in a democratic state. The late Edward Said, a scholar, historian, and literary critic who was at one point a member of the Palestine National Council, was among those who advocated this solution in 1999 as a challenging weaving together of two opposed national movements, Palestinian and Jewish. But given the existing mutual hatred, fear, and paranoia today, it is hard to imagine how Palestinians and Israelis could one day coexist, let alone live as one nation in one democratic state. Nevertheless, history is full of examples in which antagonists finally put aside their guns and fears and joined as one, or at least as friendly neighbors. East and West Germany buried the hatchet and reunified, albeit following the collapse of the Soviet Union, long a patron power for the East. Germany and France put aside their historic enmity and jointly worked to form today’s European Union. North and South Vietnam went through years of domestic, regional, and international wars before finally forming one nation.

But for this solution to assure Palestinian-Israeli peace, the first step would have to be ending the occupation and gradually developing peaceful coexistence under new visionary leadership on both sides. New Palestinian leaders who have proven their credentials among Palestinians and offer democratic alternatives can provide necessary leadership. There are many visionaries on Israel’s left who would qualify, but currently none are anywhere near the seats of power. Still, Palestinians and Israelis have a long way to go before a union of some sort becomes even thinkable, but failure to implement either the one- or the two-state solution means an endless cycle of war and suffering with no guarantee that Palestinians can secure their national rights under current circumstances.

Israel-Hezbollah War

Fighting along the Lebanese-Israeli border has intensified gradually since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza. Since October 8, Israel has launched the majority of attacks (close to 5,000) and caused the highest number of casualties (almost 350 dead). Even though Hezbollah is likely the most powerful and battle-hardened non-state actor in the region, equipped with an estimated 100,000 fighters and between 130,000 and 150,000 missiles, Israel has the larger and more long-range arsenal, in addition to the most powerful and sophisticated air force in the region. An all-out war between the two would definitely hurt Israel but would be devastating for Lebanon and likely reverberate throughout the region for a long time to come.

Both Hezbollah and Israel have so far appeared reluctant to go to a full war.

Both Hezbollah and Israel have so far appeared reluctant to go to a full war. The United States has been trying to dissuade both sides, sending Special Envoy Amos Hochstein to mediate and try to help the protagonists reach an understanding if not a full accommodation. France has also been working closely with the United States to help prevent a war in the short-run and perhaps dampen internal conflict in Lebanon in the long term. Given constant Israeli threats and incursions and Hezbollah’s solidarity with the Palestinians and deep distrust of Israeli plans for Gaza and Lebanon, French-American mediation efforts face a steep uphill struggle.

The Changing Strategic Equation in the Region

When Iran took the unprecedented step on April 13 of launching 300 missiles and drones at Israel, it changed a practice of several decades of not responding directly to Israeli attacks on its military personnel, nuclear scientists, and assets in Syria. Israel crossed a line by attacking Iran’s diplomatic mission in Damascus on April 1. Although of questionable military value, Iran’s retaliatory strike directly on Israeli territory changes the strategic equation in the region by throwing the Islamic Republic’s weight directly on the side of its non-state allies in the region, which presents the risk of a wider and more deadly armed conflict. Some analysts believe that Iran’s strike was intended to be symbolic of its resolve and ability to launch a war directly from its own territory.

A recent visit by a North Korean delegation to Tehran raises the prospect of closer security collaboration between the two countries. To be sure, the joint intervention by the United States, United Kingdom, and France in intercepting Iran’s projectiles already showed an altered strategic picture, where western powers no longer just provide weapons but directly intervene on behalf of their primary ally in the Middle East. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates provided valuable intelligence during the operation. Drawing a lesson from that development, Iran could try to get in deeper with North Korea, China, and Russia, to the extent that these powers are willing to get involved. At the very least, the prolonged conflict offers chances for China to increase its influence in the region. Iran could also choose to target American interests and those of the regional powers that lined up against it. The calculus on the wisdom of such a strategy could go both ways.

The joint intervention by the US, UK, and France in intercepting Iran’s projectiles already showed an altered strategic picture.

Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership may ultimately choose to take advantage of Iran’s action by launching an all-out attack on its regional nemesis. Alternatively, Israel could try to be more cautious in choosing its targets in any future attacks on Iranian assets in the region. Its limited response on April 19 reflects a reluctance to escalate, perhaps not so much out of fear of Iran as out of a realization that it cannot adequately dismantle Iran’s military capabilities without direct American involvement, something the Biden administration clearly indicated it was unwilling to do. In other words, Israel’s allies may be willing to chip in when Israel is on the defensive but opt out of any massive attack on a country, and regime, they still hope to persuade off the edge of the precipice.

Indeed, the Israeli war on Gaza and the lack of certainty of its end and through which modality leave the Middle East open to several scenarios and possibilities. But just as it is hard to see through the smoke of Gaza and the killing and destruction of its people and infrastructure, it is difficult to imagine a quick Palestinian-Israeli peace under current conditions and circumstances. Furthermore, skirmishes across the Lebanese-Israeli border may very well lead to a conflagration there that will be anathema to everyone’s interest. Finally, with Israel and Iran directly attacking each other, the Middle East region may very well be looking at a new strategic equation that is likely to impact several and multifaceted issues in the years ahead.

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:Anas Mohammed