The War on Gaza: Deterrence or Inching toward Direct US Involvement?

On October 7, 2023, the Islamic Resistance Movement (better known by its acronym, Hamas) launched a multifaceted surprise attack on Israel that killed more than 1,400 Israelis and injured at least 3,400 others. The attack tactically diminished Israel’s long-held qualitative edge status—its image as a country possessing military superiority over any enemy or group of enemies in the region. Israel’s political and military response to the attack brought confusion, incredulity, and quick calls for an overwhelming, brutal response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced a declaration of war against Hamas and a national state of emergency. As expected, the Israeli armed forces began launching ground, air, and sea attacks against mostly civilian targets across the Gaza Strip, killing more than 2,750 Palestinians and injuring around 10,000 others. According to the United Nations, one million Palestinians have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict.

The US and the broader western reaction to the October 7 events was swift, chaotic, emotional, and unequivocally supportive of Israel. President Joe Biden characterized the Hamas operation as the “worst massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust,” while totally ignoring the political context of the event, i.e., the 56-year-old Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, including the inhumane complete siege of the Gaza Strip since 2007. Indeed, the official American reaction to the ongoing war leaves the impression that the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict simply started at 6:30 AM on Saturday, October 7, 2023. The American administration has been quite adamant about refusing to deal publicly with any context, analysis, rationale, or potential repercussions of the Hamas attack or Israel’s response.

The Four Phases of the US Reaction

The official American position has passed through three phases in less than ten days. First, like Israel itself, Washington and its western allies suffered from deep shock and disorientation caused by their colossal, and still unexplained, intelligence failure to detect and prevent Hamas’s unprecedented operation on October 7. Despite its apparently overblown reputation as a well-defended garrison state, Israel’s civilian and military security officials were totally caught off-balance and were consequently overwhelmed. Ironically, US intelligence services did not fare better. Although the Central Intelligence Agency, which collaborates closely with Israel’s Mossad, claims to have issued two security warnings in recent weeks about growing Hamas threats to Israel, the reports were apparently deemed routine and were not taken seriously by Tel Aviv or Washington, a fatal mistake by the interdependent agencies of both countries.

Second, the reaction by the US administration to this unprecedented onslaught quickly morphed into a knee-jerk reaction totally focused on shoring up its shaken ally in Israel without any serious consideration given to its own complex web of national interests in the region, including ongoing political objectives, such as attempts at expanding the Arab list of normalizers with Israel. This is reflected by the hyperactive shuttle diplomacy carried out over the past week in six Arab countries by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is seeking to restore balance to US relations with “allies” such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar, in addition to the Palestinian Authority.

In its third and current phase, the Biden administration is seeking to prevent the expansion of the conflict beyond Gaza, particularly on the northern front. Yet it is also persisting in giving Israel a free hand in carrying out its brutal “war of vengeance” against the Palestinian people, coupled with a show of force in the region that is undoubtedly apt to drag the United States into the fighting militarily and to expand the conflict, contrary to the administration’s declared objective.

The decision by President Biden to visit Israel and to later meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can be seen as a fourth development in the American reaction to the attack. There is no question that this visit holds political and personal dangers for the US president. So, why is he going, and could there be a change in the US position toward the conflict?

It is unlikely that President Biden has changed his position. His visit is an application of the Long-held American principle that war, particularly in the Middle East, presents opportunities and will serve several purposes:

  1. Biden wants to use his support for Israel at this particular time to shore up his political position as he seeks another term in 2024.
  2. The visit will be another opportunity to show US support in this war.
  3. Biden intends to emphasize that the mission in Gaza—defeating and ending Hamas—must continue and be finished quickly.
  4. While that should be done, Biden argues, it would be a very costly mistake to reoccupy Gaza. He indeed made that clear in a recent interview.
  5. The visit is an opportunity to assert that there is no military solution to the Palestine question and that there is need for a political solution down the road.
  6. Biden will also likely advocate for delivering humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
  7. He will also plan for securing safe passage for Netanyahu out of the Gaza crisis.
  8. Biden will urge Israel to establish a true and permanent national unity government to lead the country and save Netanyahu from his domestic political crisis so that the United States can go back to work on normalization between Israel and Arab Countries.

What Are the US Objectives at This Time?

American diplomacy at this critical juncture in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is focused on three main objectives. First and foremost, the Biden administration is seeking through its diplomatic efforts to prevent any potential expansion of the raging conflict by opening additional fronts against Israel. Washington’s fears stem from its apprehension about the involvement of other regional parties in the fighting, including, above all, Iran, Hezbollah, and other affiliated non-state actors that could inflame the region and necessitate US military intervention, as President Biden has implied on several occasions. Unfortunately, however, by amassing naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, the administration has increased rather than diminished the prospects for such an ominous and undesirable possibility.

Second, although its public pronouncements about the Israeli military blitzkrieg unfolding in Gaza do not reflect its professedly serious concerns about potential disasters and mishaps against civilians, the US administration is worried about potential massacres and other violations of international law. However, President Biden’s preoccupation with the upcoming presidential election in 2024 and his longstanding personal bias toward Israel—despite his public disagreements with the current Netanyahu government—all militate against a rational policy at a time when the administration insists on giving Israel adequate time to exact its vengeance against Hamas by targeting Palestinian infrastructure and the civilian population in the Gaza Strip.

The third objective of the US administration stems from its ill-conceived insistence on protecting Israel from its own vengeful and brutal military and political objectives. Issues like safe passages, protected zones, the transfer of people to the southern part of the Strip, and opening the Rafah Crossing for escaping refugees all seem humanitarian on the surface; but they also present a plethora of logistical and legal nightmares apt to implicate the administration in potential crimes against humanity, which have for decades haunted the roughly 2.3 million civilian inhabitants of Gaza.

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: US DoD