How the escalating Israel-Gaza conflict puts Middle East on a precarious brink First Post 26 Oct 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


How the escalating Israel-Gaza conflict puts Middle East on a precarious brink First Post 26 Oct 2023

          The missile strike on the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza has added to tensions in the Middle East, a region already simmering since the attack on Israel by Hamas and its retaliation. With both sides blaming the other for the strike, it was left to nations to adopt their own stance, based on perceptions (not necessarily intelligence). No incident in the Russo-Ukraine conflict generated the kind of regional tensions as this has.

The US, which was managing the Middle East environment, with ties and alliances with different nations, many sworn enemies, is now attempting to contain the fallout. The cancelling of a four-way summit with Biden by the Jordanian King is an indicator of which way regional winds are blowing. Hamas’s random killing of Israeli’s as also taking over 200 hostages has placed Israel and its main backer, the US, in a tight spot. Post interjection of Qatar, two US hostages were freed. There is no word on Israeli hostages or those from other nationalities.  

Israel had limited choices from the outset. It had to degrade the war waging potential of Hamas, for which an aerial assault on Gaza was paramount, despite being aware of collateral damage. A ground offensive would imply further destruction as also fighting in Built Up Areas, which suits the defender more than the attacker. Hamas would have laid a series of booby traps and selected their positions to cause maximum Israeli casualties. It would be a slow slogging operation adding to tensions as casualties mount. Hence the hesitation on the part of Israel.

Netanyahu is banking on negotiations for release of hostages alongside blocking of aid moving into Gaza. Arab states are attempting to build an anti-Hamas sentiment in Gaza which could force Hamas onto the bargaining table. How will it finally pan out is to be seen.

Simultaneously, no Arab state is willing to accept Gazan refugees, nor desire increased casualties and destruction. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the refugees may not be permitted back by Israel, though it has thus far indicated that it has no desire to occupy Gaza. Secondly, the refugees may not return adding to problems of the recipient state. Jordan has faced this scenario earlier. It also implies that Arab nations consider Israel responsible for the safety of Gazans, which Israel refuses to accept.

As casualties rise, proxy terrorist groups would join the battle against Israel, plunging the Middle East into increased instability. The Hezbollah is already engaging Israel along its northern borders. Press reports mention that Iran allied groups in Iraq have announced the creation of a ‘joint operations centre’ to support Hamas. US warships have intercepted missiles fired from Yemen by Iran backed Houthi rebels aimed at Israel.

No Arab nation is likely to get militarily involved rather would attempt diplomatic and economic coercion while backing anti-Israel proxies. With attacks on its diplomats and embassies increasing, Israel has begun reducing its diplomatic presence in Arab states.

The Arab world is sending messages to Israel to contain the fallout but none are pushing Hamas to relent and pull back. This is possibly because they are aware that they can pressurize the US and Israel more effectively than influencing Hamas.  Hence, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken’s hopping diplomacy, hoping to convince regional powers to compel Hamas to come to terms, failed.

President Biden’s Tel Aviv visit was intended to convince Netanyahu to avoid launching a ground offensive. Rishi Sunak and the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, followed Biden to Israel with the same intent. European leaders are facing rising discontent at home. Its migrants, largely Muslims, are displaying their anger against Israel. In case the war drags and casualties rise, the intensity of protests and violence would increase. Europe has almost no influence in the region. It has little choice but to back Israel.

Israel is caught between the frying pan and the fire. If it does not act, threats will not reduce and Hamas will be emboldened. If it acts and civilian casualties rise, it would face increased proxy wars on all its borders, added hostility from its neighbours, apart from global criticism. If it launches a ground offensive and gets bogged down, it could enhance its vulnerability.

To display support and deter enlargement of the conflict, the US is positioning its troops in Israel, while deploying its naval flotilla close to Israeli shores. Its troops would not be involved in any Israeli military action. US support may deter nations, but not proxies. Iran backed proxies are already launching drone and missile strikes on US bases in Iraq and Syria.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum was held at the same time in Beijing. This gave an opportunity to Xi Jinping and Putin to display their unison in views. Both nations have repeatedly demanded a ceasefire in Gaza without addressing core issues of Israeli hostages and threat of Hamas. Both are close to Iran, which has funded and armed Hamas, but are not pushing Tehran to reign in Hamas. It appears they would prefer the scenario to worsen.

Russia and China attempted to push through a resolution in the UNSC condemning violence and terrorism in the Israel-Gaza region. It failed because it made no mention of Hamas’s attack on Israel. Putin and Xi Jinping, in their meeting, blamed the US for increasing tensions in the region.

China and the US have been competing for influence in the Middle East, where the US currently holds sway. The IMEE EC (India, Middle East, Europe Economic Corridor) is being touted as a challenge to the Chinese BRI. Increased tensions in the region could provide China an opportunity to regain the initiative as Arab nations would be vary of ties with Israel.  

The Russia-China intent of accusing the US of being responsible for the crisis is also to win over the global south, some of which are Muslim majority states. To display their support for Hamas, Russia has sent 27 tonnes of humanitarian aid for Gaza, while Xi stated, ‘China is willing to enhance cooperation with Egypt… and inject more certainty and stability into the region and the world.’ 

China realizes that displaying solidarity with Palestine would resonate with Arab states. By commenting on security and wellbeing of Gazans, Beijing would offset comments on its suppression of Muslims in Xinjiang. The Chinese approach was evident when its foreign minister Wang Yi stated, ‘Israel’s actions have gone beyond the scope of self-defence. It should stop imposing collective punishment on the people of Gaza.’ In fact, collective punishment has been the Chinese norm since the creation of a communist government in the country, most recently visible in its handling of COVID.

In the Russo-Ukraine war there were nations, including India and the Global South, which maintained a neutral stance and sought peace as also reinstatement of the grain deal. In the case of Israel-Gaza, divisions are evident, largely based by religion or an anti-US/ Israel view. Simultaneously, pressure will continue to mount on Israel to adhere to global norms of war.   

It is difficult to demand talks/ peace as Hamas is a terrorist organization which does not represent a state and the Palestinian Authority has no control over Gaza. Egypt is hosting peace talks however missing from the table are representatives from Israel and Hamas, the two major protagonists. Without their perspectives, outcomes are unlikely. It is similar to multiple peace talks hosted over the Russo-Ukraine conflict which ended with just statements.  

The Middle East cauldron is likely to overflow. It could be Israel versus a group of proxy terrorist organizations. Israel would refuse to yield to pressure to slow down its operations leading to its isolation from Arab states. Western attention and military aid would shift from Ukraine to Israel, benefitting Russia. A boiling Middle East with continuation of the war in Ukraine could create the right environment for China to flex its muscles against Taiwan as also against its adversaries in the South China Sea, an act which has already commenced.