An expanding Gaza war, with no endgame in sight

As the Gaza conflict reverberates across the region, West Asia could sleepwalk into Armageddon

January 11, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 08:24 am IST

‘This is the time when West Asian rulers and their people should be on the same side to serve the region’s interests’

‘This is the time when West Asian rulers and their people should be on the same side to serve the region’s interests’ | Photo Credit: AP

With the Gaza war having reached its three-month mark, it has spread dangerously to Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and even Iran. On January 2, an Israeli drone strike on a Hamas office in Beirut, killed Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of the Hamas leadership located abroad. The next day, two explosions in Kerman, at the mausoleum of General Qassem Soleimani, former head of the Al Quds Force, killed 95 people who had gathered at the shrine to mourn on the fourth anniversary of his assassination. Though the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, many Iranians suspect it to be Israeli’s hand.

And, on January 4, the United States announced the targeted killing of the head of an Iran-affiliated militia in Baghdad that has been attacking American targets since the beginning of the Gaza war. These attacks have occurred amidst the ongoing skirmishes in the Red Sea’s waters over the last several weeks, with the Houthis targeting commercial shipping with drones and missiles and inviting strong U.S. retaliation. The Houthis have demanded that humanitarian assistance be provided urgently to the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza.

These attacks have escalated tensions in the already volatile region that is reeling from the death and destruction wreaked by Israel in Gaza since early October. Over the last three months, over 22,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them women and children, while nearly two million have been displaced, the largest displacement of Palestinians in history. An extraordinary humanitarian catastrophe faces the two-million strong Palestinian community in Gaza.

Netanyahu could pursue escalation

Israeli troops have also expanded their military operations to the West Bank: nearly 300 Palestinians have been killed, several thousand taken into detention, and numerous homes destroyed. Israeli cabinet Ministers have complemented the violence of their soldiers by calling for the cleansing of Gaza of Palestinians and the resettlement of the enclave with Jewish settlers.

Editorial | Widening war: On the Gaza war going beyond Israel-Palestine 

The major concern at present is that a desperate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might pursue the escalation trajectory as, despite the mass killings in Gaza, Israel has very little to show for its efforts: though committed to the destruction of the Hamas war machine and of the movement itself, no prominent Hamas leader has been apprehended in Gaza, while Hamas continues to inflict damage on Israeli soldiers in the ground fighting. A few thousand women and children have been detained by Israeli security to reveal the location of Hamas leaders, with no apparent success so far.

There are concerns that al-Arouri’s killing was carried out to proclaim some success in the war on Hamas. Saleh al-Arouri, by all accounts, was a soft target. Though he has been a prominent presence in the Hamas leadership, in recent years he had been located in Beirut and was principally liaising with Hezbollah and Iran. Most reports suggest that he had no involvement with the planning or execution of the October 7, 2023 attacks.

Peace is distant

Targeted killings serve no useful purpose: while the deceased leaders are quickly replaced, the assassinations increase mutual hostility and escalate tensions. The worrying possibility is that Mr. Netanyahu might not be averse to a regional conflagration: following the political and military failures that facilitated Hamas’s October 7 attacks and with no military success to speak of so far, now, with the Supreme Court rejecting his judicial reforms proposals, the Prime Minister faces the imminent prospect of resignation, arrest and imprisonment. Could a desperate Netanyahu not wish to seize this opportunity to obliterate all Palestinian resistance, eliminate Hezbollah as a fighting force, and debilitate Iran as a threat?

The reason why this prospect is even being raised is because, through the three-month war in Gaza, no major player has exhibited a vision or a strategy regarding the endgame and the “day after” the cessation of hostilities. Beyond bellicose claims relating to the extermination of Hamas and ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories, Israel has shown no clarity about its war aims or the management of Gaza after the war. Certainly, there is no mention of a longer-term peace process. Thus, mass killings in Gaza and provocative targeted assassinations in the neighbourhood have become ends in themselves.

A role for Saudi Arabia

The U.S. has been in search of a policy from day one. Beyond its total political and military support for Israel, the Biden administration has shed crocodile tears over humanitarian concerns, but achieved nothing on the ground. The region’s already discredited hegemon appears incapable of insisting on a peace process — obviously, the clout of Israel’s right-wing supporters in Washington have paralysed the government and lulled it into somnolence.

The Arab states have exhibited neither voice nor leadership so far: beyond pointless conferences and resolutions, there is no sign of a consensual and forceful approach to the broader Palestine issue or even concerns about regional security.

The principal responsibility for ushering in peace now rests on Saudi Arabia. It alone has the regional and global standing to insist that its views be deferred to. Having shrugged off its subordination to U.S. diktat, it has been confidently pursuing an independent foreign policy that resonates positively with the world’s leading powers. Palestinian interests and regional peace require robust and pro-active Saudi initiatives, which have been missing so far.

This is the time when West Asian rulers and their people should be on the same side to serve the region’s interests. Failing that, they will be swept away in the tidal wave of regional conflict they have done nothing to prevent.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat. The views expressed are personal

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