Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Tel al-Hawa neighborhood, where buildings are heavily damaged or collapsed in the southern part of Gaza City, Gaza on November 09, 2023. [Ali Jadallah – Anadolu Agency]
The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
– Sir Edward Grey, on the inevitability of Europe breaking out in war, 1914
The State of Israel currently stands on a precipice. The dilemma presented to it was succinctly articulated in Seymour Hersh’s article, ‘Netanyahu Is Finished’, as the choice of ‘whether to starve Hamas out or kill as many as 100,000 people in Gaza’. To fail to annihilate Hamas would be a devastating defeat for the Zionist colonial project, as it would effectively be an admission that the state cannot protect its population from the kind of violent native uprising that all colonial settlers fear. However, achieving such a goal is probably impossible without, as one EU diplomat put it, ‘massive ethnic cleansing’. Ariel Kellner, a Likud Knesset Member, declared on October 7th that they had ‘one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!’
Whilst his forthrightness is illuminating, the crucial dynamic that his and similar threats overlook is that the Middle East has changed a lot since 1948. The Palestinian resistance has never been so well prepared, Israel’s military dominance over the wider region has been diminished and its chief patron the United States is in decline. This means that the days when Israel could just carry out an ethnic cleansing without severe consequences are over. This places us in a historical moment with many similarities to the July Crisis of 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire believed it had to invade Serbia to extract vengeance for the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand – but doing so inevitably meant Russia would declare war in solidarity with its ally, at which point war across Europe became unavoidable.
Western media reporting on the events of October 7th have focused on the killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinian fighters, the details of which have been rendered murky by several Israeli eyewitnesses reporting civilians being killed by their own troops in a desperate attempt to prevent hostages being taken to Gaza. If the Hamas leadership has embarked on a strategy of calculated escalation, it would be a marked departure from when its political leader Ismail Haniya was endorsing non-violent demonstrations in front of a portrait of Gandhi just 5 years ago amidst the Great March of Return, which saw Israeli marksmen kill 214 Palestinians and wound over 36,100.
What has not been given much attention in Western media reporting, but is likely the more important aspect of October 7th, was the truly shocking collapse of the Israeli Army in the face of a direct assault by Palestinian militants. We know that hundreds of Israeli soldiers were killed in the Hamas-led attack on various military bases and outposts; indeed several Israeli towns were under the military control of Hamas for over two days, an unthinkable scenario barely a month ago. Not since 1948 has any Arab military force been able to capture and hold territory inside Israel’s original borders; that this was achieved by Hamas, one of the militarily weakest forces among Israel’s enemies, is particularly humiliating.
For a settler state like Israel, it is imperative to project an image of dominant military prowess so that its enemies do not even dare challenge it militarily. The then-Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army Moshe Ya’alon explained this logic in 2002:
I defined [victory] from the beginning of the confrontation: the very deep internalisation by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalisation does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have a strategic problem with an existential threat to Israel. If that [lesson] is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands of us. Despite our military might, the region will perceive us as being even weaker.
Scenes of Hamas fighters capturing military bases and driving through settlements unimpeded are a devastating blow to Israel’s deterrence capacity, perhaps a greater blow than any in the state’s existence. Within their logic, the only satisfactory response to this is not just the usual reprisals against civilians before broadly returning to the status quo, but something that would foreclose the possibility of such an attack ever happening again. Israel’s Defence Minister has officially expressed their goal is merely to ‘reach all the Hamas operatives, we will not finish the mission without having annihilated them’ and for this to be the ‘last operation in Gaza, for the simple reason that afterwards there will be no more Hamas’. Given the widespread support for Hamas within the Gaza Strip and Israel’s lack of any plan for who would control Gaza after every member of Hamas has been killed, these goals seem highly impractical – unless they are interpreted to actually mean an intention to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population of Gaza by driving them into the Sinai. This has been further solidified by the recent leak of an Israeli Intelligence Ministry document dated October 13th that explicitly endorses the permanent expulsion of Gaza’s entire population into the Sinai.
Regional reactionaries and the Resistance Axis set red lines
That Israeli politicians have let slip that this is indeed the real goal is less consequential than the fact that key regional players had already been convinced of Israel’s intentions to do this – and theirs has been a unified response that ethnic cleansing is a red line. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has stated that ‘displacing Palestinians to Sinai means dragging Egypt into a war against Israel’. The Egyptian constitution does not allow the President to declare war without Parliamentary approval, however Undersecretary of the Arab Affairs Committee Ayman Mohsab confirmed to CNN that the Egyptian Parliament had ‘agreed to authorise Sisi and the Egyptian army to take all necessary measures to protect Egyptian national security, even if they include waging war’. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi has also stated that ‘any attempt to displace Palestinians from their homeland is a declaration of war’. These statements should not be interpreted as representing even the slightest keenness from these leaders for war, but rather a sign of the utmost seriousness of the situation; even Israel’s most compliant neighbours will not contemplate appearing to allow it to carry out an ethnic cleansing unopposed. Even if more cynical observers will (correctly) suspect their statements are more about the fear of internal overthrow than principled support for the Palestinian cause, that would make little practical difference to the situation.
But Israel’s chief enemies of course are not the Egyptian and Jordanian states. Rather, it is the coalition known as ‘The Axis of Resistance’, consisting of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Yemeni Ansar Allah and Iraqi militias such as the Popular Mobilisation Forces. The Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has noticeably been extremely busy since October 7th, with almost daily visits to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Qatar meeting with allies; an intense itinerary rarely heard of for a foreign minister except in times of crisis. Considering the whole raison d’etre of the Resistance Axis is its opposition to Israel and the US’ presence in the region, the Gaza Crisis is not a matter which they can allow to pass without a serious unified response. This behaviour and the statements released following those meetings illustrated that Iran’s role in the first phases of the war was coordinating with its allies to set in motion a plan to try and deter Israel from drastic action in Gaza by threatening the opening of a northern front, and a coordinated assault on US interests across the region, as ultimately they hold the US responsible as Israel’s primary sponsor.
Hezbollah has already begun attacking Israeli posts on the border with Lebanon, and as of 3rd November could claim having killed or wounded 120 Israeli soldiers, while also suffering 60 of its own fighters killed in action. Israel has also evacuated 42 border-area villages and the town of Kiryat Shmona due to the escalating fighting. Hezbollah’s actions to date are more harassment operations than a serious attempt to inflict casualties on the Israeli Army. Still, it would previously be considered unthinkable for it to so brazenly attack the Israeli Army across the border and force the evacuation of Israeli citizens with barely any response from Israel apart from firing back. The most significant effect is reminding Israel that Hezbollah is right there on the border and is not afraid of a fight, leaving Israelis concerned that if they were to send the bulk of their army into Gaza, they would be leaving their northern border dangerously exposed to the ‘nightmare scenario’ of a second front being opened by Hezbollah.
Away from the Israeli front, the Gaza Crisis is already expanding with the US military coming under attack from Resistance Axis-affiliated groups across the region. We’ve seen incidents such as the Al-Asad US Air Base in Iraq and Al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria being targeted by drones, while the Navy destroyer USS Carney shot down three land-attack cruise missiles and several drones fired by Ansar Allah on October 19th, with further attacks later in the month. As of October 24th, US officials stated that at least 24 US troops had been injured amid the wave of attacks on their bases, with one contractor also dying of a heart attack. Similar to Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel’s northern border, the lack of any retaliation from the US has been glaring, with the US only belatedly initiating airstrikes against Syria on October 27th. Even the relative lack of media coverage suggests the US is trying to avoid having to retaliate. If the reason for the US sending two carrier groups to the region was to deter any allies of Hamas from disrupting Israel’s plans, it does not appear to have worked. We even witnessed the pathetic scene of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken giving the ‘sternest warning yet’ to Iran that the US will ‘respond decisively’ if Americans are attacked, only for the attacks to continue apace – without any such response. As of writing the most recent escalation has been Yemen’s Ansar Allah government taking responsibility for a ballistic missile attack on Israel and warning that it would continue such strikes ‘until the Israeli aggression stops.’
Fragility of the US’ position in the region
The significance of this is that the United States had reportedly been pressuring Israel to delay its ground offensive into Gaza, as it needed more time to prepare for the inevitable escalation in attacks on its military across the region – with the US building up its military and naval presence in the region.
It is virtually public knowledge that the United States is in a very poor position to fight a regional war in the Middle East at this time. Until the Russia-Ukraine War complicated matters, the main focus of the US foreign policy had been building its military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific in order to contain a rising China. Barack Obama’s foreign policy has come to be defined by the ‘Pivot to Asia’ and his scepticism of protracted wars in the Middle East. This has since been continued with both Trump and Biden Administrations expanding US military bases in and around the South China Sea, and the creation of the new ‘AUKUS’ defence pact with the UK and Australia with the explicit purpose of deterring China.
This new focus however has been disrupted by the Russia-Ukraine War. In July the Commander of US Air Forces in Europe James Hecker warned that the stockpiles of US weapons were running ‘dangerously low’, with the US having provided Ukraine with $41.3bn in military aid since the war with Russia began – much of this coming in the form of transfers of existing munitions stockpiles, rather than new production. It was even publicly reported in January that the US had pledged to supply Ukraine with over one million 155-millimetre shells, with a significant portion of that drawn from stockpiles in Israel and South Korea. The Pentagon is currently also ‘tasked with scouring U.S. stockpiles, searching for ammunition to resupply Israel… as the defence industry and the Pentagon scramble to send weapons to Ukraine and keep U.S. shelves stocked.’ A joint column by Axios CEO and co-founders summarises the general picture thus: ‘Never before have we talked to so many top government officials who, in private, are so worried about so many overseas conflicts at once… U.S. officials say this confluence of crises poses epic concern and historic danger.’
Given the extent to which the American public are suffering from war fatigue – to the point that even Joe Biden made the ending of ‘forever wars’ like Afghanistan such a part of his electoral persona – another protracted Middle East adventure is the last thing any US President wants to offer their electorate. The post-9/11 wars at least had the advantage that the USA had just been directly attacked. A war to defend Israel’s inalienable right to commit ethnic cleansing is not likely to be as popular.
While the United States is particularly ill-prepared to deal with a regional war at present, the opposite can be said of Iran and its allies. Outside of Palestine, the Middle East is currently more peaceful now than it has been in years. A critical moment was the Chinese-mediated restoration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year. This has coincided with a virtual end to the various proxy wars in Iraq and Syria in particular. Bashar Al-Assad’s readmission to the Arab League was a signal that the Syrian Civil War is considered to be over and his position uncontested. The Saudi assault on Yemen has also subsided, though the US has continued to try and derail any meaningful resolution.
What this means is that there are very large numbers of militiamen who can no longer make a living by fighting in these internecine wars. On the one hand, this surplus of experienced professional fighters provides an opportunity for Iran and its allies to employ them to fight the United States and Israel instead. On the other hand, it also means that Arab rulers less keen on orchestrating direct resistance to the US and Israel now have less incentive to actively try to obstruct it, as it is in their best interests for these fighters to have an external war to fight rather than return home and be potential troublemakers. The Arab regimes surely remember how the end of the Soviet-Afghan War saw thousands of Arab mujahideen returning to their home countries, and the civil wars and bloody insurgencies which followed when they had nothing else to keep them occupied. We have already seen the Iraqi ‘celebrity militant’ Abu Azrael posting videos of himself on the Lebanon-Israel border and reports that Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces militia have begun entering Lebanon. Even if these movements are probably more about deterring Israel from ethnic cleansings, once these troops have been physically mobilised and a certain amount of ‘war fever’ catches on, it may be difficult to hold them back, even if for example Iran were to attempt such a thing.
People should never forget how emotive an issue Palestine is across the Middle East, and the centrality of Palestine to the Resistance Axis. The Palestinians have had the advantage of having 75 years of struggle to build links of solidarity over the Arab World; to let them suffer a second Nakba without a fight would be a calamitous blow to the legitimacy of the Resistance Axis. Even where there have been reports alleging disagreements among Axis groups on how to proceed at the moment – namely among certain Iraqi factions – what is most revealing is that they have still made statements such as ‘We will not intervene unless Israel carries out its threat to invade Gaza by land, and then we will be at the command of [Lebanese] Hezbollah, not Hamas.’
Nobody is saying a full Israeli ground attack on Gaza can mean anything other than war.
The inevitability of war
Those most preoccupied with preventing the Gaza Crisis from sparking a regional war should be concerned that, amidst the Iranians’ busy coordination of their coalition, and with these lines being drawn in the sand, the West appears to have completely abandoned any serious diplomacy in the region. Partly, this is due to the United States no longer being welcome in Arab capitals. On October 15th Anthony Blinken was thoroughly humiliated visiting Saudi Arabia, where Muhammad bin Salman reportedly kept him waiting all night for a meeting set for that evening, didn’t turn up till the next morning – upon when he effectively issued Blinken with a set of demands to get Israel to stop attacking Gaza, and left. The situation had only worsened by the time Joe Biden arrived for a tour of the Middle East, in the end speaking to no one except the Israeli government as the Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian governments all abruptly cancelled their meetings with him in the aftermath of Israel’s bombing of the Al-Ahli hospital. A US President visiting the Middle East without a single Arab leader wishing to host him is quite the historical development. Blinken’s second diplomatic tour of the region offered scarcely more reason for optimism for his government.
In such circumstances one would think responsible allies of the US would try to step in and mediate, but of course this isn’t happening. Instead we’ve been subjected to sickening scenes of EU leaders visiting Israel and pledging their solidarity with it as it kills thousands of civilians in Gaza, starves them of food, water, fuel and electricity and contemplates launching an even more deadly land invasion that threatens to set the whole region on fire.
When states have boxed themselves into a course of action that appears to guarantee either regional war or humiliating climbdowns, then the only realistic road out of that is through diplomacy. That the Western and Middle Eastern groupings appear to have totally ceased communication at the top levels does not bode well for how this crisis will go, as the main avenue for de-escalation has now also been closed.
This is certainly not ruling out some kind of reprieve. Israel has many good reasons not to attempt an ethnic cleansing of Gaza. As evidenced since Israeli tanks began manoeuvring on Gaza, the resistance will be fiercer than anything their army is used to, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has already warned that their ground offensive may take months, and the Israeli war machine simply isn’t built for long wars, even if the fighting were to be restricted to Gaza – which it likely wouldn’t be. A possible scenario is that Israel declares a full ground invasion in order to save face, which in reality amounts to another incursion similar to 2014’s Protective Edge whereby they pick a Hamas battalion to fight, destroy some tunnels, return to Israel and declare victory. This would probably destroy Netanyahu politically, and whether he’d take that fall for the good of the Zionist project is difficult to judge.
Another potential factor is that throughout all this dithering and delay over launching a full ground offensive, Gaza is still being heavily bombed and placed under siege. Before long huge numbers of Palestinians are going to start dying of dehydration and disease. The anonymous Israeli official who described their current trajectory as the ‘Leningrad approach’ is surely aware of the implications of continuing the total siege indefinitely. Therefore there may not even need to be a full ground invasion before the pressures on the Resistance Axis to intervene more directly grow too strong. But if there is a full ground invasion and Israel begins ethnic cleansing, long may the lamps of the Middle East be unlit.