The War on Gaza Could Become a Regional Crisis

Three months after the devastating Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023, Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip remains in full force, with no end in sight. Predicting the course of this conflict during 2024 is difficult for several reasons, including Israel’s shifting objectives and growing doubts about its ability to achieve them; the regional dimensions of the conflict; and the associated geopolitical dynamics.

As of mid-January, the United States retains the capacity to end this conflict, but together with the European Union, has opted for a policy of unqualified support for Israel even as it stands accused of genocide before the International Court of Justice. In the event of a full-scale regional war, a scenario that is becoming increasingly plausible, Western influence over the course of events will diminish substantially, as ending the Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip may no longer suffice to produce a cessation of hostilities.

Israeli Objectives

The October 7 attacks not only claimed an unprecedented number of Israeli military and civilian lives in a single day, they also represented the first time since 1949 that Israel was forced into combat within its boundaries. Responding to this massive military and intelligence failure, Israel’s leaders enunciated a simple objective: to eradicate Hamas and eliminate every one of its members. Once it became clear this was unattainable it gave way to equally unrealistic aims: the comprehensive elimination of Hamas’s military wing in the Gaza Strip, and termination of the movement’s ability to govern the territory. Repeated Israeli claims to have subdued various sectors of the Gaza Strip appear premature at best, while its ground forces have yet to enter other cities most prominently Rafah on the Egyptian border.

Israeli leaders have indicated their intention to prosecute a prolonged campaign that could last for the remainder of the year and will include the physical occupation of a buffer zone inside the Gaza Strip. This is a recipe for a war of attrition, with the added complication that those elsewhere in the region, who initiated hostilities against Israel in support of the Palestinians, are likely to continue doing so.

The release of captives remains a secondary Israeli objective, particularly now that most or all those holding foreign citizenship have been released and there is less foreign pressure on Israel to conduct a further exchange. Israel has thus far failed to rescue any of them and has been facing substantial domestic pressure to renew negotiations for their release.

Israel’s conduct of its war, particularly the exceptional intensity of its bombing, and the massive scale of Palestinian civilian casualties, has from the outset demonstrated that larger objectives are also at play. These include exacting revenge upon Palestinian society, rejecting any distinction between combatants and civilians, and either forcing the population of the Gaza Strip into exile or making the territory unfit for human habitation.

While Israel has inflicted sufficient death and destruction upon the Gaza Strip to be credibly accused of genocide, the length of its ground campaign suggests it will have difficulty achieving a decisive outcome. For now, debates about the “day after” will remain academic and range from an Arab or international peacekeeping force, to the installation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to perform a role enforcing Israeli security, similar to that in the West Bank. 

The possibilities of regional conflict

Spurred by the agenda of its far-right government and determination to eradicate Palestinian resistance to its rule, Israel killed more West Bank Palestinians in 2023 than in any year since the 2000-2005 Second Intifada. Given that key Israeli decision-makers would be eager to see the PA collapse and are actively promoting even greater conflict in the West Bank, 2024 could see more casualties there.

Since October hostilities have, with varying levels of intensity, extended to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Although the Israeli-Lebanese arena is seen as the most likely trigger for a full-scale regional war, this could also erupt in the Red Sea. Yemen’s Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, have effectively transformed the Gaza crisis into an international one by placing global maritime trade and supply chains, and specifically transit through the Suez Canal, at their mercy through their ability to threaten shipping entering Bab al-Mandab.

In Iraq, Syria, and the Red Sea hostilities involve not only Israel but also the US and potentially its Western allies. At the extreme end, this could develop into a US-Iranian confrontation, which some suspect is a scenario Israel is encouraging.

Thus far, there is a process of controlled escalation, in which the end of Israel’s onslaught and siege of Gaza would lead others to end their attacks. In the event of a wider conflagration, it is likely other factors would come into play, such as Israel’s continued occupation of Lebanese and Syrian territory, the US presence in Iraq and Syria, and the unresolved conflict in Yemen. In such scenarios calling a halt to the mass killings in Gaza may prove insufficient to restore an end to hostilities elsewhere. Regional conflict would also pose a greater threat to the stability and security of pro-Western regimes not directly involved, precisely because of their efforts to remain on the sidelines.

Israel’s bravado about being solely responsible for its own security notwithstanding, the current crisis has revealed the extraordinary level of Israeli military, political, and diplomatic dependency on the West, and the US in particular. This gives Washington sufficient leverage to dictate Israeli policy, and its consistent refusal to do so and instead support Israel’s war has led many in the region to exhibit even greater anger at the West than at Israel. US and European statements about the need for a two-state settlement, in view of their decades of refusal to confront Israeli policy and adopt any measure to achieve it, are seen as empty rhetoric designed to deflect responsibility, and contemptuously dismissed. If Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli peace was indeed a realistic prospect in 2023, it is a safe assumption that it has precious few adherents in 2024.

Mouin Rabbani is a researcher, analyst and commentator specializing in Palestinian affairs, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the contemporary Middle East. He served as head of political affairs in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria in 2014-2015. He was previously head of Middle East at CMI-Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation and Senior Middle East analyst and Special Advisor on Israel-Palestine with the International Crisis Group. Rabbani is Co-Editor of Jadaliyya and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies.

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