Nearly three weeks into the war, our senses are benumbed by statistics constantly updated in media reports: 1,405 Israelis killed in the first attacks, 364 of them security personnel; about 1,500 Hamas fighters of the 2,500 who had infiltrated Israel from Gaza killed; about 200 Israelis held hostage by Hamas; over 6,000 Palestinians, 2,500 of them children, killed in Israeli bombardments in Gaza,. While figures of Israeli casualties are now largely static, the line of Palestinian deaths on the graph rises daily by a few hundreds.
As Israel enforces its “complete siege” of Gaza by cutting off electricity and supplies of food, fuel and medicine, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating, with hospitals running out of medication and, in the absence of electricity, performing surgeries without anaesthesia. Israeli bombings in Gaza indiscriminately target homes, schools, mosques, humanitarian aid offices, and hospitals. Half of the Gazan population of over two million has been displaced. Meanwhile, in preparation for the major attack, soldiers have been carrying out small incursions, possibly to lure Hamas fighters out of their hideouts.
Anxious to ensure that the West Bank, where 3.7 million Palestinians reside alongside 700,000 Jewish settlers, does not become another war zone, Israel has increased its attacks on Palestinian communities there and carried out mass arrests—already a hundred Palestinians have been killed by security personnel and settlers, with over 300 shootings and 700 clashes.
There is also sporadic exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants in south Lebanon, amid fears that these encounters could escalate into another major conflict.
The hospital attack
On October 17, a day before US President Joe Biden was to reach Israel, there was a strike on the Al-Ahli Hospital in north Gaza that caused the deaths of about 500 Palestinians. Given the lethal bombings on Gaza over the previous 10 days, Palestinians and most Arab neighbours blamed Israel for the attack. Hamas called it a “crime of genocide”, while President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah described it as a “hideous war crime”.
Israel’s extreme right-wing National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir applauded the Israeli action, saying: “As long as Hamas does not release the hostages in its hands—the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tonnes of explosives from the Air Force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid.” An official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office tweeted: “BREAKING: Israel Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza.”
Later, just before Biden landed, Israeli officials scurried to change the story. They now said that the explosion at the hospital was caused by a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group based in Gaza. They supported their story with videos and audio clips of Palestinian militants discussing the misfire.
Although Biden and some Western leaders have accepted the Israeli version, it has hardly any takers in West Asia. Türkiye’s Andolu Agency published a detailed refutation on technical grounds, with an expert concluding that the bomb had not come from within Gaza but, most likely, was dropped from an Israeli warplane.
David Hearst, writing in Middle East Eye, pointed out that the first Israeli video showing an Islamic Jihad rocket had to be deleted as the video was recorded 40 minutes after the bombing. The audio was also discredited as the purported voices of Palestinian militants were found to be fake, using “the wrong tone, syntax and accent”.
None of this mattered to Biden. Earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks, he had publicly accepted the Israeli canard that Hamas had beheaded babies. He had then affirmed that the US would support Israel fully. He also repeated the false Israeli claim that Hamas in Gaza was using civilians as human shields, a claim Israel has been using to justify the mass killing of civilians in its bombings. He had then announced immediate and substantial military supplies to Israel, revealing that the much-vaunted Israel Defense Forces could not fight for even two days without US assistance.
There was no change in Biden’s approach after he landed in Israel on October 18. On the Al-Ahli hospital bombing, he announced: “Based on what I have seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.” A remark that conveyed how, in Biden’s view, the ongoing destruction and strife was just a sporting event between two teams.
Biden, however, also had a word of caution for Netanyahu, advising that major decisions should not be taken in “blind rage”. Recalling the US response after 9/11, Biden noted that the US had “made mistakes”. But Biden’s failure to insist on an immediate ceasefire ensured that his words had no impact on Israeli leaders seeking to avenge themselves through sustained violence.
This inept approach to the unfolding tragedy has done little for America’s standing in the region. Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden was scheduled to meet Arab leaders in Amman. But, after the Al-Ahli hospital bombing, the Arab leaders decided not to attend. Patrick Wintour has written in The Guardian that some of the US’ closest allies “driven by popular anger, are losing their patience with Washington, putting pressure on US diplomats to show results”.
But the chief diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is facing problems in his own State Department due to his government’s partisan diplomacy. A senior State Department official, Josh Paul, director of Congressional and Public Affairs at the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, resigned on October 19 to register his “policy disagreement concerning our continued lethal assistance to Israel”. In his resignation letter, Paul described the administration’s and Congress’ response to the Gaza conflict as “an impulsive reaction built on confirmation bias, political convenience, intellectual bankruptcy, and bureaucratic inertia”.
US reports have noted that “basically a mutiny is brewing within State at all levels”. Quoting sources within the department, the reports said that officials were discouraged from using three specific phrases in public statements in relation to the Gaza conflict: “de-escalation/ceasefire”; “end to violence/bloodshed”, and “restoring calm”, affirming that the US had no interest in insisting on Israeli restraint. Later, in an interview, Paul criticised Israel’s blockade of Gaza as a “collective punishment” that gave no military advantage to Israel.
Western alliance in West Asia
After returning from Israel, on October 19, Biden addressed the American people to seek their support for his Israel policy. He described the Gaza war as an “inflection point in history”. As Michael Hirsh pointed out in Foreign Policy, Biden has used this term quite frequently: he has described as inflection points his election victory in November 2020, the US response to the pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden spoke of the last as a war between democracy and authoritarianism and said, in July 2023, that the world stands “at an inflection point in history where the choices we make now are going to shape the direction of our world for decades to come”.
What Biden has now done is to link the Gaza conflict with the Ukraine war. He said: “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: they both want to completely annihilate a neighbouring democracy.” He then asserted that defeating Putin and Hamas was equally important for US interests—unless terrorists and authoritarian leaders were stopped, “they create more chaos and death and more destruction… and the cost and threats to America and the world keep rising”. Biden also brought Iran into the equation, noting that it was “supporting Russia in Ukraine and supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region”.
Biden concluded that not stopping Putin and Hamas would put at risk American alliances and American values that “make us a partner that other nations want to work with”. Thus, in a remarkable leap of dubious rhetoric, Biden has conflated Western support for Ukraine with backing for Israel, affirming that in the US perspective the Gaza war is part of the broader confrontation of the US with Russia and China on the global stage, a view that, the President insists, should be shared by all Americans and members of the Western alliance in Europe and Asia.
It is difficult to accept Biden’s attempt to link Western interests in the Ukraine war with what is happening in Gaza. While the US is entitled to its own views regarding the implications of the Ukraine war for its global interests, surely the Israel-Palestine conflict has its own century-old history, which largely concerns the West Asian political cauldron, and, with no significant Russian or Chinese military or political involvement, scarcely threatens US interests.
Undermining America’s standing
What Biden has missed is that total US support for Israel has actually undermined America’s standing in West Asia and large parts of the Global South; contradicted American values upholding freedom, fairness and justice; and, even as regional states shift away from the US’ strategic embrace, fresh opportunities have opened for Russia and China to expand their political influence, precisely what Biden has been seeking to prevent. David Hearst accurately insists that US diplomacy in West Asia has exposed its “inability to be a world leader” as it “lacks the requisite analytical skills, regional knowledge, and brainpower… it is led into wars for which it is patently unprepared”.
In Israel itself, there are strong voices criticising Israel’s approach to Palestinian aspirations, even holding the Netanyahu government responsible for the present conflict. A day after the Hamas attack, the editorial in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz sharply criticised Netanyahu for “establishing a government of annexation and dispossession… while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians”.
Israeli commentators have also criticised the substantial US military support to Israel announced by Biden after the Hamas attacks. Israeli writer and activist, Haggai Matar, noted that Biden’s visit has been seen in Israel as a “serious endorsement” of Israel’s harsh military campaign in Gaza. He wrote that US military supplies will not offer long-term security to Israel, as was painfully demonstrated by the Hamas attack. What Israel needs to do, Matar said, is to look into its own war crimes on Palestinians, accept that they have contributed to the country’s insecurity, and go back to peace negotiations to achieve dignity for Palestinians and “an end to apartheid”.
Instead, the US approach under Biden has prioritised “normalisation” of diplomatic ties between the Arab states and Israel in the hope that this would push the Palestine issue off the regional political agenda. Over the last several months, the US exerted all its diplomatic effort towards obtaining a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, even if it meant accepting Saudi demands for a security guarantee, access to civilian nuclear capability, and the latest US weaponry.
The US was also hoping that conceding Saudi requirements would detach the kingdom from its burgeoning ties with China and bring it back into the American fold. The American writer Steven Simon has described this approach as “the superimposition of grand ideas on antithetical Middle East realities and American capacities”.
The Gaza war has brought this misguided initiative crashing down and placed the Palestine issue back at the centre of regional affairs.
With a few hundred thousand troops mobilised along the Gaza border, Israel appears poised to launch a ground assault on the hapless enclave and wreak destruction to avenge the killings of its citizens on October 7. The avowed aim is to annihilate Hamas as a fighting force, even if it means the collateral deaths of thousands of Palestinians and reducing Gaza to rubble. There is nothing new in this: Israel has attacked Gaza six times since 2006 and, until 2022, has killed over 4,000 Palestinians.
Some Israelis are now preaching the total destruction of Gaza. A retired major general has asserted that Israel “has no choice but to turn Gaza into a place that is temporarily or permanently impossible to live in”. A serving major general has said that in Gaza, “there will only be destruction. You wanted hell; you will get hell”. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has described Hamas as “human animals” and affirmed that “we are acting accordingly”.
But several voices have already emerged to advise caution and restraint to the bloodthirsty nation. They recall that Israel’s earlier incursion in 2014 had gone only a few kilometres into Gaza, but led to 2,000 Palestinian deaths, including 500 children, while killing 66 Israeli soldiers. An attack now will involve street-to-street and even door-to-door fighting in which Hamas is likely to enjoy tactical advantage, particularly with the labyrinthine tunnel networks it is said to have constructed across the enclave.
Even if Israel were to destroy Hamas’ capacities and take control of Gaza, it will need to decide whether to remain as an occupation force or withdraw. Neither option is palatable: occupation will cause attrition on a daily basis, while withdrawal will mean the return of Hamas or some other hostile force.
Beyond Gaza, there are other concerns, the most serious being the impact of the bloody attack on the region. Kenneth Pollack has written in Foreign Affairs that “the current fighting could trigger a regionwide war”. The most serious concern here is the response of Iran and Hezbollah. Neither is really interested in a regional conflict as it would be destructive, set all nations back several decades, and hardly address the core issues that have led to the current imbroglio. But they might not be able to ignore a vicious assault on the enclave.
The Iranian Foreign Minister has warned that, following a ground campaign in Gaza, “it is highly possible that many other fronts will be opened”. The Minister said in a television interview that he had been assured by “resistance forces that they are prepared for any direct confrontation with the Zionist regime”. Unnamed Iranian commentators have suggested that an attack on Gaza would lead to a three-pronged assault with missiles and rockets: from Hezbollah in the north, the Houthis in the south, and from militants based in Syria and Iraq in the east.
Netanyahu has warned Hezbollah not to enter the conflict, saying Israel will “cripple it with devastating force”, the result being “devastating” for Lebanon as well.
To deter a wider regional conflict, the US has placed two aircraft carrier groups in the east Mediterranean. It is also in the process of sending a Thermal High Altitude Area Defence [THAAD] system to Israel. US Defence Secretary Llyod Austin has said that 2,000 military personnel have been placed on high alert to augment Israeli capabilities if the conflict spirals out of control.
- On October 17, a strike on the Al-Ahli Hospital in north Gaza killed about 500 Palestinians. Hamas called it a “crime of genocide”.
- What US President Joe Biden has missed is that total US support for Israel has undermined America’s standing in West Asia and large parts of the Global South, and contradicted American values upholding freedom, fairness and justice.
- Conflict appears to have become an end in itself: Hamas seems to have no plan beyond hurting Israel’s political and military standing; Israel too has no plan beyond inflicting the maximum damage on its Palestinian foe.
- The real “Abraham Accord” will emerge when Israel finally addresses Palestinian aspirations and the two children of Abraham live side by side in the Holy Land.
The Sinai option
Despite this, a regionwide conflagration cannot be ruled out: the prospect of Hamas’ destruction and the annihilation of the Palestinian population could compel Hezbollah to unleash its weaponry on Israel. Given that Hezbollah’s military capabilities, including 150,000 precision-guided missiles and several hundred long-range rockets, far exceed those of Hamas, this would have grave implications for Israel. Other causes of conflict could be: one, an Israeli triumph in Gaza could tempt it to expand the war to eliminate its enemies, Hezbollah and Iran; or, two, Israeli setbacks in Gaza could encourage the hostile duo to deliver a death blow to their enemy.
Amidst these apocalyptic scenarios, some reports have emerged that Israel might include in its offensive into Gaza a plan to reshape the geopolitical landscape. Benny Gantz, former Army chief, opposition politician, and now a member of Netanyahu’s War Cabinet, has spoken of a plan that would “change the security and strategic reality in the region”.
An Israeli academic, Michael Milshtein, has been quoted by David Hearst as saying: “This war is much more than a conflict between Israel and Hamas. In the West, an understanding is developing that the ‘Iron Swords War’ [Israel’s name for the Gaza war] is a defining moment and a one-time opportunity to reshape the Middle East architecture—which is also expected to affect the relations of power in the entire world.”
Though no details are available, at least part of the “understanding” is possibly to depopulate a large part of Gaza by relocating its people in the Sinai, the revival of a plan Israel has been toying with since 1967. Unconfirmed reports suggest that there have been recent conversations between Western and Egyptian officials for Egypt to open the Rafah crossing and allow Gazans to move in; the reports said that Western countries were even willing to provide Egypt $20 billion to facilitate the relocation.
The plan came unstuck as King Abdullah II of Jordan saw this mass expulsion of Palestinians as a new “Naqba” (“catastrophe”, a reference to the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes after the creation of Israel in 1948), given that the majority of Gazans are the descendants of Palestinians displaced from their homes in 1948-49. He mobilised opposition from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who were able to convince the US that the planned relocation would be a disaster. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s President, announced his categorical rejection of the plan and affirmed that “the Palestinian cause is the mother of all causes”. His Foreign Minister has called the forced resettlement a “war crime”.
Israel’s public position relating to its strategy in Gaza is more ambivalent. Defence Minister Gallant has said that Israel has a three-phase approach to the conflict: the ongoing aerial bombardment to be followed by low-intensity fighting to eliminate “pockets of resistance”. The third phase is more obscure: it includes what the Minister has called the “removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a new security reality”.
This makes little sense: Israel has already placed Gaza under land, sea and air siege since 2006, and controls all movement of people, goods and services in and out of the enclave. This siege has been largely responsible for the squalid conditions in which the residents eke out their miserable existence. This is also why Gaza has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison and even the world’s largest concentration camp.
Perhaps, what is now being envisaged is the end of all links between Israel and Gaza—no supply of food, fuel or medicines, and no employment in Israel for the 20,000 Gazans working there. But this will hardly make any major difference in the daily life of the Gazan community. Large sections of Israeli policymakers are willing to pursue any plan that can avoid addressing the one issue that really matters—the aspirations of the Palestinian people.
Outlook for Gaza, Israel and West Asia
More immediately, the principal challenge before Israel’s current leaders is to divert popular attention from their abject failure to protect citizens from the Hamas attack. The failure is twofold: one, the political policies of the Netanyahu government, particularly the provocative words and actions of its extreme right-wing Ministers and the zealots who back them, which inflamed anger against Israel. And two, the failure of Israel’s much-vaunted armed forces and the intelligence services to anticipate the attacks and prevent or reduce the death toll and the taking of hostages.
There is little doubt that these failures have created an alignment between the political and military leaderships. They now seek to assuage their people’s anger by using the harshest possible rhetoric against the Palestinians and inflict the maximum possible harm. Thus, the killings of Palestinians that are now taking place are aimed at serving the interests of Israel’s leaders, particularly Netanyahu, rather than providing any security benefits for Israel.
In a detailed analysis of Israel’s intelligence failures, Uri Bar-Joseph and Avner Cohen have noted serious shortcomings in the intelligence services set-up and approach. Their most damning observation is that Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, provided intelligence to please its political master, Netanyahu, mainly his agenda “aimed at nurturing Hamas rule in Gaza and diminishing the power and influence of the Palestine Authority in the West Bank”. In March 2019, Netanyahu told his party members: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support Hamas. And transferring money to Hamas… this is part of our strategy… to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
However, there are already strong voices being raised in Israel calling for Netanyahu’s removal. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said he doubts the people “trust Netanyahu to lead when he is under the burden of such a devastating event that just happened under his term”. An intelligence official has described the Netanyahu government as “dysfunctional”, while a former Army chief has called for his immediate resignation.
The real Abraham accord?
The Holy Land constantly resonates with Biblical and Koranic references. Given the scenarios of conflict, the most frequent citation from the holy texts is “apocalypse”—the end of the world when the good and evil will receive divine judgment. The Hamas assaults that took place on October 7 are only the latest manifestation of a region that is frequently at the edge of apocalypse, as the children of Abraham—the Jews and the Palestinians—fail to accommodate each other in the same space that divine providence has given them.
Conflict appears to have become an end in itself: Hamas seems to have no plan beyond hurting Israel’s political and military standing; Israel too has no plan beyond inflicting the maximum damage on its Palestinian foe. Yuval Noah Harari, the distinguished Israeli historian, pointed out that Netanyahu’s government “seems to be conducting the war without a clear political goal of its own”. He asked: “In the long term, does Israel have any plan to reach a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians and normalise relations with the Arab world?”
There are also reverberations on the global stage. As noted above, Biden views the Ukraine and Gaza wars as an integrated challenge to Western values and interests, with success in these conflicts being crucial to ensure US leadership. Obviously, West Asia is an important arena in this competition; hence the need for the US to maintain close ties with Israel and major Arab nations, and cement these ties by “normalising” ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
As of now, the prognosis for West Asia is as follows:
One, so long as Israel resists accommodating Palestinian interests in its political order, it will continue to experience insecurity and instability, despite abusing and killing large numbers of its foes in periodic confrontations.
Two, over time Israel will find that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories will improve their fighting capabilities and firepower and will increasingly inflict more damage on Israelis.
Three, the US will find in coming months that it has to increasingly share space and influence in West Asia with China and Russia, even as most regional states affirm strategic autonomy and pursue closer economic and political ties with the latter two.
Four, the US will also soon discover that West Asian states do not attach any credence to its democracy versus authoritarianism binary or the idea of a “new Cold War”; their principal interest is to shape and participate in a multipolar world order.
Five, the real “Abraham Accord” will emerge when Israel finally addresses Palestinian aspirations and the two children of Abraham live side by side in the Holy Land.
In his monumental work, Gaza: A History, the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu has noted that it is in Gaza that Israeli-Palestinian relations have reached the “incandescent stage of extreme violence”; and it is in Gaza, Filiu insists, that the foundation of a durable peace should be laid.
The author, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune; his latest book, West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, was published last year.