What next for the region?

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 18 Apr 2024

Iran’s first ever direct attack on Israeli territory has changed the rules for all of the Middle East’s state and non-state actors.

Ebrahim Raisi  Benjamin Netanyahu
Raisi, Netanyahu


On 13 April, Palestinians in Gaza could sleep — for the first time in close to 190 days — without fearing Israel’s aerial presence in the skies above the Strip which has been carpet-bombed since 7 October.

The reason: for the first time ever, Iran launched drones and missiles directly from its own territory to Israel in retaliation for the 1 April Israeli air strike on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus that killed 16 people, including Mohamed Reza Zahedi, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander.

Though the Iranian attack on Israel was over within a few hours, it provided a brief respite for Palestinians in Gaza who have faced a relentless Israeli onslaught that has so far killed over 33,000 and left close to 100,000 injured.

After firing a barrage of around 200 drones and missiles towards Israel, the Iranian mission in New York promptly notified the UN that Tehran was done with its retaliatory act. Israel said that, with the help of an international coalition, including regional players, it had intercepted 99 per cent of the drones and missiles fired by Iran.

As speculation over Israel’s response to the Iranian attack consumed diplomatic, media, and public attention in the days that followed, Palestinians in Gaza once again came under Israeli attack. Any hopes for a truce were further eroded, and worries grew over a possible Israeli ground offensive on Rafah, the southern city in which vast numbers of Palestinians have sought refuge from the Israeli military machine.

The first ever direct Iranian attack on Israeli territory will carry serious political, and possibly humanitarian, costs for Gaza’s residents, say Arab diplomatic and official sources. They warn that having regained some of the political sympathy he had lost as his war on Gaza dragged on, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now likely to feel less restrained when it comes to launching an offensive on Rafah.

According to two Cairo-based European diplomats, Netanyahu is telling European capitals that it is time for world leaders to accept that he is right to invade Rafah and force a new political and security reality across Gaza. He is reminding everyone who calls him advising a cautious and carefully calculated response to the Iranian attack that the world now knows that Hamas and Iran are not two different entities and that the support Israel received on 13 April in foiling the Iranian attack, including from some Arab countries, underlines the fact that the time has come to end Iran’s meddling in the region, be it in Gaza via Hamas and Jihad, Hizbullah in Lebanon, or in Syria.

“For us, the issue is not about Hamas but about civilians in Gaza,” said one of the European diplomats. And those civilians, he says, will now pay the price not just of the choices Hamas made on 7 October, but of Tehran’s decisions on 13 April.

According to a former Egyptian diplomat who served in Israel, Netanyahu’s goal has never been a regional set up under which Hamas and its allies are confronted by Israel with the support of Western powers but one in which it is confronted by Israel and Arab capitals.

“This is what Israel has been trying to establish for 15 years, what Israeli officials have been reiterating over and over again,” said the former diplomat. And it is what Israel secured late on Saturday evening when “several Arab countries, whether they announced it or not” joined the international mission to intercept Iranian drones heading towards Israel.

Jordan, which has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1994, announced that it was closing its airspace hours before Iran launched its heavily trailed barrage of drones and missiles. Two days later, after it reopened its airspace, Amman announced that it would not stand aside if its airspace was again violated.

According to the Israeli press, Jordan joined the US and some European countries in intercepting the drones and missiles launched against Israel, and there were reports that Israel now plans to extend the provision of water to Jordan to show its appreciation for Amman’s role in helping to intercept the missiles.

Current Israeli-Jordanian dynamics appear to reflect a decline in tensions between the two neighbours. Frictions had been growing over Israel’s war on Gaza which has led to demonstrations in the Hashemite kingdom and Amman ratcheting up its rhetoric.

Arab and European diplomats note that, whether directly or indirectly, several Arab Gulf capitals, including some who are not yet part of the Abraham Accords, offered “help” and “support” to Israel on Saturday evening. According to one European diplomat, despite unease over the devastating images coming from Gaza over the last six months, these same countries have exhibited zero support for Hamas against Israel. It was these capitals’ concerns over Iran, the diplomat added, that prompted them to bypass their worries over public opinion and help intercept the missiles heading towards Israel.

The same diplomat anticipates more “strategic” and “security” cooperation with Israel over the coming months, though “it might not be announced” to avoid inciting public opinion.

According to informed sources in Cairo, some Arab countries that had curtailed the pace of cooperation with Israel due to the war on Gaza came forward this week and are now discussing future security cooperation plans with Israel under a US-sponsored banner. The same sources say this would have been impossible were it not for the Iranian attack.

In Cairo, official sources worry over the scenarios that could unfold in the next few days. They warn that with less pressure on Israel from the international community and from regional capitals, chances for a ceasefire in Gaza will dim while concerns over the scope and consequences of an Israeli ground offensive on Rafah, which lies on the border with Egypt, are growing.

In the words of one Egyptian official: “Anyone who thinks that the Iranian act will help people in Gaza is mistaken. The only one it is helping is Netanyahu, who never wanted a ceasefire and who might find a way to take the war to its next stage if he manages to drag Hizbullah into a confrontation.”


* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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