After the day after

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

There is a growing sense across the Middle East that the war in Gaza will transform the region more than any other event in more than a century.

After the day after

 

The war that Israel launched on Gaza after the 7 October attacks carried out by the Palestinian group Hamas may be drawing to a close as Israel’s military advances to take Rafah in Southern Gaza, which is providing relative safety to more than 1.4 million Palestinians displaced within the Strip.

The nearly seven-month-old war, which has left some 35,000 Palestinians dead and has devastated Gaza’s cities, has sparked tensions across the Middle East and brought Israel, the US, Iran, and the latter’s regional allies close to a military conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that he will go ahead with a ground offensive on Rafah despite warnings from Arab governments, the US, and many other countries in the world not to do so.

Last week, the Israeli army finalised preparations for the evacuation of Rafah to an area of Northern Gaza close to where Israeli tanks and troops have assembled ahead of the long-expected assault on the enclave’s southernmost city.

Meanwhile, a last-minute Egyptian-brokered ceasefire deal in Gaza is under review by Hamas and could stave off the planned Israeli ground offensive into Rafah. The proposed “interim deal” does not bring an end to the war or Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip.

As the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza continues, attention has turned to the post-war security and political arrangements and the need to consider the future of the blockaded, destroyed, and impoverished but denselypopulated Strip.

Despite the urgent need for a plan for post-war governance in the Strip, which has been under the control of Hamas for nearly two decades, Netanyahu continues to refuse to outline a strategy for the day after.

He insists that destroying Hamas’ political and military power comes first. He and his hawkish allies in the Israeli government want to eliminate any possibility that Hamas can grow again after the war and retake Gaza.

Otherwise, Israel has no concrete roadmap for the future or exit strategy in Gaza. It has not been clear about restoring the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) control over the Strip, except by floating fantasy ideas such as empowering local tribal chiefs.

Despite its limited successes in using sophisticated tactics in combating the outnumbered and outgunned Israeli army, Hamas also lacks a vision and strategy for winning the war or even surviving its outcome.   

Yet, some long-shot plans for post-war governance have been in circulation, either to maintain the momentum of the Gaza operation and its political objectives or as test balloons.

Among ideas reportedly under discussion in regional capitals are disarming Hamas and transforming it into a political party that would later join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) political institutions and the PA.

Top Hamas leaderKhalil Al-Hayya has said that the group is willing to agree to a truce of five years with Israel and lay down its weapons if an independent Palestinian state is established along pre-1967 borders.

Other options to deradicalise Gaza after the war mentioned in unsourced media reports indicate that Israel could be willing to let Hamas military leaders in Gaza leave for exile much as the PLO leaders and cadres were allowed to sail by ship from Beirut in 1982.

There has been speculation that Turkey may be a new venue for the Gaza Hamas leadership after the group’s exiled leaders visited Istanbul last week for talks with sympathetic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

With the future of Gaza remaining uncertain regardless of victory or defeat for either Israel or Hamas, there are growing worries about the implications of the conflict on the Middle East countries, whose response has been defining its trajectory.

Even if the war ends soon, there will be no end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and no sustainable peace in a Middle East that has been profoundly affected by the war.

In this sense, therefore, the day after extends beyond merely Gaza’s governance when the guns fall silent, a fact that is sometimes overlooked as the discussions focus on how to end the war in Gaza.

The conflict in Gaza has roiled the Middle East, and the region seems to have changed forever. A bird’s eye view shows a region on autopilot, lulled into amnesia and galvanised into a new geopolitics.

This geopolitics is not hidden, as Israeli and Western policymakers and some Middle East experts try to pretend. It is clearly working regionally and nationally to restructure and govern the workings of the region’s political economy.

Contrary to the rhetorical support fora return to the two-state solution expressed by some world and regional politicians, this idea is now dead and buried thanks to the genocidal policies carried out by Israel in Gaza that have blocked any clear path to a peaceful future.

A credible solution to the Palestinian problem, including establishing a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, is persistently being quashed by Israel. As a result, continued frustration, anger, and violence in the Occupied Territories are the only options left standing.

In the larger pan-Arab perspective, popular concerns remain strong, and the spectre of a Palestinian exodus and of a new Nakba, or catastrophe, would most likely energise additional anger across the Arab world.

The memory of the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1948 War with Israel, which damaged the then Arab regimes’ nationalist credentials and triggered a series of military coups in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq and turmoil elsewhere in the region, still carries an important lesson of how much the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains effective in shaping Arab public opinion.

Despite some misguided stereotypes of Arab public opinion being off base, there have been popular concerns and sometimes strong resentment towards what is perceived as complacency in the face of the Israeli actions in Gaza.

Indeed, the war in Gaza has sent the Arabs back to the basics of Israel’s humiliating policies of subduing the Palestinians, or leaving their cause unresolved, and this poses a fearsome threat to regional stability.

A central question for the region, already sapped by conflicts, is how effective will the normalisation agreements signed by several Arab countries with Israel in 2020 be, as Arab public opinion seethes, and Israel remains arrogant and exhibits total contempt for the Palestinians’ aspirations and rights.

A peace mentality that might have been anticipated after the so-called “Abraham Accords” with Israel has given way to a dawning awareness that a comprehensive peace is needed in the pursuit of security and strategic objectives.

Likewise, the period after the Gaza war is expected to give way to an uneasy interregnum in which rivalry grows between the regional powersand a newly volatile and polarised Middle East emerges.

Fundamental forces unleashed by the conflict are already in the process of changing the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, with four Arab countries in a regional alliance with Iran.

The conflict in Gaza has pushed the region to the brink of a broader war and one that has already drawn in the US and Iran. When Iran directed over 300 missiles and drones at Israel on 13 April, Jordan helped fend off the attack.

As long as Israel and Iran remain locked in war, the operational logic of that conflict will push towards further escalation. There are increasing fears that some Arab states will side with Israel if its conflict with Iran continues to escalate.

Moreover, the conflict is expected to amplify the divisions within the Arab world, where political and socioeconomic crises manifesting instability and inequality are limiting national resources and the capacity for recovery.

Coupled with a new boom, a new form of financial firepower is expected to take root in the region as super-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE pursue a diplomacy based on outreachstrategies including staying at the forefront of Middle East politics.

To get a sense of what might happen on the day after the war, one should not limit the scope to the immediate consequences of the war in Gaza alone, but rather look atits larger impacts on the region that is already undergoing drastic changes.

Since the Nakba, both centripetal and centrifugal forces have acted to create the present unstable Middle East order. This time around, the inevitable remaking of the region might be no less chaotic and no less painful.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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