At least six fronts are now practically on fire, besides the three in which Israel is directly involved: Gaza, the occupied West Bank, and Lebanon; and it is the United States that ignited military action in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
By any standards, Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza, which entered its fifth month this week, has already expanded into a wider regional war, complicating further efforts to restore calm in the region and threatening turmoil for many years to come.
Probably the “wider regional war” that the United States wants to avoid is a direct military confrontation with Iran, the party seen as the main backer of the groups which the US military continues to target in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Yet, this is a very risky calculation and can easily go out of hand, especially as Israeli war crimes continue.
Certainly there could have been a much easier and more rational path to avoiding the current, dangerous military escalation on several fronts. It was up to the US to pressure Israel long ago to stop its genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza. This is the case not only because the Israeli war has been violating all war and humanitarian laws, killing mercilessly over 27,000 people, including 12,000 children and 8,000 women, injuring nearly 70,000 and displacing the entire Gaza population, but also because the declared targets of the current extremist Israeli government were never realistic or achievable.
Israel will never eradicate Hamas or kill all its leaders, let alone its members, either in months or in years, because the group is deeply entrenched in Palestinian society and is seen mainly as part of the wider legitimate resistance against the racist Israeli occupation that has lasted for 76 years. The current Israeli government, which includes ministers who are members of Jewish supremacist groups considered “terrorist” even by the United States, will never be able to free prisoners held by Hamas in Gaza by continuing its indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian civilians. That’s a fact that even members of Israel’s war cabinet have publicly admitted, stating that only a deal with Hamas would allow those prisoners to return to their families alive.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has recently stated that strikes against Iran-backed militias should not be interpreted as an escalation of fighting in the Middle East. US strikes in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, he insisted, are a separate issue. But that is a hard line to sell for most people in the region, who believe that the Israeli war against Gaza is the key reason behind the recent escalation, and accuse the US administration of going to any lengths to provide cover for Israel even at the expense of direct US military involvement and threats to US interests.
The Houthis in Yemen have repeatedly stated that they would stop targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea if Israel ended its war against Gaza and allowed the flow of humanitarian aid to over 2.3 million people it is intentionally starving as punishment for the 7 October attack by Hamas fighters.
Groups allied to Iran and the so-called “axis of resistance” in Syria and Iraq have also linked their attacks against US targets to the Israeli war in Gaza, saying the current US administration has been a partner in this war by providing generous military support to Israel and preventing the United Nations Security Council from passing resolutions ordering an immediate halt to the fighting.
That is why ongoing US diplomatic efforts, in coordination with close allies in the region such as Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, should not only aim at a temporary truce or so-called “humanitarian pause,” but a permanent ceasefire. The damage done in Gaza is already beyond imagination, and estimates of all humanitarian and UN agencies point out that it would take years only to remove the rubble and massive destruction caused by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of all parts of Gaza, north, middle, and south.
In his current tour of the region, the fifth since 7 October, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be asked about steps related not to the “day after” the war, but to the present days and serious threats by Israel to push forward with its military campaign to reach Rafah along the border with Egypt, claiming that it was the last hideout where leaders of Hamas were present.
Palestinian Rafah is currently the most densely populated spot in the world, with its population growing from 300,000 people to 1.3 million people as Israel forced residents of north and central Gaza to head south. A massive Israeli military campaign in Rafah, similar to what the occupation army carried out in the north and more recently in Khan Younis in the south, means that the Palestinians crammed into this tiny spot will have nowhere to go to. This can only be seen as an intentional attempt to forcibly displace the Palestinians into northern Sinai, which is not something that Egypt would tolerate or accept.
Only an immediate, permanent ceasefire would bring calm to the entire region, and not the prospect of renewed fighting after the proposed “humanitarian pause” ends. That should be followed by renewed negotiations aimed at establishing a Palestinian state and an end to Israel’s occupation. Otherwise, we will be seeing repeated wars in the region that are not going to be easily contained.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly