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Report of Monday Morning Meeting on Gaza War: The Risk of Regional Escalation

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  • January 08, 2024
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Dr. Adil Rasheed, Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, made a presentation on “Gaza War: The Risk of Regional Escalation” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 8 January 2024. Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA, moderated the session. Scholars of the Institute attended the meeting.

    Executive Summary

    The Gaza War which has completed three months has no end in sight with the Israeli endgame not being clear to the other state and non-state actors. Israel has vowed to continue its offensive on Gaza until it achieves its three main objectives of completely dismantling Hamas, rescuing the hostages and creating deterrence. However, the conflict has spread into the region with other players such as the Hezbollah of Lebanon and Houthis of Yemen, both backed by Iran fighting against Israel. This has escalated the fear of the war spreading into the entire region which may see direct or indirect intervention by the US. The entire West Asian region is once again witnessing turmoil with no easy solutions in sight.

    Detailed Report

    Dr. Saraswat set the framework for the discussion by stating that the Israel-Hamas War has rapidly escalated across the region with external actors such as the Hezbollah playing an active role. She noted that Iran insisted that the Hamas attacks were entirely Palestinian actions but Iran-backed forces, especially Hezbollah, have opened new fronts against Israel. According to Dr. Saraswat, the escalation has been controlled as none of the actors want to fight a full-fledged war but there always remains the possibility of miscalculation and further escalation. She then spoke about the op-ed written by former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who suggested that Israel should directly take on Iran instead of the smaller regional non-state actors and spoke of a new Cold War between Iran and its proxies being referred to as the ‘evil empire’ and Israel and its allies as comprising the ‘democratic camp’ . She briefly mentioned the twin blasts by ISIS in Kerman. Dr. Saraswat pointed out how Israel is emboldened by regional circumstances, given it has not faced any concerted pushback from the Arab countries. She mentioned that the Israeli endgame does not appear very clear and there is a possibility of further entanglement with Iran.

    Dr. Adil Rasheed began his presentation with the mention of the sudden Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October 2023, which took place just a day after the 50th anniversary of the Yom-Kippur War. He says that three months into the war there is no clear indication of how it is going to play out, with no end in sight. Dr. Rashid mentioned the statement made by British journalist Julian Borger that the Middle East is moving towards a regional war since 7 October. He talked about the recent threats issued by Hezbollah, their increase in bombings, the manner in which attacks have started happening in Iran and the assassinations of leaders including the Deputy Chief of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut. He pointed out that the region is definitely moving towards a much wider escalation with the Israel Defence Minister mentioning that Israel is fighting a seven-front war with Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran. There are other less conventional fronts that Israel might have to face in the coming times like the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague where it might find any ruling on accusations of Palestinian genocide problematic. Another disturbing front is that of the global jihadist forces such as Al Qaeda and ISIS issuing threats and targeting Jewish, Israeli, and even American targets. There are tensions within the Netanyahu dispensation as well. The Cabinet was recently shuffled and the Foreign Minister had to resign.

    Dr. Rasheed mentioned that the situation in the region three months ago, prior to the Hamas attacks was completely different. There were talks of regional integration including a possible Saudi-Israel rapprochement and economic alliances such as the I2U2 and the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC), which all went into thin air after the war started. This displayed the pace at which geopolitics changes in West Asia.

    Dr. Rasheed mentioned that 7 October was the bloodiest single day in modern Israeli history. Hamas launched several incursions from Gaza from land and air. Hamas militants breached high-tech border fences, disabled Israel’s robotic machine guns and penetrated deep into Israeli territories without facing much resistance. Rockets were fired into far away Israeli cities. There was large-scale massacre of civilians, women were raped and children beheaded but there was a paucity of investigations into the reports of beheadings and rapes. The Hamas attack was a 9/11 moment for Israel but it did not get as much global attention. He talked about Israel’s failure to raise the matter at the United Nations or the ICJ as Israel focused more on seeking revenge. The global audience saw Israel’s bombardment of Gaza which undermined the graveness of the Hamas attacks. Israel was unaware of the preparation and the level of sophistication achieved by Hamas in carrying out such an attack. Israeli and other global agencies were completely surprised by the sudden attacks. Hamas was never considered a well trained militia like Hezbollah and ISIS.

    Dr. Rasheed listed out three reasons for which Hamas undertook such a massive operation. Firstly, it was to avenge the settler actions of Israel in the West Bank. Secondly, it was also due to Israel’s alleged violations into the al-Aqsa mosque. Lastly, the normalisation in Arab-Israel ties was allegedly threatening the Palestinian cause. Hamas was looking to capture more hostages to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners. Dr. Rasheed said that even though Israel’s actions might be questioned on moral grounds, one could understand their cause of origin. Israel cannot survive in a hostile neighbourhood unless it maintains unquestionable military superiority over its adversaries at all times. It cannot be judged as per the standards of western secular democracy as it was founded to be the only safe homeland for the Jews existing within a volatile region. Thus, Israel has to create deterrence and instill fear among its adversaries. In such a situation many far right leaders made unfortunate statements which were often blown out of proportion.

    Dr. Rasheed noted that Israel has resorted to massive bombardment whose intensity out rivalled that of the Ukraine-Russia War, Syrian War and even the Second World War. He then detailed the 27 October ground offensive launched by Israel inside Gaza, followed by brief humanitarian pauses for supply of aid. He mentioned how the residents of northern Gaza had to migrate towards the south, and as the Israeli offensive kept moving south, some people started returning back to their homes in the north of Gaza. He spoke about how the withdrawal of the USS Gerald Ford from the region allowed Hezbollah to carry out more strikes.

    Dr. Rasheed ended his presentation by speaking about the possible future strategy of Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu wants to provoke Iran and the US to join the war, so that Israel gets more time to focus exclusively on driving Hamas out of Gaza. However, he also cautioned that Iran and Hezbollah would not be very keen on fighting a full-fledged war because of their domestic economic constraints.

    Dr. Saraswat noted that West Asia should not be seen in exceptionalist terms as prone to violence and instability. Instead sources of insecurity, such as external penetration and authoritarianism need to be part of any analysis. She noted that the lack of a solution for the Palestinian issue hinders any talk of sustainable peace in the region. She also mentioned the lack of security dialogue among regional states. Dr. Rasheed added that the Hamas attacks had put a big dent on Israeli and Western security domination and had encouraged other jihadist outfits to carry out such attacks. The floor was then opened for questions and comments.

    Questions and Comments

    A number of queries and comments were made regarding Israel’s ultimate strategy and objectives, its cartographic stability in comparison to India, the matrix of comparison of Israel’s attacks with other wars, the role of media, the stand of the Jewish diaspora, the role of the international organisations and their resolutions, and the threat posed by Hezbollah and other regional actors.

    Dr. Adil Rasheed responded to all the comments and questions. With regard to the international organisations, he noted that Israel does not bother much about it but it is the US under the Democrats which is worried about its image taking a hit domestically and globally. He said that apart from the influential Jewish diaspora, it is the significant Evangelical Christian population of the US which influences its policies towards Israel. He said that due to the increasing role of media, public opinion will gradually make more difference in influencing policies. On the way forward for Israel, he said that a two-state or a one-state solution may not be feasible. Israel may put in charge a non-Hamas led Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza. He also cautioned that things may even go out of control at any moment of time. He also made a brief mention of the challenges faced by Egypt due to the conflict.

    Report  prepared by Mr. Farhan Khan, Intern, West Asia Centre, MP-IDSA.