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War in the Middle East and its broader implications

file photo: israeli soldiers gather on and around a tank near israel's border with the gaza strip, in southern israel
FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers gather on and around a tank near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel October 15, 2023. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Ioannis Tirkides

The killing of innocents and of non-combatants cannot be acceptable, and the Hamas attack of October 7, no matter its origins, has been an atrocious war crime. But beyond the event itself, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a long and brutal history.

The hatred that exists runs deep, and there can be no winner if the victory of one is the extermination of the other. The saddest thing, if left onto itself, this conflict can implode the entire region, even turn nuclear.

As it is, there are too many questions, too few answers, and very limited options. We discuss the unfolding tragedy, the prospect of a broader war, and the difficult future facing the Middle East.

 

The brutality of Hamas and Israel’s internal strife

The attacks have been brutal, and we will never know how the security barrier that separates Gaza from Israel, was penetrated, and how it took the Israeli army more than one hour before it was able to respond. An investigation will eventually be had, but as a security and intelligence failure, it was of immense proportions, even worse than the security and intelligence failure of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Syria and Egypt launched their surprise attack.

But before anything else, for a long conflict such as this, it is important to understand its context, at least in the current moment.

The period immediately preceding the attacks was a period of unrest and internal strife in Israel, against Prime Minister Netanyahu, over judicial reform. The country was split. The judicial reforms aimed to weaken the independence of the judicial system making judges more subject to political control. In July, the governing coalition actually succeeded in passing into law a key part of the judicial overhaul, the bill abolishing the so-called ‘reasonableness’ clause, that allows the Supreme Court to overrule government decisions.

This has everything to do with the political schism in Israel today and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The country is deeply divided down the middle, between the nationalists and religious right, on the one hand, and the more moderate secularists on the other. The nationalists and the religious right parties, together with the Likud party, now form the governing coalition, and hold a narrow majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. They oppose the two-state solution and claim instead, Israel on the ‘land of Israel’, which traces back to biblical times and which denies most of the West bank to a Palestine state.

The Supreme Court consists of judges of the secular tradition that would block legislation from the Knesset along the political objectives of the nationalist and religious right.

The parts of the West Bank left for the Palestinians have been shrinking over time as Israeli settlements have been increasing since the second Intifada, which was ignited by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount in 2000. Ariel Sharon was the leader of the opposition at the time and was elected prime minister a year later in 2001.

The West Bank is currently divided into 165 scattered Palestinian enclaves that are under partial Palestinian rule. The remainder of the West Bank, including 200 Israeli settlements, is under full Israeli control. The Gaza Strip, on the other hand, has been ruled by the militant group Hamas since 2007.

 

The threat of escalation

In response to the attacks of Hamas, Israel has blockaded Gaza, has cut electricity and water supply, it is bombing large parts of it, and forcing Palestinians from the northern parts further south, all, in preparation for a land incursion.

Israel’s primary goal is to defeat Hamas, evict them from Gaza or destroy them altogether. The United States is offering its full support and has sent two aircraft carriers in the region, and a third is on its way. The United States is acting to deter the escalation of the war not by averting the land incursion, but by threatening to interfere itself, if Hezbollah or another entity or country enter the war.

On the other side of the conflict, Arab and other Muslim countries including Turkey, are strongly opposed to a land incursion in Gaza and what they see as genocide against the Palestinians. The Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, may enter the war in this event. If at that point the United States intervenes to counter Hezbollah and help Israel having to fight on two fronts, it will effectively risk turning the war from a domestic conflict that needs to be contained, into a larger regional war.

Once a war escalates in this way it will be difficult to control its dynamics. Suddenly the war can be totally regional bringing in the Syrians, the Iranians, the Turks, and the Russians. It is unlikely for regional Muslim powers to stand by idle and watch Israel with the support of the United States, killing Palestinians in large numbers and evicting them from Gaza.

The risks are running high. Aircraft carriers may sound overwhelming, but in today’s warfare, they are not what they look, and might in fact be vulnerable to attacks. What happens if Iranian drones or other weapons attack and destroy American naval assets? And if the United States attacks Iran, will Russia stay out?

The American presence in the region will not deter, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah or Arab countries from broadening this conflict if Israel enters into a long and deadly land war in Gaza. The capabilities Hezbollah and Hamas possess shouldn’t be underestimated, neither should the damage they can inflict on Israel itself. A land incursion into Gaza will not be an easy or quick expedition by Israeli forces. That’s what Hamas may want in fact, we don’t know that for sure, to lure the Israelis into a fight they cannot win without taking heavy losses. The Israeli army knows very well what urban warfare is. They will do their utmost to ensure that their troops have all the support they need, but moving through rubble and ruin against an enemy that is underground, does not have many advantages.

Once the war starts and once it goes beyond Gaza and it becomes regional, one cannot tell what form it will take or how long it will last. In 2001 the United States launched a war against ISIS that lasted 20 years, it cost tens of thousands of lives and many trillions of dollars, and in the end, it didn’t end as planned. The United States is now headed in the same direction, to entangle itself in a long war, the dynamics of which it will not be able to control, and which will be endangering Israel itself in the end.

Needless to say, the implications of such an escalation will be catastrophic beyond the warring zones. It will send oil and gas prices steeply higher and will plunge economies into an inflationary recession. The mix of an energy crisis, recession, and inflation, as well as tangible security threats, will underpin significant civil unrest not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe and the United States.

 

Conclusion

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a source of instability in the Middle East. Left onto itself it can be absolutely destructive. The solution to this long conflict cannot come about by the complete victory of the one side over the other. A massive change in mindsets is required. A two-state solution is the only viable option. Many Israelis support it, not the current government.

The United States may still be committed to it, and it is also the position of the UN, but no one in the West is interested in imposing it. They should, foremost, the United States. A regional war will risk the complete alienation of The United States from the Middle East and the marginalisation of its influence in the region. This will not be in the best interests of Israel either.

 

Ioannis Tirkides is the Economics Research Manager at the Bank of Cyprus and President of the Cyprus Economic Society. Views expressed are personal. The article is also published on the Blog of the Cyprus Economic Society.

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