From the Destruction of Gaza to a Regional Conflict

In order for a society to exist, it needs a functioning organizational system. Hamas does not rule only by the power of ideology, but by its ability to provide goods and services to the population. From this, and not only from religion and “resistance”, comes its main strength. In order to collapse the military power of Hamas, the Israeli army tries to separate Hamas from the population.

One of the results of Israel’s military action is the breaking of Hamas’ ability to provide goods and services. Until now, Israel has not taken responsibility for the re-occupation of Gaza and has not established a military government (as exists in the West Bank and as demanded by international law). Perhaps because the chaos serves Israel, or perhaps because it does not yet fully control the territory of the Strip.

The damages caused by an Israeli airstrike following the bombing of a residential building in Gaza’s Deir el-Balah, December 21, 2023 (Photo: WAFA)

The result is the collapse of all social organizations in the Strip: organizations of Hamas, of the Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian parties, and of the international organizations. Anarchy now reigns in the Gaza Strip, everything is lacking: no fuel, water, food, medicine, shelter, transportation, education, work. There is no-one to monitor the needs of the population, no-one to absorb the insufficient aid that is being transferred, no mechanism to distribute the little that is available. There is no-one to take care of the crowds of refugees being driven from place to place. There are no sanitary conditions, there is malnutrition among children, there are signs of epidemics. (Dangerous viruses were discovered in the medical examinations of the abductees who were returned to Israel.) Everything is a black market; there is no authority, and weapons are everywhere. The number of dead is already approaching 20,000. We no longer know exactly how many die every day in Gaza.

The compilation of the statistical data was previously done by Al-Shifa hospital, but Shifa has now stopped functioning. I wrote last week that “the ‘victory’ of Hamas is the destruction of Gaza”. I meant that the path of Hamas is a dead end. On the other hand, the complete destruction of all the infrastructure in Gaza strengthens the claim that Israel’s stated purpose of the war – the elimination of Hamas – is nothing less than “ethnic cleansing” aimed at direct control over Gaza that is depleted in territory and population.

Against the background of this situation, one must understand the action of UN Secretary Antonio Guterres who, last Friday, based on a special privilege as UN Secretary, convened the Security Council for an urgent emergency discussion of a proposal for a humanitarian cease-fire in the Gaza Strip in order to stop the collective punishment and prevent the collapse of all services, hunger and epidemics among the population.

Guterres’ proposal was supported by 97 countries as well as by the World Health Organization (WHO). Thirteen out of fifteen members of the Security Council supported the proposal, but the United States, a permanent member that has the right to veto its decisions, objected and the proposal failed (Britain abstained.) The government of Israel opposed Guterres’ proposal for a cease-fire. Hamas demands a cease-fire as a condition for resuming the exchange of the abductees. The families of the Israeli abductees also demand a cease-fire and the resumption of negotiations for the exchange of the abductees.

With its veto, the US positioned itself in favour of the continuation of the fighting and the worsening of the catastrophic situation in Gaza. Indirectly, it is also responsible for delaying the return of the abductees. The US plays a dual role in this war: on the one hand, it enables it and its continuation; on the other hand, it determines the limits of the fighting and its intensity. It does not prevent war; it only eases the disaster by bringing more supplies to Gaza and by controlling Israel regarding the number of non-combatants killed. Above all, the US retains in its hands the determination of the end date of the war and therefore Israel’s ability to achieve “victory.” Thus, the US also holds in its hands the political fate of Netanyahu after the war.

Speculations about an imminent end to the war are not trustworthy. What is obvious is that there is still no outline for the arrangements in Gaza after this phase of the war – on “the day after.” It is likely that the intensity of the fighting will abate, but “clearing resistance” will continue well into next year. The support for the war in the USA is decreasing. After January, the USA will enter the race to elect the next president, but this is not necessarily a sufficient condition for an end to the war, only to its visibility in the world’s attention.

Sponsoring Israel in international institutions, preventing sanctions on Israel and international isolation are only the tip of an iceberg. The US’s role in the war is not only diplomatic. The US has opened its arsenal depots to Israel and provided it with the necessary weapons for the war: tunnel-busting bombs and large amounts of artillery and tank shells. The arms and ammunition depots of NATO Central Command in Europe have never been so available to Israel before. The American House of Representatives voted for US financial aid to Israel of 14.3 billion dollars; this has not yet been approved by the Senate, but only because of disagreements between Democrats and Republicans in the US on other plans of Biden.

The US provided not only a diplomatic rear, weapons and money, it sent to the Middle East a huge military force of two aircraft and missile carriers, a fleet of destroyers and submarines, and other vessels, transferred squadrons of fighter and bomber planes to bases closer to the Middle East arena and ground forces. The war itself is closely coordinated with the US military. The role of these forces is, at this stage, to confine the fighting to the Gaza Strip and prevent the enlargement of the conflict by forces of the “Axis of Resistance”: Hezbollah, Syria, the popular militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen – all coordinated by Iran.

The October 7 war began around Gaza between Hamas and Israel. Each side, however, is aligned to other regional and global actors. As the war continues it may be subsumed by other interests. Hitherto, the war has expanded to Israel and Lebanon’s border and to the Red Sea: Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militia and political party supported and armed by Iran, has opened a second front, in solidarity with Gaza, in the north of Israel by shelling Israeli towns and villages daily for two months now. Israel has retaliated heavily. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Lebanese were evacuated from their homes due to the shelling. Until now, the Lebanese theater has been static but it can erupt momentarily into war of movement into Lebanon. Hezbollah’s solidarity with Gaza could lead to the third Israel-Lebanon war. Alternatively, if resolved, this conflict could lead to the settlement of the minor border issue, which is an obstacle to peace between the two states.

Solidarity with Gaza is also the reason given by the Houthis in Yemen for lobbing drones and missiles against Israel, which lies almost 2000 kilometers away. The Houthis (the Ansar-Allah Movement) are a Yemeni rebel Islamist armed militia of tribal Zaidi Shias who sized control in north Yemen from the pro-Saudi pro-US Yemeni government in Aden. They are against Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel with whom they regard themselves in a religious war, and are backed, financed, trained and supplied with drones, ballistic missiles, fast boats, radar systems and helicopters by Iran. The drones and missile attacks against Israel have been intercepted by a coordinated air defense of US, Israeli, Saudi, British and French forces in the Red Sea.

Now the Houthis have further upped the ante in the south of the Red Sea near Bab-al-Mandab, the narrowest point of passage. They declared a blockade on international vessels heading to Israel and the Suez Canal. There were already several cases of commercial ships bombed, boarded and kidnapped. This siege could have enormous consequences for the global economy. A battle group is already being assembled by the US and about twenty maritime countries. A conflagration in the Gulf brings the west closer to a clash with Iran.

Bab-al-Mandab, literally “the gate of tears”, is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in oil and goods trade from Asia to Europe. Quite a number of powers have military bases in the Red Sea to protect shipping: US, China, Japan, Russia, Italy, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Egypt and Israel. The southern part (Gulf of Aden) is controlled by Iranians and the Yemeni forces. The latest blockade takes us back to earlier blockades of the Straits of Tiran in the north of the Red Sea in 1956 and 1967, which were casus belli for two wars. Prices for transporting goods from Asia have already risen sharply due to the increase in risk and higher insurance premiums.

The Suez Canal, through which cargo passes from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and Europe, is also a very important source of income for Egypt. Increases in the price of shipping goods around Africa will cause a global price hike. An alternative shipping route to the Red Sea is over-land transportation by train from ports in the UAE, via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. If implemented, this will boost the “Abrahamic Accords”, the Israeli-Saudi-Emirati alliance designed by Trump.

The October 7 war created a new regional reality for Israel that has not been seen since 1948. Contrary to Israel’s military doctrine of taking the fight into the enemy’s territory, Hamas broke through the borders of 1948 and moved the war beyond Israel’s Green Line. Israel’s sense of security was severely damaged.

The war is protracted and costly in human life and economically. For the first time since 1948, about 200,000 people from the south and the north of Israel cannot return to their homes. Hundreds of thousands in Israel are stuck in a prolonged and life-disrupting reserve service. The October 7 war is not just another mop-up operation, it is a full-blown war of a new phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a local war that can easily blow up to a regional or even world war. Through its deliberately brutal attack Hamas has succeeded in bringing back the unresolved Palestinian issue to the center stage of world’s attention. Gazans have paid a horrible price. We must struggle for it to be the last Israel-Palestinian war. The conflict between the two nations must have a political solution. We need to stop the war now, return all the abductees from either side and start negotiations for a just political solution. If we don’t come to our senses, all sides, the world, will be at higher risk.

Avishai Ehrlich

This article was published in the Communist weekly Zo Haderech, December 13, 2023