By Arab News
By Nadia Al-Faour
As the Israeli military intensifies attacks on Gaza in retaliation for the unprecedented weekend assault on southern Israel by militants of the Palestinian group Hamas, there are growing fears of a wider, multi-sided conflict erupting in the Middle East.
Experts say Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has spent decades arming and funding Shiite militants as well as Sunni Palestinian groups in the Middle East. As a result, Israel now faces the possibility of a three- or four-front war, involving Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank, supplemented by Hezbollah and PIJ in Lebanon and Syria.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah has already fired the first shot across the bows of Israel by launching rockets on Sunday, prompting deadly retaliation by Israel. Artillery exchanges across the border on Monday killed three Hezbollah fighters, two Palestinian militants, and a senior Israeli army officer.
The Pentagon has warned Hezbollah to “think twice” before opening a second front and said the US was prepared to come to Israel’s defense. The Central Command has despatched the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean and reinforced air force squadrons in the area. It is reportedly also considering deploying a second aircraft carrier near Israel as an added deterrent.
Although the situation is tense, with those backing Hamas reckoning that the momentum is on their side, observers say an open-ended, multi-sided war with Israel lacking broad public support could prove politically costly to them and economically disastrous for the countries from where they operate.
In the case of Lebanon, analysts believe neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to get caught up in a major regional war for different reasons.
“I think both sides are willing to accept a certain amount of violence and casualties. Both parties basically don’t want this to escalate to a much wider war,” Michael Young, senior editor at Carnegie Middle East in Beirut, told Arab News.
“What we have seen so far proves the lines of what I am thinking. Hezbollah absorbed the casualties, and the Israelis absorbed the fact that two of their military bases were fired upon.
“This, of course, remains a risky game. At any point, it can slip out of control.”
The last major war between Israel and Hezbollah, which occurred in 2006, ended with the tacit understanding that violence in the future would be confined to a small strip of disputed territory near the Golan Heights.
Iran and its Shiite proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen — members of the so-called Axis of Resistance — have strongly supported Saturday’s attack that saw Israeli military bases and several villages and towns being overrun by Hamas militants. Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi held phone calls with leaders from Hamas and PIJ after the assault began, Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA said on Sunday.
In the wake of the attack, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said: “We will exact a price that will be remembered by them and other enemies for decades to come.” But Israel could well find itself fighting on more than one front if it goes ahead with a ground invasion.
Mohammed Deif, the supreme military commander of Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas responsible for the attack, has called up Iran-allied militant groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to join the offensive against Israel.
Iraqi and Yemeni armed groups aligned with Iran have threatened to target US interests with missiles and drones if the Biden administration intervenes to support Israel.
Iraq’s Hashd Al-Shaabi has threatened to launch attacks on American troops in Iraq if the US becomes directly involved in the conflict. The US has 2,500 troops in Iraq and an additional 900 in neighboring Syria on a mission to advise and assist local forces in combating Daesh, which in 2014 seized large swathes of territory in both countries.
On Monday, Iraqi politician Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of the political and military group the Badr Organization that is close to Iran, said: “If they intervene, we would intervene … we will consider all American targets legitimate.”
Badr comprises a large part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the state paramilitary organization that contains many Iran-backed factions.
Late on Tuesday rockets fired from Syria, where Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias maintain a presence on the Israeli border with the approval of President Bashar Assad, reportedly landed in open ground in northern Israel.
In Yemen, the leader of the Shiite Houthis gave warning on Tuesday that the militia would respond to any US intervention in Gaza with drones, missiles and other military options.
He said the group was ready to coordinate intervention with other members of the Axis of Resistance.
Experts say any escalation of the conflict involving Lebanon’s Hezbollah would completely change the regional calculus and confront Israel with a security challenge on a scale not seen in half a century.
“Our history, our guns and our rockets are with you,” a senior Hezbollah official, Hashem Safieddine, said at a rally for Hamas in east Beirut on Sunday.
Even so, Hezbollah may choose to keep its powder dry on this occasion. Its arsenal of rockets currently pointed at Israel is a strong deterrent to Israel taking pre-emptive action against Iran.
Then there is the matter of costs and political backing. Pummeled by the pandemic, conflicts and soaring food and fuel prices and beset with weak public finances, the consensus view is that the Middle East and North Africa region is in no shape to withstand the direct and indirect repercussions of a conflict.
Experts say the state of the political economy in Arab countries ranging from Tunisia and Libya in the west to Yemen in the east is parlous at best. According to an International Monetary Fund blog of June, a combination of fiscal risks and external developments such as interest-rate hikes and food and fuel price surges has put public finances under severe pressure in the Arab world’s low- and middle-income economies.
In Lebanon, several politicians have cautioned against dragging the country into the Israel-Hamas conflict, saying that stability and unity amid a protracted economic crisis ought to take priority.
Abdallah Bouhabib, Lebanon’s foreign minister, has demanded reassurances from Hezbollah that it will not join the fighting unprovoked, while Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s prime minister, has emphasized the need to preserve security.
Analysts say the government in Lebanon, which has been without a president for almost a year now, has little or no influence over Hezbollah’s decisions. But they add that the extent to which Hezbollah is willing to get involved in the Gaza conflict will depend to some degree on how far Israel goes in confronting Hamas. Any attempt to eliminate the group altogether might result in a regional escalation.
“I feel there is another element to take into consideration, and that is what the Israelis will do in Gaza,” Young of Carnegie Middle East told Arab News. “If they threaten Hamas existentially, then we can assume that there will be intervention by Hezbollah to try and avoid this.
“But for the Israelis to threaten existentially means a complete takeover of Gaza without many losses. That would entail the military going into homes and arresting thousands of young men who are Hamas militants.
“This is an extremely challenging matter to the Israelis. I doubt they will be able to do that. It’s the worst possible thing for them to be caught up in Gaza like that. And it’s precisely what the Iranians want — to draw Israelis into a street-by-street fight in Gaza.”
If Israel, with US backing, decides to confront Iran directly over its suspected hand in the Hamas assault, Tehran could respond by disrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, leading to a massive spike in the price of crude on world markets.
Oil prices have already risen this week amid the heightened risk of a wider war embroiling energy-exporting Arab Gulf states.
Some commentators have voiced hope that a decisive conflict between Israel and Hamas could produce a surprise in the same way that the 1973 Arab-Israeli war resulted in the Camp David peace accords and the normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt.
Egyptian journalist and columnist Abdellatif El-Menawy cast doubt on the possibility of such an outcome. “In light of what they have done so far, Palestinians have the right to brag about a degree of ‘victory,’ regardless of what happens next. This qualifies to be the start of a political process,” he told Arab News. “But can both Hamas and Israel be peace partners? Both sides have had multiple opportunities to prove this.
“Hamas had a chance of governing Gaza responsibly, to prove its worth and dispel the notion that it was nothing more than a Palestinian Islamic mafia, only interested in maintaining its grip on Gaza, and willing to act as a cat’s paw for Iran instead of making its main goal to create a new future for the Palestinians in partnership with their partners in Ramallah (the Palestinian Authority).
“At the same time, Operation Al-Aqsa Flood was the kind of result — and more are probably in the offing — only to be expected of the continuation of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and its policies of racial discrimination, land usurpation, settlement encroachment and subjecting Palestinians to inhumane conditions.
“It would be strange for any rational person to expect an outcome other than an explosion.”
Clearly, in the immediate term the deadly Hamas assault has dashed hopes of an era of peace, caused concern that the situation could spin out of control, and raised the specter of a ruinous conflict embroiling countries whose economies are already in a precarious state.
Only time will tell whether it has also boosted the chances of a settlement that advances the rights and statehood aspirations of the Palestinian people in a meaningful way.