Situation in Middle East has entered a dangerous, unpredictable phase

The geopolitical consequences of the bloody clashes between Israel and Hamas risk to be serious, warns Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, he was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

Already the Ukraine conflict has been very disruptive at the international level. This conflict which is pitting the US, NATO and the G7 against Russia continues, with China positioning itself on Russia’s side in view of its own confrontation with the US. India, as well as the Global South in general, is affected by this European conflict, with disruption in global supply chains, energy flows, and food and fertiliser shortages.

On top of that, a new conflict in a highly volatile region has erupted which will affect India and the Global South as well. This region has already seen wars against “terrorism” by Western powers, be it in Iraq, Libya or Syria. Iran is treated as a terrorist state by the US. It is accused of supporting Houthi terrorists against Saudi Arabia and viewed as a prime backer of Hamas in Gaza as well as the Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is a vociferous supporter of the Palestinian cause and has assumed the leadership of the struggle against Israel. Turkey has had close links with Hamas. Qatar hosts Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas, and offers financial support to the organisation. A flare-up of conflict between Israel and Hamas can therefore create wider disruptions.

The conflict provoked by brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians across the Gaza Strip, especially the unprecedented scale of the attacks, both in the audacious manner of execution and the number of casualties inflicted, has inevitably provoked a massive Israeli retaliation.

The danger of the conflict widening is real. Hamas may have provoked this conflict and Israel may feel justified in avenging itself, but the collective punishment being inflicted on the Gaza population, the scenes of human misery on television and the social media, civilians, including children, getting killed, lack of medical supplies etc. risk to inflame public opinion in the Arab, indeed in the Islamic world, besides raising humanitarian concerns more broadly.

This is not the first time that Hamas has provoked a conflict with Israel, knowing from past experience that Israel will respond with ferocity. The jihadi mindset is willing to make the ultimate “sacrifice” for a larger purpose, however monstrous. Its strategy is to compel Israel to precisely do that with the goal of inflaming the Arab street when images of fellow Palestinian Arabs being bombarded and killed are diffused on TV screens worldwide, intensifying international political humanitarian concerns about Israel’s visible disproportionate use of force and by imposing suffering on others denting its image of a country whose people have historically suffered enormously.

The Palestine cause has receded from the political landscape of the Arab world. Key Arab countries such as the UAE and Morocco have normalised relations with Israel, following the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia has been engaging with Israel discreetly for some years. The normalisation of Saudi Arabia-Israel ties seems to have been on the anvil under US auspices, which if it had materialised would have marginalised the Palestinian cause even further. This may explain the timing of the Hamas offensive, the goal being to derail this process and deny a major political victory to the US and the moderate Arab states that were distancing themselves from the Palestinian question.

It can be argued that the US possibly committed a strategic mistake in pushing the Abraham Accords in the belief that the Palestine question was no longer central to the politics of the Arab world, that it could be kept isolated from the political and economic dynamics especially in the Gulf countries in favour of economic growth, modernisation and religious moderation as survival strategies in a fast-changing global economic and technological developments. The US had got away by virtually abandoning the two-state solution in Palestine, ended all aid to the Palestine National Authority and did not deter Israel to expand its settlements in the West Bank and moved its Embassy to Jerusalem.

In hindsight, it would seem it would have made sense to promote a final reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world, especially as key Gulf countries were receptive to this goal, by finding some equitable solution in Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as is accepted by high-level political and other commentators in Israel, has been determined to prevent the emergence of any independent Palestinian state, to the point of backing Hamas against the Palestine National Authority on the West Bank to keep the Palestine movement divided. Israel politics itself is deeply split, with many extreme right wing elements determined to expand settlements in Israeli occupied West Bank, and indeed wanting to annex it. Netanyahu is dependent on these “messianic” elements in his coalition government, and, in the eyes of many in Israel, they are the ones who are responsible for creating a situation that has erupted today.

The situation in West Asia has entered a dangerous and unpredictable phase. Hezbollah has not entered the fray yet, but it could potentially if Iran is threatened. The US is fully backing Israel. Its decision to move its aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean is premised on deterring a wider conflict. The US seems also to be counselling Israel to avoid massive civilian casualties in Gaza, as that would turn the Arab street against the US too. Russia has adopted a balanced position, cautioning against civilian casualties and advocating a two state solution, a line broadly followed by China.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has now issued a statement reiterating its established position on Palestine, namely, supporting the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state existing alongside Israel, besides indirectly cautioning Israel to observe international humanitarian law, writes Kanwal Sibal.