The Multifaceted Roots of the Israel-Gaza Eruption
In the sandy landscapes of the Middle East, where ancient civilizations rose and fell, the modern conflict between Israel and Palestine remains one of the most enduring and contentious. The recent flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is but the latest chapter in a long saga of tension, mistrust, and cyclical violence. To the casual observer, the reasons might seem straightforward, often distilled into soundbites of territorial disputes or religious fervor. However, like the intricate mosaics that adorn the region's historic sites, the true picture is composed of myriad pieces, each contributing to the overall pattern.
Religious undercurrents undeniably play a role, especially with Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif standing as a potent symbol for both Jews and Muslims. Yet, it is crucial to remember that the aspirations of a minority, such as the rebuilding of the Third Temple, do not define the entire religious or political landscape. Simultaneously, the dire economic situation in Gaza, marked by unemployment and a crippling blockade, heightens the desperation and stokes the flames of unrest.
But to stop there would be an oversimplification. The broader geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East, with its rivalries and alliances, deeply influences the dynamics on the ground. Iran's strategic backing of groups like Hamas is a counter-move against both Israeli and U.S. influence. Speaking of the U.S., its role as a mediator has historically been significant, though it oscillates based on the prevailing winds of American politics. The recent Abraham Accords, for instance, have reshaped regional dynamics in ways we are still coming to grasp.
The history of the Middle East, with its intricate blend of religious fervor, territorial aspirations, and geopolitical interests, provides a nuanced backdrop to the present-day conflict involving Israel and various Palestinian factions. At the heart of this protracted struggle is the State of Israel, established in 1948 following the United Nations' partition plan. From its very inception, Israel found itself embroiled in multiple wars and skirmishes with its neighboring Arab countries. Over time, and particularly after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel extended its territorial control, encompassing areas like the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which subsequently became focal points of contention.
Within these territories, different Palestinian groups staked their claims, leading to a complex political and military landscape. For instance, the Gaza Strip witnessed the rise of Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian resistance movement born out of the First Intifada in 1987. With its foundational principle rooted in opposing the State of Israel, Hamas aspired to carve out an Islamic state in historic Palestine. A significant shift in the power dynamics occurred in 2006 when Hamas, after securing a victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, asserted its control over Gaza, sidelining Fatah and setting the stage for multiple confrontations with Israel.
While Gaza saw the consolidation of Hamas's power, the West Bank became the domain of Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Fatah, which emerged in the 1960s, championed the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle. However, the Oslo Accords in the 1990s marked a transformative phase for Fatah. This series of agreements, which initiated a peace process between Israel and the PLO, led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), granting it administrative autonomy over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet, the relationship between Fatah and Hamas remained fraught, epitomized by their political schism and divergent approaches to governance.
Map: Key Hamas Leadership Nodes, [source]
Parallel to these developments, Southern Lebanon saw the emergence of Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist organization with strong ties to Iran. Born in response to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah transitioned from a resistance movement to a formidable political and military entity within Lebanon. Its confrontations with Israel, especially the 2006 Lebanon War, and alliances with regional players like Iran and Syria, added another layer to the already convoluted regional dynamics.
The recent Abraham Accords, brokered in 2020, introduced yet another dimension to the Middle East's geopolitical tapestry. By normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab nations, these accords bypassed the traditionally held notion that peace with Israel hinged on resolving the Palestinian issue. Instead, they mirrored a broader regional realignment, underscoring shared apprehensions about Iran's growing influence.
The Ongoing Escalation
In October 2023, a significant escalation occurred in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Palestinian militant factions, spearheaded by Hamas, initiated a large-scale offensive against Israel from the Gaza Strip, marking the first direct confrontation within Israel's borders since the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Termed "Operation al-Aqsa Storm" by Hamas, the conflict commenced with rocket launches against Israel and on-ground incursions. Israel formally declared war in response, a move it hadn't taken since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and initiated its counter-operation named "Iron Swords."
This escalation had been brewing for months, with prior confrontations in locations like Jenin and the Al-Aqsa mosque resulting in significant casualties on both sides. Hamas linked their aggressive stance to these events, and leaders like Mohammed Deif called for the expulsion of Israeli "occupiers." Mahmoud Abbas, from the Palestinian Authority, endorsed the Gaza actions, emphasizing Palestinian rights against Israeli occupation. Meanwhile, in Israel, calls for a national unity government arose to address the threat.
The conflict saw intense rocket fire from Gaza, resulting in significant Israeli casualties. Israel retaliated by targeting key sites in Gaza, leading to considerable Palestinian fatalities. Reports surfaced of Israelis being held hostage by Palestinian militants, with violence against civilians on both sides. Iran's backing of the Palestinian offensive was acknowledged by a Hamas spokesperson, highlighting the regional implications of the conflict. Global reactions varied: Western nations predominantly condemned Hamas, citing terrorist tactics, while some Muslim-majority nations pointed to Israeli occupation as the conflict's root. Calls for de-escalation were widespread, and by October 8, skirmishes between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israeli forces were reported.
Israeli Intelligence Failure?
Long renowned as one of the world's most formidable intelligence networks, Israel's array of agencies span Mossad, focused on foreign intelligence and covert operations; Shin Bet, the internal security service responsible for counter-terrorism and counter-espionage; Aman, the Military Intelligence Directorate that serves as the backbone of intelligence within the Israel Defense Forces; and Lahav 433, commonly dubbed the "Israeli FBI," dedicated to tackling high-profile crimes, fraud, and corruption, together with their prowess "Iron Dome". Therefore, the recent intelligence failure concerning Gaza attacks, comparable in scale to the Yom Kippur War, raises pertinent questions.
This lapse, as discussed in a Haaretz editorial, has been attributed in part to the shifting focus of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His election victory has seen a marked transition from caution to aggression in his policy decisions, ranging from annexation attempts to the sidelining of Palestinian rights and a controversial overhaul of the judicial system.
The proposed judicial reforms aim to consolidate government influence over the Judicial Selection Committee, circumscribe the Supreme Court's ability to rule on the validity of Basic Laws, and reclassify ministry legal advisers as political appointees whose counsel is not binding—potentially as a maneuver to counter the leader's own corruption charges. This has sparked widespread protests in Israel since January 7, 2023.
Simultaneously, Netanyahu's perceived diversion of intelligence focus away from Gaza may be motivated by multiple factors. Among them is the emerging regional landscape—brokered in part by Saudi Arabia and the United States—that seems to promise a normalization of Middle Eastern geopolitics, as well as burgeoning economic ties between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. These developments have been driven in part by the economic hardships faced by Gaza, evident in the thousands of Palestinians who cross into Israeli territory for work on a daily basis.
However, this could be a smokescreen. Reports indicate that Egyptian authorities had issued warnings to Israeli intelligence about impending major events, warnings that were ostensibly ignored by the Israeli side. The failure to heed such cautionary advisories adds another layer of complexity to an already intricate intelligence quandary.
The Astute Geopolitical Calculus
Geopolitically, Israel grapples with a complex and vulnerable landscape. Its limited strategic depth leaves it susceptible to multi-front attacks, a reality starkly demonstrated during the Yom Kippur War, which involved military confrontations with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. While Israel did regain some lost territories—such as parts of Sinai and southern Lebanon—it made calculated withdrawals to mitigate the risks of domestic terrorism, as exemplified by the rise of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Despite these complexities, Israel has steadfastly maintained its control over the Golan Heights for a myriad of intertwined reasons. The area offers Israel a strategic vantage point overlooking Syria, where military aggression has been a historic concern. Prior to Israel's control of the Heights in 1967, Syrian forces used the area to shell Israeli communities below, making its occupation essential for national security. Equally significant is the region's role as a water resource; the headwaters of the Jordan River are in the Golan Heights, providing a substantial portion of Israel's freshwater supply.
Security considerations are further complicated by the ongoing Syrian civil war and the presence of various militant groups in the region. The idea of relinquishing control over the Golan Heights poses a security dilemma, as doing so could potentially empower hostile entities. Adding another layer to this intricate issue are the Israeli settlements built over the years, which have become home to thousands of Israeli citizens. Their existence makes the notion of territorial concessions even more contentious.
Moreover, attempts to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights have been futile, as peace talks have repeatedly stalled, leaving a protracted state of hostility between Israel and Syria. Legally, Israel staked its claim by enacting the Golan Heights Law in 1981, effectively annexing the territory. Although this move lacks international recognition, Israel considers the Golan Heights integral to its sovereign lands. This stance is further entrenched by the shifting alliances and conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Syrian civil war, making the geopolitics surrounding the Golan Heights increasingly complex.
This positions Israel in a reliance on its superpower patrons, initially the Soviet Union and subsequently the United States. In the U.S., the symbiotic relationship is further buttressed by the significant influence of evangelical churches, which harbor strong religious affiliations with Israel. This demographic constituted a vital part of former President Trump's support base. Additionally, the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups cannot be underestimated. As articulated in Professor John Mearsheimer's seminal work, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," these groups wield considerable power in shaping American foreign policy decisions concerning Israel.
The Regional Dynamics
The establishment of Israel atop historic Palestine introduces a complex matrix of religious intersections involving Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This complexity is magnified exponentially by both regional and global geopolitical dynamics. In the Middle East, Israel is flanked by several key players, each with its own geopolitical gravitas. To the north, Turkey casts a long historical shadow, having once governed the region under the Ottoman Empire. Saudi Arabia serves as a formidable leader among Gulf states and the spiritual epicenter of Sunni Islam. Egypt remains a former regional powerhouse, while Iran's Shiite network supports various Shiite resistance movements, forming what's often referred to as the Shia Crescent, which spans Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran has even extended support to Hamas, despite its Sunni orientation, due to its pragmatic stance.
Amid shifting sands, the United States is reducing its Middle Eastern dependencies, thanks to burgeoning shale gas and oil capabilities, and increasingly focusing on Asia to counterbalance China's rise. This leaves regional powers to recalibrate their stances, with Saudi Arabia making cautious overtures towards Israel for several interconnected reasons.
One key factor in this recalibration is Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, the ambitious economic blueprint helmed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Take, for instance, the planned NEOM City near the Red Sea, which serves as a cornerstone of this vision. The city's proximity to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt necessitates a stable and cooperative regional environment to attract investors and international businesses.
Economic diversification, another pillar of Vision 2030, would benefit from closer ties with technologically advanced countries like Israel. In a region increasingly left to balance its own security concerns, Saudi Arabia and Israel have found common ground, particularly concerning Iran, as evidenced by numerous reports of covert meetings.
Certainly, the shift in U.S. geopolitical strategy towards Asia is evident in the reallocation of budgetary resources, favoring the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) over both the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) and the United States European Command (USEUCOM). However, when viewed within a broader context, it's clear that the U.S. is concentrating its substantial military capabilities on Eurasia, often referred to as the "global island."
From the map, Areas A and H/H' fall under the jurisdiction of USINDOPACOM, which, along with the newly-formed QUAD, the reverse triangle, is tasked with addressing the rise of China and various flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific region. In Area D, USCENTCOM concentrates on the Middle East, with overlapping responsibilities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia serves as the fulcrum of this region. Meanwhile, in Areas B, C, and F, USEUCOM is responsible for theaters in Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe, including Russia. Logically, achieving a complete "encirclement" of China would necessitate some form of engagement to "flip" Russia in a strategic sense.
Furthermore, the prospect of normalization could enhance Saudi Arabia's international standing, facilitating the inflow of foreign investment and tourism essential for Vision 2030. Finally, religious tourism, vital for both Israel and Saudi Arabia, could receive a boost. Improved relations could open the door for Muslim pilgrims from Saudi Arabia to visit Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque while ensuring a continuous flow of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites.
Thus, the evolving geopolitical panorama is coaxing ancient rivals into recalibrating long-standing animosities, each lured by the potential benefits of tentative alliances.