When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in great battalions.
Hamlet (1599), by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The Risk Of Escalation
All this week Israel has been assembling forces for a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip – a quasi-statelet controlled by a faction which carried out atrocities in southern Israel on 07 October. These atrocities left an estimated 1,400 Israeli citizens dead and 200 people kidnapped. A total of 360,000 Israeli reservists have been called up to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and are now ready to fight.
What is going on in Israel-Gaza dominates the airwaves and the newspapers but why it is happening is a matter of debate. It is not my task here to advance a view on the long-lasting Israel-Palestine dispute, which goes back to the foundation of the state of Israel in May 1948, if not before. What I do want to do is to evaluate the downside risks arising from this conflict.
I will, however, state my view up-front that Israel has the right to defend herself within the constraints of international law. Israel’s war aim will to be to eliminate Hamas as an organisation entirely so that it cannot strike so lethally again. But that assumes that it is possible to determine who in Gaza is a member of Hamas and who is not. Many commentators, Jewish and otherwise, doubt if it is possible to eradicate Hamas. Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas before, as Israelis know. Jonathan Friedland, the Guardian journalist, himself Jewish, describes the mood in Israel as “bleak and despondent”.
The suffering of ordinary people in Gaza, population 2.3 million, is already extreme. In this poverty-stricken territory, they are living without running water or power, and in many cases without food. On Tuesday, Médecins sans Frontières described the situation in Gaza as “catastrophic”.
Even before the contested event of Tuesday evening which resulted in loss of life (figures vary from dozens to hundreds – there is a propaganda war), Canon Richard Sewell, who is Dean of Anglican St. George’s College, Jerusalem, asserted that on Saturday (14 October), the Ahli Arab Anglican Hospital in Gaza City was hit by an Israeli missile. Four members of staff were injured that day. This was barely reported. All hospitals in northern Gaza have been told they must evacuate – yet many patients are too frail to be moved. Canon Sewell says that for 15 years Gazans have been living in “an open prison”. He writes: “Gaza, for me, has been an incubator for hate and violence and, finally, it has exploded. I do not justify that, but it has not come out of nowhere”.
This is why this conflict is so divisive and arouses such passions on both sides – and why this could become a geopolitical fault line. The USA has already sent two aircraft carriers – with the attendant flotillas of supply vessels – to the Eastern Mediterranean. As well as a 2,000-strong rapid response force of marines. Britain is deploying spy planes. Russia has a naval base at Tartus on the Syrian coast, only a few hundred kilometres north of Israel.
The fear is that Iran, which has cultivated and supplied both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, could be poised to launch an attack on Israel, whose very right to exist it disputes. (Officially, Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shiite Muslim political party and militia which is allied with Iran. Most western countries regard it as a terrorist organisation).
Russia’s war in Ukraine rumbles on – and may be entering a critical phase; and yet it has been knocked out off the front pages. This week, Ukrainian forces fired US-supplied Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) for the first time – reportedly, with devastating effect, even though the weapons provided were a legacy version. President Putin, in Beijing, ominously told an audience that President Biden would be welcome in the Kremlin anytime for “tea and blinis”.
On Wednesday (18 October), President Biden arrived in Tel Aviv to demonstrate America’s unwavering support for Israel. For a sitting US president to visit a war zone at short notice is highly unusual. This prompted some commentators to speculate that something was up that we (non-diplomats) don’t know about. As he arrived, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “the bombardment of Gaza must stop immediately”.
The price of Brent crude oil has been hovering around $90 per barrel this week, a level it attained on Friday, 13 October. The oil price has firmed as much because of production cuts as because of increased political risk. US equities have remained firm. This suggests that the markets regard an all-out escalation of the conflict as a tail risk. Although, as we know, the markets can call things wrongly.
There are three main escalation scenarios.
First, Tehran might persuade its extremist client Hezbollah to open a second front against Israel in the north. Hezbollah fired missiles from Lebanese territory into Israel on Sunday and again on Tuesday. Israel has declared its northern border area with Lebanon a closed military zone. If there is an incursion into Israel, that would prompt an Israeli response.
Second, if it could be proven that Iran connived in Hamas’s brutal attack on Israeli civilians, then Israel might decide that the best form of defence is to attack. Thus far, we are told, the western intelligence establishment has not found any evidence of Iranian involvement in the 7 October massacres. That said, it is inevitable that Tehran will seek to exploit the crisis for its own ends.
Third, another possible flashpoint is the West Bank. About 500,000 Jewish “settlers” live in nearly 150 settlements across the West Bank, alongside 2.5 million Palestinians. Since the Hamas massacre of 7 October, at least 55 Palestinians have been killed and over 1,100 wounded in attacks by Jewish settlers and operations by the IDF. The IDF said on Sunday that it had arrested 330 people in raids across the West Bank as attacks against Israeli “settlers” have escalated.
Importantly, Iran has already succeeded in one of its diplomatic objectives. Namely: to sabotage the process of détente between Israel and numerous Arab nations – Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan – which began with the Abraham Accords, facilitated by Donald Trump in September 2020. A deal that might have been signed before the end of this year between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would have been another major step towards a lasting peace – but that is not going to happen now. That means that Iran has diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, further to a deal brokered by China earlier this year, but Israel has diplomatic relations with neither.
Any direct clash with Iran, whether by Israeli or US forces or both, would have dramatic consequences given that Iran is tightly allied with Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China. Israel almost certainly has the capability to lob missiles on Tehran: but that would risk retaliation. Iran would unleash Hezbollah, which Israel last engaged directly in 2006. Since then, Hezbollah has learnt from its participation in the Syrian civil war (in support of Bashar Al-Assad, of course) and it has acquired new weapons from Tehran.
The USA will probably wish to tighten the embargo on Iranian oil exports still further. Since the Biden administration took office, Iranian oil exports have risen by an estimated one million barrels per day. If that were blocked, the slack could be taken up by additional Saudi production – if the Kingdom were so inclined. That is one of the imponderables. Under Biden’s leadership Saudi Arabia has signed up for the BRICs and is much less biddable than in days gone by.
“Too Much History And Too Little Geography”
The view that we are living through a “clash of civilizations” fuelled by religious fundamentalism has taken root in recent years. But that is not a nuanced view. It assumes that there are two monolithic entities – “the West” and the Muslim world – which have irreconcilable perspectives and values. The latter has declared war on the former, we are told. This is an extremely unhelpful framework of analysis, in my view. The (almost) post-Christian West encompasses a huge variety of beliefs, attitudes and life-styles – and so does the Muslim world.
The Muslim scholar, Reza Aslan, is author of No God but God, a history of Islam. Born in Iran, Dr Aslan has lived most of his life in the United States. Dr Aslan is currently a professor at the University of California, Riverside in the department of religion.
He makes the point that the term “fundamentalism” was first formulated to describe certain American evangelical Christian sects who believed that the Bible should be read and understood literally. Such beliefs arose in the latter part of the 19th Century as a reaction to the advance of the scientific way of thinking about the world, in particular the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a way of explaining how mankind emerged from the primeval murk over untold millions of years. Similarly, modern Islamic fundamentalism can best be understood as a reaction to the progressive, rationalist modern world.
All Muslims read the Koran literally, believing it to be the word of God; but some Muslims have embraced the modern world of scientific rationalism and have reconciled their faith with modernity. It is these people, says Dr Aslan, who are the principal target of Muslim fundamentalists, not non-Muslims whom the fundamentalists consider apostates.
Unlike Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, Islam has never had a centralised religious authority. There is no Muslim Pope who speaks for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims and never has been. And in a religion that has no spokesperson it is inevitable that the people with the loudest voices are heard most readily. Osama bin Laden was never the voice of Islam even if his version of the faith has been adopted by extremist Muslim groups from the Taliban to Islamic State. Bin Laden never had the religious authority to issue a fatwah because he was not a cleric – and, says Dr Aslan, all Muslims know that.
Because the fundamentalists have caught the west’s attention through a campaign of terrorism and extremism which dates from the early 1980s, we have not noticed that Islam is quietly making a peaceful reconciliation with modernity in many countries. Most Muslims actually live outside the Arab world – which accounts for only about one tenth of all Muslims. The most populous Muslim-majority country is Indonesia. There is far more going on the Muslim world than what we see on our TV screens and read in our newspapers.
It is unfortunate that one Arab version of Islam, in particular Wahhabism which originated in Saudi Arabia, has been exported to non-Arab Muslim communities in western countries through patronage – for example the endowment of mosques. That explains the presence of people on British streets brazenly celebrating the murder of innocent Israelis. This has been a depressing sight over the last ten days.
Concerning Hamas, which the British government together with many others classifies as a terrorist organisation – as does King Charles – though the BBC refuses to use that term apparently for fear of losing its reputation for impartiality (instead, it refers to “Hamas militants”), it is worth getting a Muslim perspective. On BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme last weekend (15 October) veteran BBC journalist Edward Stourton spoke with Haras Rafiq, a counter-terrorism expert who is a practicing Muslim. Mr Rafiq is research fellow of the Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and has advised numerous UK ministers on Islamist extremism.
Difficult as it is to believe, Hamas regards itself as a religious organisation. It was founded in 1987 at the beginning of the first Intifada – the uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation. The word Hamas expresses the acronym in Arab of the words Islamic Resistance. They made it clear in their founding document that they are the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, if you want to understand what Hamas is, you need to understand the ideology and theology of the Muslim Brotherhood. This was established in Egypt in the 1920s and was originally a resistance movement against the British-backed Egyptian monarchy. It was the first organisation to describe itself as “Islamist”.
Mr Rafiq emphasises that there is a clear and distinct difference between Islam and Islamism. Islam is a religion and wisdom tradition. Islamism is a political ideology which aspires to three things. First, it wants to bring about a state governed by the principles of Islamic jurisprudence as expounded by Sharia law. Second, they want to spread that state across the world – so Islamism is inherently expansionist. Third, Islamists want to wipe the state of Israel off the map. They are inherently antisemitic and, amongst other things, blame the downfall of the numerous Islamic states throughout the ages on the Jews.
In Gaza Hamas have set up schools and shelters, partly for altruistic stroke religious reasons, but partly also, says Mr Rafiq, because they want to recruit people to their cause. They believe that anybody who is not a supporter of their cause – and not just Jews but also other Muslims – may be righteously killed. God will reward them for theses righteous killings, they tell themselves. They have even assassinated members of the Palestinian faction which holds sway in the West Bank, Fatah.
Some of the 1,200 Israeli citizens who were massacred on the morning of Saturday, 07 October in what is being called Israel’s Nine Eleven, were Muslims – and Hamas does not care. Many people who claim to support Hamas – and at least 50 percent of the Gaza population very probably do not – may be doing so not out of conviction but out of fear of reprisals. Hamas does not represent the Palestinians; it does not even represent the people of Gaza.
For Muslims like Mr Rafiq, Islamist groupings such as Hamas have corrupted and besmirched the great faith of Islam. The Muslim greeting “Salaam” – like the Jewish greeting “Shalom” – means “Peace be upon you”.
For Jews in Israel and beyond, the horrific events of 07 October have evoked memories not just of the Holocaust but of centuries of pogroms, not least those in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th Century from which so many Jews fled to Western Europe and America. That is the memory of children being murdered in front of their parents and parents being murdered in front of their children. The desire for security is the fundamental idea underpinning the state of Israel – a state where Jews can be safe.
One of the fault lines in recent Israeli politics has been that between religious and secular Jews. The events of the last week have been a unifying force, as evidenced by the rapid formation of a national government with participation from across the political spectrum. Ironically, the kibbutzim of the Negev Desert are populated by the most left-leaning, anti-Netanyahu Jewish voters with a reputation for pacifism – and these were the people that the government in Tel Aviv failed to protect.
On that dreadful day, Israel’s much vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile shield, the formidable barbed-wire border fence with its infrared cameras and heat sensors, and even the underground sensors which detect tunnelling, did not forestall the hundreds of Hamas killers. They breached the border fence at 29 locations riding motorbikes, armed with daggers and Kalashnikovs. Video footage of the Supernova music festival confirms that at least three killers arrived by paraglider. It is little consolation for Israelis that most of those terrorists never made it back to Gaza.
Fingers are now pointing towards Bejamin Netanyahu. The Times of Israel wrote last week:
“For years, the various governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu took an approach that divided power between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – bringing Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to his knees while making moves that propped up the Hamas terror group…The idea was to prevent Abbas – or anyone else in the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank government – from advancing toward the establishment of a Palestinian state”.
Even Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and IDF commander, who served with Mr Netanyahu in a commando unit in the late 1960s, has described the 07 October attack as “the greatest failure in Israeli history”.
On Tuesday, the Israeli government announced that it would postpone the ground invasion of Gaza until after the conclusion of President Biden’s visit. Any such invasion could turn out to be bloody and protracted. Urban guerilla warfare is a form of conflict which can go wrong even for armies with overwhelming military superiority. The world will watch while wringing its hands.
Last Friday, Zhai Jun, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, met representatives from the 22-member Arab League in Beijing. The next day, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, saying that Israel’s actions have extended beyond self-defence. Yi said that “The crux of the issue lies in the fact that justice has not been done to the Palestinian people.” That view is broadly shared by Russia.
Eventually, there will have to be a change of tack by the Israeli government – very probably involving the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu – and a return to the goal of some form of the two states solution. Israel has a very limited window of opportunity to slay the implacable beast that has savaged it.
Joe Biden’s visit to Israel was a gamble. His planned meetings with President Al-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan were cancelled in mid-flight in response to the tragedy at the Ahli Al-Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday evening. (Who was responsible? The evidence points in the direction of a dodgy missile launched from nearby by another extremist group – Islamic Jihad). At least he came away with a promise by Israel to resume shipments of medical supplies and water into Gaza. The Rafah (Egypt) border crossing into Gaza is to reopen this morning. Last night, President Biden addressed Americans from the Oval Office, pledging $74 billion in aid for Israel – and for Ukraine.
The Arab world has little confidence in the president’s ability to act as honest broker. If President Biden’s Israeli hosts ignore his advice not to occupy Gaza, and if, thereafter, Iran does enter the conflict, then the chances of Donald Trump displacing him in the presidential election next year become more likely. Trump opposes the two states solution.
I have always told my friends I will visit the Holy Land at last when it is at peace. One can but hope.