Don’t Sacrifice a New Middle East for a New Gaza
Israel is in a very black-and-white moment. The October 7 attacks have left Israelis and their government reeling, and there is debate about how to balance military aims to destroy Hamas against the fate of the hostages, or whether a ground operation is wise or plays into a Hamas trap. But Israelis are unified in their view that Hamas is an unadulterated evil that cannot be left to reign in Gaza, and the shocking brutality of Hamas’ behavior in southern Israel has created a clear moral picture about Israel’s actions in response and an ironclad conviction that Hamas is equivalent to ISIS.
This view is justified, and Israelis do not understand how or why anyone might see things differently. Yet as Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza continues, resulting in more Palestinian casualties and huge numbers of internally displaced residents of northern Gaza who are facing years of living in temporary encampments elsewhere in the territory, the rest of the region indeed sees things differently. What is emerging is not the normal lip service to the Palestinian cause, but genuine anger at Israel’s conviction that Hamas must be viewed in complete isolation from Israeli policies toward Palestinians, and the related conviction that the threat posed by Hamas makes any and all measures targeting the group justified irrespective of the impact on Palestinians in Gaza.
This heightened level of anger is being reflected on a number of fronts. While there is no love for Hamas in Sunni capitals—and there is a willingness to acknowledge and condemn what Hamas did—Arab leaders quite obviously perceive a double standard at play, voiced by Jordan’s King Abdullah as manifesting in Arab lives being worth far less than Israeli ones. Harsh messaging that goes beyond the rote statements condemning Israel can be seen everywhere, from the refusal of King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to meet with President Joe Biden during his quick trip to the region, to the unusual interview of Jordan’s Queen Rania on CNN where she made clear her resentment at demands to condemn Hamas without demands to also condemn Israeli occupation, to increasingly harsh Saudi statements about Israeli actions.
Whether these public displays reflect deeply felt sentiments or not is beside the point; they are in response to a firestorm among Arab publics that is influencing how Arab leaders react. Israel tends to view things as binary, whether it be how states should deal with Iran or what the reaction must be to Hamas’ attack, while the rest of the region tends to view things as more ambiguous. In this case, that is reflected in the reactions—other than the extreme and inflammatory ones from Iran, Turkey, and Qatar—that do not justify Hamas’ brutality but that call for putting them into context. This gap will have implications going forward for Gaza and for regional normalization, and Israeli leaders will soon have to decide if it is worth making certain tradeoffs in order to foster a regional order that is beneficial to Israel.
Any solution for post-war Gaza is going to require the help of regional actors. Whether it means assisting in the reconstruction process, lending personnel and expertise to an interim security force, or setting up a provisional government, Israel will want to turn to Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others. The worst scenario would be one in which Israel’s image is so toxic, in a throwback to the situation from decades ago, that states do not want to be seen as abetting anything that Israel wants to do. As it is, it will be a heavy diplomatic lift to convince states—other than Egypt—that have little historical connection to Gaza and that have been reluctant to get too close to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to enmesh themselves in the Gaza conundrum. Trying to do so in an environment where there is a nearly universal perception in the region that Israel broke Gaza without any regard for the wider Palestinian population may end up being impossible. That on its own should give Israel pause to think about reassessing its wider strategy.
This impacts the question of normalization as well. The Abraham Accords marked the end of Arab states allowing Palestinian interests to override their own interests in establishing relations with Israel, but it did not render the Palestinian issue irrelevant. Israel’s response in Gaza to Hamas’ attack risks restoring the old paradigm, in which adherence to the Palestinian cause becomes so strong that it sets normalization back decades. My own conversations with Arab friends and colleagues around the region have almost all pointed to the conclusion that emotions surrounding the Palestinian issue are higher than they have been in recent memory, dwarfing what transpired in May 2021 and all rounds of fighting in Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2007. The assumption that once the fighting is over, regional interests will return to where they were before October 7 and the momentum toward Israel-Saudi normalization will again assume an air of inevitability may be badly mistaken. In effect, Israel may be sacrificing its vision of a new Middle East for a different vision of a new Gaza.
If Israel is going to mitigate this, it can shift course in a couple of important ways. One is to stop assuming, and even insisting, on a formulation that makes sense to Israelis, and to many Americans, but that does not ring true in the Middle East, which is arguing that Hamas’ atrocities make any discussion of it and the response to it akin to discussing Nazis or the Holocaust. The implication is that anything that Israel does to protect itself and prevent Hamas from committing such crimes against humanity in the future is beyond reproach, whereas most of the region vehemently disagrees.
This is not to suggest that Israel does not objectively have the moral high ground here, as I firmly believe that it does. But repeating that Hamas is the same as ISIS is not convincing anyone who does not think that civilians in Gaza are responsible for Hamas’ crimes. Even a simple shift in rhetoric that takes Hamas to task in the most strident possible manner without implying that any conceivable Israeli response is justified, irrespective of how many Palestinians get caught in the crossfire, will help Israel out in the long term. Israel may be right, but it also has to think about being smart, and while the former is more satisfying, the latter is the one that will ultimately matter more.
Second, Israel needs to rethink its approach to humanitarian assistance, and it must do so immediately. If Israel is going to take a salt-the-earth approach to Hamas, it has to be just as vigorous in its approach to mitigating the idea of a double standard regarding Palestinian lives. That does not mean measuring Israeli death for Palestinian death, as if the numbers must be equal or else Israel’s response is automatically disproportional. But it does mean taking extra care to ensure that the non-Hamas population of Gaza does not suffer, even knowing ahead of time that Hamas will benefit in some immeasurable way.
If Israel is going to launch a ground operation, or even confine itself to months of airstrikes, in order to hit Hamas anywhere and everywhere, then the issue of Hamas fighters seizing some of the food or water that goes into Gaza is a concern but not a major issue. On the other hand, attempting to gain support for the fight against Hamas without setting Israel back decades diplomatically is going to become increasingly untenable, if not impossible, the more scenes there are of Palestinians in Gaza slowly dying due to lack of potable water, inadequate stores of medicine, and quickly dwindling supplies of food.
The fact that Hamas itself is not lacking for those things is simply not going to convince people who see dead Palestinians that they should blame Hamas rather than Israel, following weeks of Israeli saber-rattling about cutting off all humanitarian supplies to Gaza and placing a variety of roadblocks into assistance going in through Egypt. Again, this is not an argument about whether Israel is right, but about whether Israel is being smart. And the smart move now would be to allow massive amounts of aid in through Rafah, resupply as much water as possible to southern Gaza, and do what can be done to prepare now for the refugee encampments that will have to be built for those who heeded Israel’s exhortations to leave Gaza City, and quietly grit your teeth rather than threaten to bomb aid supplies if there is any evidence that Hamas is diverting them. The military effort and the humanitarian effort need to work in concert, and while Israel thinks that squeezing on the humanitarian side is making the military side easier, it is actually the opposite.
To many of us, the aftermath of October 7 presents a clear choice, both morally and strategically. But many in the Middle East see things differently. It does not mean that the alternate view needs to be legitimated, but it needs to be accommodated if Israel is to achieve its goals. Even more importantly, it needs to be accommodated if Israel is to retain a chance of shaping the post-Hamas environment to its advantage and to its liking.
This article was originally posted in the Israel Policy Forum.