The Platform

A photo released by the Israel Defense Forces shows Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip has largely destroyed whatever future the Palestinians were clinging to.

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has devasted the Gaza Strip, where casualties are estimated to be over 22,000, disproportionately affecting women and children. Approximately 58,000 injuries have been recorded, and rescue efforts continue for those believed to be trapped in collapsed buildings.

The Israeli military has sustained losses as well, with 172 soldiers reported killed and over 900 injured. Additionally, 506 military personnel, including service members and women, have lost their lives since the conflict’s inception.

Global reactions have been marked by concern and protests, particularly in response to the high number of Palestinian civilian casualties.

Recent weeks have seen an intensification of military actions by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), leading to considerable damage across Gaza and exacerbating the humanitarian situation for its 2.4 million residents. The United Nations estimates that 85% of Gaza’s population, nearly two million individuals, have been displaced. The onset of winter has increased the vulnerability of these displaced populations to hunger and disease.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), approximately 1.8 million people are seeking refuge in or near its facilities, many of which have suffered damage. The agency has reported 142 staff fatalities and structural damage to 128 of its locations.

The healthcare system in Gaza is under severe strain. The World Health Organization highlights the urgent need for vaccinations, as the dense living conditions, inadequate water supply, and poor sanitation in refugee encampments present high risks for disease outbreaks.

Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip. (Israel Defense Forces)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has affirmed Israel’s commitment to continue its military operations until the objectives of neutralizing Hamas and releasing hostages in Gaza are achieved. This strategy involves a sustained, low-intensity approach targeting Hamas strongholds, which may extend throughout the year.

On December 30, Netanyahu described the conflict as peaking and underscored the strategic necessity of securing Gaza’s border with Egypt. The densely populated border area, where civilians have sought refuge, could become a focal point for regaining Israeli control. This move could imply a reversal of the 2005 Gaza disengagement, prompting questions about Gaza’s future and the viability of a Palestinian state. The U.S. has expressed its position that Palestinian governance of Gaza should be restored post-conflict.

In the West Bank, Israeli military operations have continued. Since October 7, at least 321 Palestinians have reportedly been killed by the Israeli military or settlers, and over 2,550 have been arrested since the war’s onset. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights notes that Israeli strikes have targeted a Syrian army artillery unit, also impacting Hezbollah. Israel conducted 76 attacks on Syrian territory in 2023, with recent strikes on January 2.

Israel anticipates a protracted campaign, signaling a transition to more concentrated “mopping up” operations within Gaza. Conversely, Hamas’s capacity to strike Israel remains firmly in place as demonstrated by recent rocket fire towards Tel Aviv. The duration of the Israel-Hamas conflict may extend throughout 2024.

With U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s impending visit, Israel faces intensified global scrutiny to moderate its military actions. Blinken has advocated for heightened measures to safeguard Palestinian civilians.

Amidst the extensive casualties and devastation, South Africa has initiated proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), alleging severe violations by Israel. While Israel has repudiated these claims, South Africa has requested an urgent provisional ruling to halt Israeli military activities in Gaza. The implications of an adverse ICJ ruling could politically and economically isolate Israel.

CNN’s Bianca Nobilo notes the growing international demands on Israel to curtail its military engagement and the dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza. Despite this, Israel’s campaign against Hamas is set to persist, intensifying the risk of a broader Middle East conflict.

The U.S. has urged Israel to transition to less intensive operations and prioritize civilian safety. Following attacks from Syrian territory, Israel has responded with strikes in Lebanon targeting Hezbollah-affiliated sites. Israel warns of a potential broader conflict with Lebanon if Hezbollah escalates further. The backdrop of this tension is the support Hamas and Hezbollah receive from Iran, which, along with its regional allies, has engaged in extended-range hostilities against Israel.

The maritime confrontations have seen at least 17 attempted attacks by the Houthi rebels, allegedly targeting vessels associated with Israel or its allies. These incidents, mostly unsuccessful, have occurred in the strategic Red Sea waters, signaling support for Hamas from the Yemen-based group. In retaliation for a Houthi-initiated attack on a container ship, the U.S. military neutralized three insurgent boats on December 31, an act resulting in the death of ten fighters — a significant escalation in the ongoing crisis.

Tariq Kenney-Shawa comments in the Los Angeles Times on the broader implications of the October 7 attack by Hamas, suggesting that Israel’s response in Gaza may lead to widespread displacement and infrastructural devastation, potentially rendering the region uninhabitable.

The Biden administration has communicated warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, indicating a readiness to intervene should hostilities against Israel escalate. On November 5, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin affirmed the U.S. commitment to deterrence in the region, noting the strategic deployment of an Ohio-class nuclear missile submarine by U.S. Central Command.

Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip
Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip. (Israel Defense Forces)

Netanyahu has emphasized the existential threat posed by Hamas, with a policy of no ceasefire until the return of hostages. His stance is underpinned by a history of conflict with Hamas since 2007.

Meanwhile, the Hezbollah secretary-general has indicated that Israel’s engagement with Hamas could trigger broader regional involvement. Notably, on November 1, Gaza experienced disruptions in communications and internet services, coinciding with Israeli airstrikes and raising humanitarian concerns.

Global public sentiment has shown substantial support for the Palestinian cause, with widespread demonstrations. Criticism has been directed towards the U.S., perceived as supporting Israeli actions in Gaza. The discourse suggests fears of a forced displacement akin to the 1948 Nakba.

Regional tensions escalated on October 8, when Hezbollah claimed responsibility for attacks on Israeli sites in the contested Shebaa Farms area, recognized by Lebanon as occupied territory. The potential involvement of Iran in the conflict could further complicate the situation, potentially opening a new front in South Lebanon and solidifying the Iranian-Hamas-Hezbollah alliance, a development Israel and the U.S. are monitoring closely.

The prospect of Israel unilaterally dismantling Hamas appears remote, given the political landscape and the group’s significant support base in the Global South. The United States, reflecting on its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, exhibits caution in its Middle Eastern engagements. The lessons of asymmetrical warfare and the resurgence of nationalist movements inform contemporary U.S. foreign policy, which now prioritizes avoiding protracted conflicts against ideologically driven adversaries.

The resilience of Arab and Muslim nations is likely to play a significant role in future regional developments. An escalation of hostilities in Lebanon and Syria carries risks of broader regional destabilization, potentially affecting global powers including the U.S., Russia, and China. The latter two may enhance support to groups opposed to Israeli actions, leveraging their strategic interests.

The current U.S. focus on domestic challenges and the conflict in Ukraine suggests a desire for a swift resolution to the Gaza crisis. The U.S. shares a common interest with regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan in confining the conflict to Gaza, avoiding a broader conflagration.

The United States, given its leverage, is uniquely positioned to influence Israel’s campaign in Gaza. A full-scale invasion or occupation by Israel would have significant international ramifications, making a diplomatic push for a ceasefire a prudent course of action.

The conditions in Gaza, often described as severe by international observers, along with the escalation of violence in recent years, underscore the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Frequent Israeli military operations, described by Israel as necessary security measures, coincide with international concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Global opinion appears increasingly critical of the ongoing conflict. The United Nations General Assembly has advocated for a cessation of hostilities, reflecting a sentiment echoed by publics in the U.S. and UK. A hasty and ill-conceived military campaign in Gaza could have dire consequences, underscoring the need for strategic deliberation reminiscent of Clausewitz’s teachings on the nature of war.

The long-term defeat of Hamas, which functions not only as a militant organization but also as an ideology deeply ingrained in Gaza, raises questions about the feasibility and consequences. Should Hamas’s military capabilities be dismantled, the subsequent power vacuum and the potential for direct Israeli military administration in Gaza could further complicate the region’s already fragile state. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has acknowledged the need to consider “a variety of possible permutations” for Gaza’s future governance.

A significant factor to consider is the response of the Muslim world. The destruction wrought in Gaza may fuel anti-American sentiment, especially since public support for Hamas persists despite the official stance of many Muslim and Arab governments. The proliferation of global electronic and social media has amplified public sentiment, with the Global South increasingly vocal in its support for the Palestinian cause.

Israel’s potential for an escalated response brings to mind the U.S. post-9/11 actions, with the possibility of increasing volatility in the Middle East. Such an outcome could inadvertently contribute to a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, an eventuality that international stakeholders aim to avoid. President Biden has suggested a two-state solution as a long-term goal, but achieving this depends on a swift ceasefire and cessation of hostilities—a challenging prospect given the current momentum of the conflict.

The Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts to stem the war’s expansion, including Secretary Blinken’s impending visit to the region and discussions with Saudi Arabia and other allies, are critical. However, the perceived pro-Israel bias of U.S. policy may hinder the U.S.’s ability to mediate effectively, compromising its credibility in the region and among the Global South.

The conflict’s expansion to include Yemen and Lebanon signifies a regional escalation. Hamas has garnered support from Iran, Pakistan, Türkiye, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Qatar, with Russia and China also expressing support. While many Arab governments maintain official neutrality, popular sentiment within these countries, fueled by perceived injustices and the sensitive issue of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, leans towards support for Hamas.

Moving forward, the outcome remains uncertain. Western nations have largely supported Israel, while global appeals for moderation continue. The U.S. may increase its military support to Israel, not for combat operations but to provide advisory and support roles. As tensions mount, Hezbollah’s involvement could signify a broader regional conflict.

In the long term, the exhaustion of warring parties might provide an impetus for a renewed push toward establishing a Palestinian state, a complex endeavor requiring consensus, commitment, and considerable diplomatic navigation.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is predicated on achieving strategic objectives, and any cessation of hostilities is expected to follow these accomplishments. The U.S. approach appears to prioritize containment over immediate cessation, aligning with statements from Israeli leadership predicting a protracted conflict. Despite international disapproval, a ceasefire may be contingent upon the fulfillment of Israel’s aims, including the release of prisoners on both sides, with mediation likely by Qatar, Egypt, and Türkiye.

The future of Hamas, post-conflict, is uncertain. While a peace agreement may emerge from a position of depletion rather than strength, the likelihood of long-term stability remains questionable, with the potential for future conflict.
The historical context remains crucial: from 1948 to the present, the issue of Palestinians being displaced from their homes has been contentious. Recent directives for Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate are reminiscent of the 1948 Nakba, which saw a mass exodus of Palestinians.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has faced criticism for not adequately representing the Muslim world’s stance on the Gaza situation, revealing a potential divide between public sentiment and governmental action. While the OIC could lobby for increased humanitarian assistance in Gaza, leadership crises within the Muslim world could impede such efforts.

The post-war governance of Gaza is under debate. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has suggested a strengthened Palestinian Authority could assume governance and security responsibilities, a proposal met with mixed reactions. Alternative arrangements could involve a multinational force to maintain order during a transitional period, similar to the Multinational Force and Observers in Egypt.

The U.S. maintains interest in a two-state solution, though its strategy appears to include the weakening of Hamas. The U.S. and Israel share common goals but may diverge on the means to achieve them, particularly concerning the potential risks of broader regional conflict.

Resolutions 242 and 338 of the United Nations Security Council outline a two-state solution as a path to peace. However, current U.S. policy, seen as favoring Israel, may impact its standing in the region and the potential for a fair resolution to the conflict.

Ultimately, the escalation of the Gaza conflict, if unchecked, could have severe implications for the region and the world. Transparency in media coverage and international calls for peace emphasize the urgency of a diplomatic resolution. For enduring peace, a balanced approach, recognizing both Palestinian aspirations and regional stability, is paramount. The realization of a sovereign Palestinian state remains a key element in long-term regional peace, a sentiment echoed by voices within the Global South and the international community.

Despite these complex dynamics, military operations in Gaza continue.

Notwithstanding the claims of the Biden administration, it is not serious about regional peace and is focused only on containing the conflict in Gaza. Israel opposes any permanent solution to the Palestinian conflict. Also, the Biden administration is not at all pushing for a two-state solution to the conflict. Nevertheless, global public opinion might yet force the two countries to advance the two-state solution as it is the only path for permanent peace in the volatile Middle East region. Nothing else will do.

Sohail Mahmood is an independent political analyst focused on global politics, U.S. foreign policy, governance, and the politics of South and West Asia.