Escalation: Danger Everywhere in the Middle East


For instance, Iran gave unrestrained support to Hamas’s attack. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said in a statement: “This victorious operation will certainly expedite the collapse of the Zionist regime and promises its imminent annihilation,” the semi-official news agency Fars reported. Iran is considered the primary supplier of arms to Hamas and other Arabs who oppose Israel’s existence.

The U.S. is Israel’s primary supplier of weapons to defend itself from Muslim attacks. President Biden gave the most pro-Israel speech heard in memory from a president. He described Hamas’s attack on Israel as “pure, unadulterated evil” and defended Israel’s need to exist. 

The Serbian and Palestinian conflicts differ in where and how the boundaries for the newly arranged countries could be drawn. But as in each conflict, alliances have more to do with expanding a war than containing it. This was the objective of the Bosnian Serbs, and it appears that Hamas’s objective was to bring Iran into the struggle.

It’s about who gets to live on the land.

The world is again observing a struggle between ethnic groups to create an independent nation-state from land that another ethnic group occupies. Palestinians currently residing in two detached lands, the West Bank and Gaza, want total independence from Israel. And some, like the fundamentalist Islamist organization Hamas, demand that the state of Israel should be eliminated and that Palestinians should control all the Middle East.

As Israel was bombing Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’ attack, Biden met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said, “I don’t believe you have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist.”

Zionism is a nationalist movement allowing the Jewish people to return to their biblical homeland and resume Jewish sovereignty after being exiled for 2,000 years. But it has also come to include the movement for developing the State of Israel and protecting the Jewish nation in Israel.

In practical political terms, a Zionist believes that the nation-state of Israel should and must exist. Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s Special Envoy for Antisemitism, speaking on CNN, describes Israelites as “an indigenous people who returned after millennia of exile and persecution.” Going one step further, she said that not supporting Israel’s existence is anti-Zionism, which is a modern form of antisemitism. 

Meanwhile, there are 2.1 million Palestinians in Gaza and another 3 million in the West Bank. They are mainly resentful that Israel exists on land they believe they should live on and control.  At the end of the 1800s, this region was part of the Ottoman Empire. Their census of 1878 indicated the following demographics for the area historically considered Palestine (Jerusalem, Nablus, and Acre districts): 86% Muslims, 9% Christians, and 5% Jews. Today, Israel according to its Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Israel has 18% Muslims, 2% Christians, and 74% Jews.

Israel declared its independence in 1948 as a new nation, which the United Nations quickly recognized, with the support of the U.S. and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The U.N. planned on creating Palestine and Israel as independent states. Nevertheless, Palestinians remained in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank as a non-nation, not represented in the UN as Israel. Most inhabitants in these two territories are the offspring of the 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled and not allowed to return to the land that became Israel.

About the same number of Jews immigrated to the new nation of Israel. Nearly half of all Israeli Jews are descended from immigrants from the European Jewish diaspora. And Jewish immigrants are still arriving, with the foreign-born accounting for 26% of the total population.

Palestinian hostility toward Israel goes beyond what they see as the loss of their land. It is stoked by Israel’s control over the internal life of citizens in Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 after the Six-Day War as a buffer zone to limit the ability of Muslims to try to attack and eliminate Israel. The Palestinian Authority represents the Palestinians and administers some 39% of the West Bank, while 61% is under direct Israeli military and civilian control. A further restriction on Palestinians is that Israel controls 80% of West Bank’s water supply. Gaza has more significant restrictions with air and maritime space, and six of its seven land crossings are controlled by Israel, which reserves the right to enter Gaza at will with its military. 

The Arab-Jewish Conflict in the Middle East is an existential war.

Cotler-Wunsh describes the current and past wars that Israel has fought as an existential war against the State of Israel and the Jewish people. One of the reasons given by observers why Palestine failed to become a separate nation is that the Arab nations in the Middle East did not want to give up some of their adjacent land to create the nation. And the Palestinians themselves, for some reason, have clung for 75 years to the belief that they will take back their land. 

That is not going to happen without a severe war that could quickly escalate to involve the allied powers supporting the two sides in the Arab-Israel struggle. The Hamas attack on Israel was the first step in that direction, and the second would be Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

he scenes of Hamas brutally killing Israeli civilians galvanized support for Israel in the US and Europe. The deaths of many more civilians in Gaza have not had the same impact. 
While the Arab world has protested against Israel, the deaths in Gaza appear less personal. That will dramatically change once images of dead children lying beside Israeli soldiers are shown. 

Hamas had no realistic chance of defeating Israel’s army, but they did prompt Israel to attack Gaza. Hamas is dug into Gaza’s physical infrastructure so that it cannot be targeted without civilian casualties. Gaza residents are dying, and the expected treaty between Saudi Arabia and Israel is now dead.  That agreement could have normalized relations between Israelis and Arabs.  

Professor Yuval Noah Harari at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote that Hamas launched this war with the specific political aim of preventing peace. From its founding, Hamas rejected Israel’s right to exist and had previously disrupted the Oslo peace process and all subsequent peace efforts, seeing them as deadly threats to its existence. Ironically, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Peace Accords, was assassinated by an Israeli who opposed them on religious grounds.

The resulting Arab fury at Israel invading Gaza could push Lebanon’s Hezbollah to magnify its minimal attacks to disrupt Israel’s counter-offensive against Hamas. Hezbollah can launch accurate and powerful missiles that can reach all of Israel. Once those missiles hit residential areas, Israel will be forced to respond with even greater retaliation against Hezbollah. That will bring Lebanon into the war.

What Could Ignite WWIII?

The dynamics for a regional Arab war against Israel will reflect the reality that Israel’s boundary is adjacent to six Arab nations, with four of those nations having 90% of their citizens being Muslim and all having less than 1 percent Jews or none. Their combined population is over 20 times greater than Israel’s. With that alignment, Israel will have to rely on missiles and air strikes to gain some leverage, which they began with airstrikes on Syrian soil last week.

Iran is prepared for a regional war against Israel and the U.S. presence in the Middle East. It provides weapons to Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon and Syria abutting Israel, and further away, there are other Iranian-backed militants in Iraq and Yemen. 

The whiffs of U.S. engagement in a regional war can be detected. An American aircraft carrier group was sent to the eastern Mediterranean, destroying cruise missiles and drones that appeared to have targeted Israel. Drones have attacked American military positions in Iraq and a garrison in Syria. 

Since nation-states provide easy targets, they are less likely to initiate using aircraft or direct arterial bombardment of Israel or Iran.  However, some U.S. politicians seem to be willing to extend the conflict. The hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham on NewsMax accused Iran of involvement in the Oct 7 Hamas attack and said, “We’re here today to tell Iran: ‘We’re watching you. If this war grows, it’s coming to your backyard.” That response will make the U.S. a more tempting target.

ccording to the Arms Control Organization, Israel has not publicly conducted a nuclear test but is widely believed to possess nuclear arms. According to Iran Watch, there is ample evidence in the public domain that Iran has tried to achieve the Weaponization of its nuclear material, but no conclusive evidence is available that it has succeeded. Iran is estimated to be anywhere from months to over a year away from having a deliverable nuclear bomb. 

It is highly doubtful that either country would use a nuclear weapon since it would likely destroy their nation.

However, as Iran’s control over its stand-in terrorist groups becomes looser, the chance for more significant attacks on Israel and U.S. forces from them becomes more likely. The greatest threat to a real war would be if a renegade of Iran’s stand-ins exploded even one small nuclear bomb in Israel, even if not delivered by air. 

Would Iran or another Arab country be so foolish to provide them access to one? What if it was stolen?  Perhaps due to a lack of security in Iran’s stockpile?

Using nuclear weapons will open the door for escalating a series of retaliatory atomic bombings. The smallest ones continue to get bigger as more civilians are killed. You cannot employ nuclear bombs just to kill the enemy soldiers. They kill all within the radius of its impact.

To avoid this extreme scenario but still a fearfully potential one, Israel must realize that it cannot eliminate Hamas by invading Gaza. It’s a movement, not a nation-state. According to Richard Haass, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Hamas is as much a network, a movement, and an ideology as an organization. Its leadership can be killed, but the entity or something like it will survive. 

Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of the Hamas founding leader, was interviewed by CNN and Fox News. He said, “Hamas is a raging religious movement. They want to annihilate the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” His description leads one to see them using Gaza citizens as front-line, unarmed, conscripted “soldiers” in their determination to destroy Israel.

The US, Russia, and Britain have all tried to crush terrorist fundamentalist religious movements. They all failed.  Israel must learn to live with Arab nations that can be rational and open to diplomacy. Jordan may provide a workable model. But all nations in the Middle East must reject absolute solutions to negotiate a lasting peace. 

For a two-state solution to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel to succeed,  
the Palestinian Authority and its allies must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Jews probably run a less theocratic-oriented government than their neighboring Muslim countries. Many Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, claim to be a democracy. But the fine details reveal that they are often not providing a level playing field for all citizens. 

The ongoing Middle Eastern wars between Israel and Arabs will continue until all actors realize they have more to gain from peace than war. If they continue to ignore that fact, they will never achieve peace. Instead, they will eventually invite mutual destruction to themselves and their allies. The question then is when?

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


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