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10 January 2024

The risk of a wider Middle East war is growing

The assassination of Hamas’s deputy political chief has come amid Israeli calls for action against Hezbollah and a crisis of leadership on all sides.

By Alona Ferber

Did anyone believe the start of a new year would bring respite for Palestinians or Israelis? At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, more than 20 rockets were fired at south and central Israel from Gaza – the first such barrage in more than a week.

On 2 January – a few days after Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had stated the war against Hamas would go on “for many months”, and as the death toll in the Strip surpassed 22,000 people, many of them children – a drone strike south of Beirut, Lebanon, killed Hamas’s deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri. The assassination, presumed to have been carried out by Israel, furthered one of Netanyahu’s declared goals for the war: to eradicate Hamas.

[See also: The triple betrayal of Israeli women]

But this targeted killing has heightened the risk of the conflict escalating far beyond Gaza. The Hamas-Israel war has already drawn in Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia, which has fired missiles at southern Israel and ships in the Red Sea. In Israel’s north, meanwhile, tensions between Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has vowed to support Iran-backed Hamas, and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) continue. With near-daily cross-border fire, including the IDF hitting targets inside Syria on 2 January, at least 80,000 Israelis have been internally displaced from the north.

On 6 January Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets into Israel in response to Al-Arouri’s assassination, after the militia’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed to retaliate. Two days later, the IDF reportedly killed a senior Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon. According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration fears an unpopular Netanyahu (still on trial for criminal charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust) will embark on Israel’s first war in Lebanon since 2006 to save his skin. After all, the prime minister seems prepared to go to great lengths to delay his trial, a future election, and a public inquiry into the 7 October attacks.

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Yet polling suggests a majority of Israelis support further action against Hezbollah, the Tel Aviv-based pollster Dahlia Scheindlin told me – though such an escalation might draw in Iran, whether directly or via its proxies. Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-line Israeli former defence secretary (and Netanyahu ally turned nemesis), for one believes Israel needs to seize territory in southern Lebanon as a buffer zone against Hezbollah, which is a more formidable foe than Hamas.

Public support for the Gaza war remains high in Israel, certainly among Jews. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank in early January found a majority of Israelis opposed acceding to US pressure to reduce bombardment on highly populated areas in Gaza. This places Israel at odds with global public opinion. Israel’s war against Hamas – which, alongside its staggering death toll, has destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure and created a humanitarian catastrophe – has galvanised support for the Palestinian cause across the world. On 11 January the International Court of Justice will hear a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide.

But Israel is a bubble. It is hard to overstate the impact of 7 October on the nation, and the extent of Israelis’ trauma and grief. More than 100,000 are still displaced from homes in the south, which withstood the worst of Hamas’s attack. More than 130 hostages are still captive in Gaza, including two children under five. Hebrew-language media shows little of the impact of Israel’s onslaught. In their pain, many Israelis view opposition to their war on Hamas as anti-Semitism or, at the very least, anti-Israelism.

Yet polling also shows something unusual for wartime Israel: lack of faith in the government. A December survey found 70 per cent of Israelis think Netanyahu should resign. The crisis in Gaza is also a crisis of governance in Israel, and more broadly in the region. One year since Netanyahu formed his coalition government, the country is suffering from a vacuum of leadership. It was this that enabled the security failures which led to 7 October. Years of short-termist policy regarding the Palestinians, which only bolstered Hamas and weakened the Palestinian Authority, are also to blame.

Writing in Foreign Affairs in December, Daniel Kurtzer, the US ambassador to Israel under George W Bush, urged Joe Biden to be bold and push for a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. But neither side, he noted, has the leadership to make the necessary sacrifices. “There is little the United States or others, for that matter, can do,” Kurtzer told me via email, “to encourage Israelis to elect leaders ready to make peace, or to encourage the Palestinians to reform their institutions and elect leaders ready to make peace.” The Palestinian Authority, with which Israel needs to agree on a future, is itself corrupt. Its aged president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been in power for nearly two decades. War-riven Yemen, which has no functioning central government, and crisis-beset Lebanon are powerless to stop the Houthi and Hezbollah militias operating from their soil. Neither state can bolster regional peace.

With polling suggesting that Israelis want an election as soon as the war is over, Netanyahu and his acolytes have already started campaigning, prioritising political posturing over governance. But the very real risk of regional conflagration continues to increase: on 9 January, Hezbollah targeted an Israeli military base with a drone strike. Fear, pain and disastrous leadership are the lifeblood of this conflict, and there are no clear solutions. All sides are digging in and choosing reckless rhetoric and violent escalation over a peaceful way forward.

[See also: The chaos of Israel’s post-war plan]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously