The ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel, which began on October 7 of this year, is showing no signs of abating. Hamas, the instigator of the war, now finds itself on the defensive against Israel’s retaliatory attacks. The toll of casualties continues to rise on both sides with each passing moment. Tel Aviv, in addition to bombarding the Gaza Strip, has deployed ground forces, cutting off the area’s residents from essential resources such as water, electricity, and fuel. Despite a decrease in momentum and intensity, Hamas militants have not ceased their attacks. Richard Hecht, the International Spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, stated on October 9 that it will take time to return to a state of normalcy in terms of defense, and Hamas still poses a threat of infiltration into Israel. It is evident that prospects for a ceasefire appear grim, and concerns about the conflict spreading to other parts of the Middle East, potentially leading to a regional war, are growing.
The pivotal question at hand is whether the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel will escalate into a wider regional war in the Middle East. Answering this question is challenging, given that regional and global players are not actively seeking to trigger a regional war unless the current conflict unintentionally spirals out of control. To answer this question, it is imperative to examine the positions of the warring parties as well as regional and global actors.
Israel has been deeply shocked by the surprise and unprecedented attack launched by Hamas militants. Tel Aviv did not anticipate such a devastating blow from a group that is incomparable in strength. For instance, during a 33-day armed conflict in July 2006 with the Lebanese Hezbollah, a group stronger than Hamas and backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel suffered fewer than 200 casualties. However, the current conflict has resulted in over 1,000 casualties, along with a high number of prisoners and wounded individuals.
Israel, as the primary party in this conflict, does not seek to open new fronts in the region unless necessary. While Hezbollah launched a rocket into the Shabaa region of Lebanon, controlled by Israel, there was no substantial reaction. Moreover, engaging in direct conflict with Israel may not benefit Hezbollah. If Israel intends to go to war with Iran, it requires the approval of the United States and the European Union, which is not easily obtained. Expanding the war beyond its borders would only result in more suffering for Israel, as it could strengthen the unity of Islamic countries.
The question arises: What is Tel Aviv hoping to achieve by bombing the Gaza Strip?
The Netanyahu government aims to retaliate against Hamas by intensifying air and ground attacks, even at the cost of the destruction of Gaza. According to the Israeli government, uprooting Hamas from Gaza would serve as a deterrent to other armed groups, dissuading them from hostility against Israel.
1.2 Releasing the Captives:
The release of captives is a crucial goal for the Israeli government. Intensifying airstrikes seems to be the immediate option, although it is not a comprehensive solution. While Qatar’s mediation efforts have not yielded prompt results, Turkey has also expressed readiness for mediation, urging both parties to preserve civilian lives.
1.3 Increasing the Number of Casualties:
Israel, historically, has inflicted significant casualties on its adversaries during conflicts with Arab nations. However, in this conflict, Israel has suffered a higher number of casualties. The Israeli army’s current concern is to increase the number of Palestinian casualties. While this might enhance domestic credibility for the Netanyahu government, it would likely lead to international condemnation.
- Hamas Movement
Hamas, historically opposed to dialogue with Israel, is determined to prevent the Middle East from descending into a regional war. Unlike previous conflicts where Hamas maintained a defensive stance, this time it has taken an offensive approach against Israel. This strategic shift aims to assert its existence and prevent its silence from being interpreted as surrender. Intensifying the Palestinian issue is crucial for Hamas, especially given its sidelining after the 2020 Abraham Accords and the subsequent peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel, potentially pushing it out of the Arab world’s agenda. Furthermore, Hamas seeks to release Palestinian prisoners, and taking Israeli hostages is a step in this direction. While Hamas claims support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, it does not necessarily seek a direct war involving Iran and Israel. Instead, it aims to demonstrate to Tel Aviv that it has backing from a regional power. Although Hamas has hinted at support from other countries, it refrains from naming them. Achieving territorial gains and capturing Israeli soldiers and citizens are considered achievements for Hamas, which it may leverage in negotiations following a ceasefire.
- Islamic Republic of Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran expressed satisfaction at Israel’s setbacks and praised Hamas’s attack, but it does not actively seek a direct war unless attacked itself. Iran, however, contemplates managing a proxy war against Tel Aviv, a strategy it has pursued since the 1990s by supporting Palestinian groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Iran is reluctant to engage in a direct war with Israel and will also attempt to prevent Hezbollah from entering direct conflict. The Iranian government, entangled in domestic issues, finds it expedient to divert public attention through external adventures. Claims by the Wall Street Journal that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) encouraged Hamas’s attack have not been confirmed by American and Israeli officials, indicating Iran’s discreet involvement in the incident.
- The United States of America
The United States is wary of the conflict expanding beyond Israel and Gaza or prolonging into a regional war for two primary reasons. Firstly, the U.S. is preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis, and escalating the conflict in the Middle East would increase its responsibility to ensure Israel’s security, which would be detrimental to its interests. Secondly, Washington is focused on fostering closer ties between Arab countries and Israel. Regionalizing the current war could align the Arab world with Iran, which has support from countries such as Qatar, Iraq, and others. Saudi Arabia’s position is also leaning towards supporting Hamas, as demonstrated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to Palestinian aspirations in discussions with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian State. Turkey, while not overtly detrimental to Hamas, emphasizes safeguarding civilian rights, primarily targeting Netanyahu’s government rather than Hamas. Joe Biden’s administration staunchly supports Israel, mainly due to its strategic alliance and the significant influence of American Jewish voters in the upcoming presidential election. Historically, American administrations, such as Truman’s, have recognized Israel swiftly to secure Jewish votes in elections.
Considering these factors, the United States is more inclined to work towards establishing a ceasefire rather than allowing the conflict to escalate. If a regional war erupts, it might be initiated by Israel, but only with the impossible consent of Joe Biden’s administration.
- The European Union
The European Union’s stance aligns closely with that of the United States. They endorse Israel’s retaliatory actions, provided they do not escalate into a regional conflict. The EU, like the US, is burdened by the ongoing war in Ukraine and is keen to avoid further disruptions. Additionally, European allies of the US rely on Persian Gulf oil, the prices of which have surged by 4.1% globally following Hamas’s attack on Israel. Although both Israel and Palestine aren’t oil producers, the involvement of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran could drastically spike oil prices. The EU must also consider the sentiments of European Muslims, evident in demonstrations in cities like London and Madrid supporting the Palestinians. While the EU supports Israel, it also advocates for an independent Palestinian state. This dual stance led to a fallout with Tel Aviv in 2013 when Israel unilaterally canceled cooperation with the union. European countries such as Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and France expressed strong support for Israel but also acknowledged Palestinian demands, striving for justice and freedom for both parties. Some European nations, viewing Hamas as terrorists, have been vocal against the group, citing claims of European citizens being held captive by them.
China, eager for peace in the Middle East, played a pivotal role in resolving the regional conflict caused by Riyadh and Tehran. China is concerned about escalating tensions and supports the formation of two independent countries as a resolution to the Palestinian crisis. Beijing might place blame on the US for initiating the current conflict, assuming the US is indifferent to Middle East security. China, heavily reliant on Persian Gulf oil, prioritizes stability in the region. Its historically warm relationship with Israel positions Beijing as a potential mediator for a ceasefire and prisoner exchange.
Russia is linked to the current conflict due to Israel’s Western allies supporting Ukraine. Russia is suggested to benefit from the transformation of the Hamas-Israel war into a regional conflict, diverting Western attention from the Ukrainian conflict. Some even speculate Moscow’s involvement in the Hamas attack, considering its complexity. However, Russian officials deny prior knowledge and express intentions to prevent such attacks. Unlike the US and certain European governments, Russia does not label Hamas as a terrorist group, maintaining a diplomatic relationship without supplying arms. Moscow desires an independent Palestinian state, a stance in opposition to Israel’s position. If Moscow supports Hamas, it aims to shift focus from the Ukrainian war rather than weaken Israel.
In analyzing the perspectives of global and regional players, excluding Russia, the likelihood of a regional war in the Middle East remains slim unless the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel inadvertently draws in regional actors, compelling their involvement in the battlefield.