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Israeli forces launch artillery fire towards southern Lebanon from the border zone in northern Israel on October 9, 2023, as Hezbollah denied involvement in clashes or "any infiltration attempt" into Israel. Later, Hezbollah issued three separate statements confirming the death of three of its members. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The stunning attack by Hamas inside Israeli territory has replaced hopes of an era of peace in the Middle East with the very real danger of a new regional war.

For now, the focus is on the immediate crisis in Gaza, the fate of the hostages and the future of Hamas. It could take weeks or more for Israel to fulfill Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to “destroy” Hamas’s military capabilities and the effort will consume the bulk of Israel’s military capabilities for some time.

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“We are going to change the Middle East,” Netanyahu told Israeli officials on Monday, as the country’s war planes intensified their bombardments of Gaza ahead of what is widely expected to be a ground invasion. The death toll of an already brutal few days was rapidly rising as both sides reported more casualties.

But Hamas had already changed the Middle East, by inflicting on Israel the bloodiest day in its 75-year history, upending long-held calculations about Israel’s military superiority and its ability to withstand pressures to accommodate the statehood aspirations of the Palestinians.

One open question, among many, is whether the escalating conflagration can be confined to Gaza. The assault has rekindled neglected tensions that have long stood in the way of real peace, from the destabilising role played by Iran and its allies to the fate of Palestinians, which have been bypassed by the US-led effort to forge a peace settlement between Israel and the region’s Gulf Arab states.

“This could easily get out of control,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute. “Everything is in place for a cascading series of events that will culminate in Israel attacking Iran.”

A flurry of telephone calls among regional and world leaders was aimed at finding ways to prevent a wider war. Israel downplayed the likelihood that Iran was involved in the Hamas attack, the United States also said it had seen no indications that Iran was involved and Iran denied any role - suggesting that there is no appetite for a regionwide conflict.

“From the messaging I’m seeing there are attempts to contain the situation,” said Michael Horowitz, the Jerusalem-based head of intelligence for LeBeck, a security consultancy. “But we’re really only at the beginning of something that will last a very long time.”

Hezbollah’s formidable arsenal of missiles

Rising tensions Monday along the Lebanese-Israeli border underscored the risk that a second front could open up. Israel had already advised residents of areas along its northern border to evacuate the area. Some Lebanese living near the border vacated their homes on Monday and there were reports of queues forming at supermarkets and gas stations in Beirut as people rushed to stock up on supplies.

So far, signs show that Hezbollah wishes to stay out of the conflict, said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS University of London. The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement has built up a formidable arsenal of missiles capable of reaching deep inside Israel. But Israel could also inflict massive damage on Lebanon, and Hezbollah would risk losing its standing within the country if it were to invite a ruinous Israeli attack, she said.

Vehicles of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) are parked at a UN base in the southern Lebanese village of Kfarshuba on the border with Israel. Image Credit: AFP

But rapidly unfolding events through Monday evening heightened concerns. An attempt claimed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to breach the Israeli border fence was thwarted by Israel. Retaliatory Israeli shelling killed at least four Hezbollah fighters, according to Hezbollah officials. Hezbollah retaliated by firing rockets at northern Israel, and Israel later announced that an Israeli deputy commander had been killed in the confrontations, highlighting the risk that events could spin out of control.

America’s role

The United States could also be drawn in. US Central Command has dispatched a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean “to address the risks of any party seeking to expand the conflict,” according to a statement.

A senior defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss American deliberations, said the United States is “deeply concerned” about the possibility that Hezbollah will join the conflict, warning that would be a “wrong decision.”

Much might depend on what can be established about any role played by Iran in helping orchestrate the Hamas attack. Netanyahu’s government routinely blames Iran for instigating events in the region, not always with justification, said Horowitz. That it is refraining so far from implicating Tehran suggests a desire to tread cautiously, he said.

“If you pin this on Iran, you’re boxing yourself in and you have to respond against Iran,” he said. “I don’t think it’s in Israel’s interests to open another front before it contains this one.”

In the longer term, the attack raises broader questions about the viability of efforts to bring peace to the region without taking into consideration either frustrated Palestinian aspirations or the expanding regional role of Iran, which arms and funds its allies on Israel’s borders, said Khatib.

Danger of living alongside heavily armed militants

Shifting balance of power

Although Israel’s pressing concern is to eliminate the threat from Hamas in Gaza, the attack brought home to Israelis the ever present danger of living alongside heavily armed militants. One response may be to embark on future operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon or even to try to take down the regime in Iran.

But the balance of power in the region has shifted so significantly over the past two decades that it is far from clear that Israel would be able to vanquish any of them. Hezbollah’s experience in fighting invading Israeli troops to a draw during the 2006 war in Lebanon suggests an Israeli victory against Hamas in Gaza is not assured.

“At some point Israel may feel it’s too much and there needs to be an operation to remove Hezbollah capabilities,” said Horowitz. “But we’re in a situation where victory against any one of these groups is really remote.”

Another approach would be to revive efforts to bring about a peace settlement focused on rights for the Palestinians, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a United Arab Emirates political commentator. He hailed the “heroic resistance” of the Palestinians to Israeli occupation in a tweet as the carnage unfolded over the weekend. But he also said he supports the continued efforts to bring peace to the region through the US-led Abraham Accords process, by which Arab countries, including the UAE, have been normalising relations with Israel.

He predicted that the Hamas assault would delay but not derail the current focus of the process, which is to secure an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But it will increase the pressure on Saudi Arabia to include the Palestinians in any deal it reaches, he said.

“This is a wake-up call to the Western countries to give the Palestinians something. The Israelis have no option - they have to square with the fact that occupation is not the way to deal with the Palestinians.”