Israel's 100-day-old war in Gaza threatens to engulf region

Regional violence on the rise despite Washington's diplomatic attempts to contain it

An aerial view of the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal. Reuters
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On a clear day, passengers flying from Jordan and other parts of the Middle East to Europe are treated to a view of the Suez Canal, with air travel routes having been prolonged to avoid Israel.

Much of the air traffic was diverted over Egypt shortly after the Israel-Gaza war started, 100 days ago on Sunday.

The effects on air travel, and decreased ships passing through the canal because of attacks carried out by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, constitute some of the costs to global trade of a war in which the main casualties remain the Palestinian civilians.

Three months on, the focus of international powers remains mostly on containing the war’s regional effects, rather than stopping it, and charting day-after scenarios without Hamas in Gaza, diplomats and observers said.

"Gaza has become a messy conflict for Israel and for everyone involved. I would be careful to bet on anything," a European official who recently attended a brainstorming session about the Gaza war in an Arab capital told The National.

Those at the meeting also discussed how to convince Israel to make its strikes on Gaza more "surgical", and garner support for reconstruction from Gulf states.

“They saw a silver lining in that the destruction Israel is causing in Gaza is so huge that reconstruction is practically impossible without a political process,” the official said.

As far as the wider region, he said, those at the meeting, including Arab and western officials, appeared to discount the possibility of an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah.

“They seem to be comfortable with the Iranian signals, but on the ground we are seeing continuous escalation,” the official said.

He said Israel has learned from a 2006 war with Hezbollah that the group “can be weakened by wholesale destruction” from which Lebanon took years to recover.

Back then, the Iran-backed militia started the 34-day war with a cross-border raid aimed at taking Israeli hostages. A UN ceasefire stopped the conflict. Hezbollah claimed victory, although Israel devastated large parts of Lebanon's infrastructure.

The 2006 war began in a similar manner to the current one in Gaza, which was sparked by Hamas's October 7 attacks on Israel.

Hamas and allied militant groups killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians, and took hundreds hostage.

The subsequent Israeli offensive on the enclave has killed almost 23,000 people, according to Gaza health officials, who have given no estimate for the number of combatants killed.

The Israeli military has become bogged down in a conflict that is turning into a war of attrition, while the US, Israel’s main backer, attempts to lessen the repercussions on its Arab allies, The National was told.

This includes Washington’s support for a united Arab rejection of any permanent uprooting of Palestinians and a push for increased humanitarian aid flows.

Meanwhile, tensions are rising between Iran’s militant allies in the Middle East on one side, and Israel and the US on the other, although both Tehran and Washington have signalled their aversion to mutual war.

Since the beginning of 2024, the Gaza war has entered a new phase. Although Israel said earlier this month that combat had become less intense, military chief of staff Herzi Halevi said last week that Israel will be fighting in the enclave all year. It will also carry out more targeted strikes in Lebanon, said Lebanese political analyst Joseph Daher.

The aim, he said, is to push Hezbollah to withdraw its most lethal forces from the border.

“This has resulted in Israel growing more aggressive in its attacks, with the targeting of high-ranking commanders,” he said.

Unlike in 2006, he said, the Israelis "do not have the American green light", which limits how far they can go in Lebanon.

This could change in the future, Mr Daher said. But for now, the US is activating its diplomatic channels to “advance Israel's interests" while avoiding a regional war.

Hezbollah finds itself in a more constrained position, compelled to retaliate against Israel’s escalation without providing a pretext for war, because it wants to avoid an all-out Israeli attack on Lebanon like in 2006, he said.

He expects “certain escalation" in the coming weeks, but with calculated responses from both sides withholding from "full-scale engagement”.

Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, renewed attacks against US troops contribute to keeping the region “inflamed” as the Gaza war grinds on, said Jalo Marie, chairman of the Political Decision think tank in Baghdad

He said the regional scene is becoming “complicated”, citing the latest US-led strikes in Yemen and attacks in Iraq, which have expanded this year as Washington hunts for militia leaders loyal to Tehran.

Since the outbreak of the Gaza war, Iran's proxies in Iraq have broken a year of calm with US forces that followed the appointment of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani.

Over the past three months, the militias have launched almost daily drone and missile attacks against US troops in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier this month, a US drone strike killed a senior militia leader in Baghdad. Other strikes in remote areas killed more than a dozen fighters.

However, Mr Marie said Iran and the US are likely to continue “avoiding direct confrontation with each other for domestic considerations”.

But if the Gaza war is not resolved, "all parties in the region will escalate and that could reach a dangerous and unprecedented level".

Nada Maucourant Atallah reported from Beirut. Sinan Mahmoud reported from Baghdad.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 7:02 AM