Of all the parallels being drawn between the latest violence afflicting Israel and Gaza, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 has emerged as a common reference point for people who fear this crisis will develop into a regional confrontation. It is easy to understand why: 50 years ago, a surprise attack on a Jewish religious holiday caught the Israeli state off-guard. A full-scale war ensued that went on to change the direction of this region forever.
Many people today, while aghast at this latest round of bloodshed in Palestine and Israel, are understandably concerned it contains the seeds of a similarly uncontrollable conflagration. Already, there have been clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces near Lebanon’s southern border, Hamas has reportedly called for a “general mobilisation” among the Arab and Islamic world on Friday and Iran-backed Shiite political parties and militias in Iraq warned the US on Monday that they would target its assets in the region if it intervened directly in the Israel-Gaza conflict.
There is no shortage of potential triggers that could draw in regional actors and escalate the current violence. These include Israel’s claim to have killed at least 1,500 Hamas operatives, the country’s mobilisation of 300,000 reservists – the largest number in its history – for a potential ground assault on Gaza, Hamas threats to execute Israeli hostages, as well as the displacement of more than 187,000 Gazans in Israeli air strikes that have already cost many civilian lives.
But 2023 is not 1973. Despite the dire circumstances being endured by many people in Palestine and Israel right now, it is not certain that a wider war is coming. So far at least, the gap between angry rhetoric and reality is significant. Iran, which is a major backer of Hamas, released a statement at the UN that denied involvement in Saturday's cross-border attack, saying “these actions are solely determined by the Palestinians themselves" and calling on Palestinians “to exercise their own judgment in determining their course of action". Most Arab countries have called for de-escalation and are seeking a political solution to the conflict. Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country and one of the protagonists of the 1973 war, has spent years working in parallel with Israel on security matters. Even Hezbollah has yet to go fully on the offensive, knowing as it does that a Lebanese society exhausted by economic turmoil has little appetite for all-out war with Israel.
It may be the case that there is little to be gained by Israel’s enemies among the so-called Axis of Resistance in pursuing a full-scale conflict. Michael Young, The National’s Lebanon affairs columnist, wrote this week that “having scored a harsh blow against Israel, it makes more sense for them to pause and exploit their success politically, than to enter into a war whose ultimate consequences may actually weaken the Axis of Resistance”.
However, this is no time for complacency. Even a simple miscalculation in what is a rapidly developing situation could be enough to overturn even the most rational calculus currently held by the region’s many players. And although a lot of diplomacy and communication is taking place, there is a dearth of realistic and new ideas about how to get out of this situation. Even if the region avoids an all-out war this time, the status quo cannot continue. To let the occupation and attempted dismemberment of Palestine continue, and to allow extremism to fester, is to condemn all sides to a forever war that no one can truly win.