To describe the current situation involving Israel and Gaza as fast-moving would be an understatement, but some aspects of the conflict are becoming clearer as the days pass. Among these is the gathering pace of international diplomacy – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Israel and Jordan, an emergency UN Security Council meeting is scheduled for Friday, and there have been contacts between leaders in Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as high-level talks between the UAE and the US. These reflect the conflict’s regional dimension.
Although the immediate focus may be on Gaza – where more than 1,400 people have been killed since Saturday and civilians are facing critical shortages of food, water and electricity thanks to a policy of total siege – the violence and the reasons driving it create a complex web that includes significant regional players such as Egypt, and other more unpredictable elements, such as Hezbollah and Iran. US Secretary General Antonio Guterres was correct when he said on Wednesday that: “We must avoid spillover of the conflict. … I appeal to all parties – and those who have an influence over those parties – to avoid any further escalation and spillover.” The possibility of a wrong move, intended or unintended, widens the parameters of the war and threatens to bring more destruction.
However, if diplomacy is to offer any way out of the current morass, then mediation and immediate contacts should focus on practical and humanitarian solutions to Gaza’s suffering and ending the hostage crisis. This would be a tentative first step towards confidence-building and halting the violence. There is some reason for optimism: so far, most countries’ statements are generally calling for the right actions – de-escalation, protecting Palestinian rights, an end to hostage taking and attacks on civilians, and regional stability. This suggests there is some general consensus as to what immediate and medium-term engagement could look like.
But, if we are not to keep repeating the conflict, discussions need to go further than ending the current cycle of violence. The latest conflict has made one thing abundantly clear – the notion that blockading one group of Palestinians and occupying the remainder was a sustainable or even desirable policy is gone. However, for now, a lot depends on the new Israeli cabinet and Hamas, and neither side – in public at least – are in any mood for compromise.
This echoes the direction the conflict has taken in recent years where events have been dictated by the extremes – Hamas and its quixotic policy of all-out confrontation with Israel on one hand, and provocative Israeli policies guided by settlers and high-profile ideologues on the other. The marginalisation and dismissal of legitimate Palestinian concerns is what has led us to this point.
But diplomacy can only achieve so much without co-ordination or a willingness to exert leverage on the key players. The people of Gaza do not have time to wait, nor do the hostages being held there, nor do Palestinians coming under attack in the West Bank, being kicked out of their workplaces, or being stranded outside the Gaza Strip. Given the flurry of diplomatic activity taking place right now, the time is ripe to seek a breakthrough. The first step is halting the violence and air strikes, setting up channels to mediate the release of hostages, and restoring basic services to Gaza. But the calls for a longer-term resolution must be heeded, too, as must the need for regional peace – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict touches all parts of this neighbourhood and its people.