By Abdalhadi Alijla
Two months have passed since the beginning of Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip. More than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, over 50,000 have been injured, and more than 80% of Gaza's population have been displaced. The rising civilian casualties from Israel’s attacks—predominantly among children and women—have ignited huge protests globally. The harm is irreversible; the impact of Israel's aggression will reverberate throughout Israel, Palestine, the wider Arab world, and internationally.
What I want to focus on here, though, is that Israel’s war on Gaza has brought to the fore three important dynamics. The first is the fate of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aim to prolong the war for his own political survival. The second is the impact and involvement on neighbours and other actors in the region. And the third is the demise and potential increasing if irrelevancy of the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu and his ‘prolonged survival war’
Despite the advance of its ground operation, Israel has failed to meet any of its declared objectives for the military campaign. Few hostages have been recovered, apart from a token prisoner exchange orchestrated by Qatar. The assault has not stopped the barrage of rockets targeting Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, despite Israel's incursion into Gaza City, and parts of the northern and southern regions of the Strip. The ongoing onslaught and the failure of its overall military aims raises serious questions about Israel's true intentions. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Israel’s main aim is to devastate Gaza, annihilate its infrastructure, healthcare, hospitals, roads, schools, and mercilessly slaughter the civilian population. A less discussed, yet potentially crucial goal, is Netanyahu's own political survival. When the war ends, Netanyahu will face accusations of leadership failure, along with a court case where he is accused of bribery, corruption, and breach of trust. These will likely lead to a disgraceful end to his political career and quite possibly a jail sentence.
As Netanyahu and his war cabinet escalate Israel’s attacks against Gaza, many speculate that his primary objective is to safeguard his own political career and that of his allies. Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport argues that Netanyahu will try to prolong the war, allowing him to cling on to power and to fulfil Likud’s larger goal of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. In the first week of November, only 27% of Israelis considered Netanyahu to be the best person to run the government. On December 8, opinion polls showed that, if there were an election, Netanyahu’s bloc(the Likud and his allies), in the Israeli parliament would lose two seats.
In late October, Netanyahu apologized after blaming intelligence agencies for not adequately safeguarding Israel. This situation hints at a rift between the Israeli security and political sectors, due to the political aspirations of the members of the war cabinet potentially pushing Netanyahu towards escalating the conflict and possibly considering reoccupying Gaza.
On December 11, Netanyahu stated that the Hamas attack on October 7 resulted in the same number of Israeli deaths since the Oslo Accords until 6th October. This comment was perceived as politically motivated, reflecting Netanyahu’s campaign strategy for the 2024 elections. Netanyahu's objective appears to be to extend the conflict while simultaneously conducting an electoral campaign, potentially to ensure his political survival. For decades, he has skilfully navigated his political career on a foundation of right-wing anti-Oslo, adeptly aligning with extremists, radicals, and settlers to allow his Likud party to remain in power as part of a coalition government.
Regionalisation of the conflict and chaos
There is a strong possibility of destabilisation across the region, particularly to immediate neighbours Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Israel has been proposing the transfer of Palestinians in Gaza to the Sinai. This suggestion of forced displacement has been opposed by Egypt, other states in the region, and the EU. The United States has also said that such a move is unacceptable. Similarly, Jordan has expressed grave concerns about any potential forced relocation of Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan. If Israel undertook such a move, this could endanger peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, paving the way for heightened tensions and militarization in the region. Recognizing the potential dire consequences of such an action, various states—particularly the United States, Egypt, and Jordan—have been actively coordinating to prevent population transfers, and for Israel to de-escalate the situation by ending ground operations and instead undertaking limited military operations against Hamas.
Currently, there is a noticeable divergence between the United States and Israeli perspectives on the conclusion of military operations. The United States is advocating for an end to Israel’s military operation by the end of 2023, or at the latest, by the first week of 2024. In contrast, the Israeli war cabinet looks set to extend the conflict for several more months, arguing that its objective is to dismantle and destroy Hamas. This division is compounded by several factors, including discord within Israel, particularly about Netanyahu’s leadership, the absence of significant military achievements in northern or southern Gaza, and the rocket launches targeting Tel Aviv which indicate that Hamas’s operations are still having an impact. Amid the increasing numbers of Palestinian civilian causalities and the horrendous atrocities in Gaza, including violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, the previously unconditional support for Israel from the United States and European states appears to be waning.
Given this situation, Netanyahu may try to open a new battle front in Lebanon. This would further destabilize the region, leading to additional conflicts and prolonged uncertainties. The Israeli army has already been targeting villages in south Lebanon. Similarly, Hizbullah has been active along the southern Lebanese border and has expanded the range of its missile attacks into Israel to more than 30 kilometres. On 8 December 2023, Netanyahu warned Hizbullah to reduce its operations or Israel will turn Beirut and southern Lebanon into Gaza.
Further afield in Yemen, the Houthis have been launching drones and missiles, some of which were intercepted over Egypt and the Red Sea. Additionally, the Houthis have been targeting ships and cargo vessels en route to Israel, with the declared aim that they will not permit any ships bound for Israel to pass unless there is a ceasefire and the siege against Gaza is lifted. These actions, which are endangering international order in the Red Sea, have prompted efforts to prevent the Houthis from targeting any further maritime vessels.
If Hamas emerges weakened but not entirely defeated, this will bolster Iran’s political and strategic position in the region. This outcome could also motivate thousands of Muslim youths to align with Iran and its allies in the region. Iran's allies, especially in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, could become more assertive and influential. Conversely, if Hamas is destroyed, which is doubtful, many might rally behind Iran's ideology, viewing it as the stalwart of resistance against Arab regimes perceived as treacherous. Iran may do well whatever the outcome in Gaza.
Such examples of regional escalation will provoke significant turmoil in the Middle East, posing risks to vital energy resources, mainly access to oil and gas, which could plunge the global economy into crisis. There is no doubt that Israel’s war in Gaza will profoundly influence the geopolitical landscape of the region.
The end of the Palestinian Authority?
A third important consequence of Israel’s war on Gaza is the increasing irrelevance of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its declining support amongst Palestinians. Even before October 7, the PA held little trust among Palestinians. For the past few decades, since the start of the second Intifada in 2000, the PA has been losing credibility. It was originally intended as the structure of a future Palestinian state, with a mandate expected to end in September 1999. Instead, it turned into a security contractor for Israel and a provider of basic services for parts of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. Since 2007, following Hamas’s takeover of governance in the Gaza Strip, both the PA and Hamas have been engaging in authoritarian practices against Palestinians, including restrictions on freedom of speech and unlawful arrests. The PA has been marred by corruption and is perceived by most Palestinians as a corrupt institution. In a September 2023 opinion poll, 87 percent of Palestinians believed that corruption exists within the PA, 52 percent expressed a desire to dissolve the PA, while 79 percent want President Mahmoud Abbas to resign.
The visible absence and inaction of the PA in response to Israel's attacks on Gaza has further exacerbated the PA’s already weak support. Most notably, PA security forces have prevented Palestinians in the West Bank from clashing with Israeli soldiers, and have done nothing in response to Israel’s attacks on Jenin and other cities in the West Bank. This has severely undermined the PA's credibility and fostered even greater distrust among the Palestinian population—a rift that may prove irreparable. November and December 2023 opinion polls show a significant drop in support for the PA and Abbas: 60 percent of Palestinians demand dissolving the PA and 90 percent demand that Abbas resign, the highest recorded in the history of the PA. In the same survey, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 64 percent of Palestinians said they expect Hamas to continue running the Gaza Strip after the cessation of hostilities. Despite the limitations of such surveys—considering the difficulties to run randomized surveys in the current situation in Gaza—it still provides insight into perceptions and opinions in the West Bank. In his recent meeting with Abbas, Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, said that the United States wanted to “revamp and revitalize the PA” before letting it take control over the Gaza Strip. But even before the current war, there was growing anger against the PA and Abbas in the Gaza Strip, even among Fatah members and sympathizers. Therefore, any attempt to put the PA into Gaza would lack local support. The suggestion that the PA would be capable of governing the Gaza Strip has little chance of realization, even in the hypothetical scenario where Israel manages to destroy Hamas.
The future of the West Bank also appears grim as Israeli settler violence has escalated in recent years. In the past few months, this violence has been criticized and labelled by many states and international organisations as acts of "terrorism", including the UN, the EU, and the United States. The presence of more than 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law, coupled with the expansion of settlements, poses a severe threat to Palestinian security and well-being, and makes a Palestinian state all but impossible. In recent years, the frequency and severity of Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank has increased because they are heavily armed and supported by the most right-wing government in Israel's history.
The surge in settler attacks and daily military actions by Israel, especially the arrests of at least 3,000 Palestinians since October 7 and the destruction of infrastructure, has increased the likelihood of an uprising of Palestinians in the West Bank. Such an uprising would likely be met with a severe military response from Israel, potentially devastating in nature, and could have grave implications for the PA’s ability to maintain its control over the areas where it currently holds some security and administrative authority.
The possibility of a two-state solution has long been waning. This is because of a variety of reasons, including Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the geographical and administrative division between the West Bank and Gaza. But more importantly, it’s because Israel will not allow a two-state solution and no one is forcing it to do so. Israel’s current war on Gaza is exacerbating the situation, making the prospect of a sovereign Palestinian state encompassing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including illegally annexed East Jerusalem) unattainable.
The potential is there for Israel’s military actions to escalate into a regional war extending from Yemen to Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria. However, the US is not interested in expanding the war. Therefore, it may try to tame Israel to stop wide scale attacks, especially a ground operation, and substitute it with different military tactics.