The Israeli-Palestinian war and some worst-case scenarios
9th October 2023
It would not be a stretch to say that not only Israel but the entire world was caught off guard by the sweeping attack launched by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, the smaller of the two territories that make up a rump Palestinian state. While obviously the scale of the attack—and the massive failure in Israeli intelligence it exposed—are one of the big surprises, the much larger unknown is “Why.”
An answer is difficult. Worst-case scenarios are harrowing and do not leave room for any clear winners.
Anybody, and nobody better than Hamas, knew that the offensive would attract overwhelming retaliation by Israel, and hence cause further pain to the Palestinians of Gaza, a tiny strip of land slightly bigger than Malta which, with a population of 2.3 million, is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with a shattered economy and mostly blockaded by both Egypt and Israel, with which the strip borders.
The sophistication of the Hamas attack and the timing —to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War— indicate that it was not a desperate move and was quite some time in the making.
One possibility that has been aired is that it was launched to disrupt a potential Israeli-Saudi agreement. A clear winner from that scenario would be Iran, an archenemy of both countries, as Shiite-Sunni rivalry is as bitter as Islamist hostility towards Israel.
Yet that, and the provocative messages coming from Tehran celebrating the surprise attack by Hamas, could also eventually lead to a major regional conflagration. Would not a clear Iranian hand in this constitute a casus belli for Israel to bring the war to Iran?
Should that happen, a domino of subsidiary conflicts would be triggered in a vast area all the way from the Near East to the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus. Azerbaijan, a close ally of Israel that has long been eyeing grabbing northern Iran’s homonymous region as well as opening a corridor through southern Armenia connecting it to its exclave of Nakhichevan and Turkey, would probably be quick to take advantage of favourable geopolitical conditions to achieve its maximalist goals. So would Turkey, by finally realising its pan-Turkic project by way of the said corridor and creating territorial contiguity with Azerbaijan, in a union both countries describe as “one nation, two states.” An enfeebled Russia, mired in Ukraine, would do little but watch events unfold if its passivity towards Azerbaijani-Turkish aggression against Armenia, Russia’s “strategic ally” at least on paper, is an indicator of future behaviour.
In that scenario, the East-West and South-North corridors would be aborted, with consequent economic reverberations that would be felt all the way through India and China. The Suez Canal would still retain its privileged place as a connector of the two halves of the globe, unless growing turmoil sweeps away the military regime running it and returns the Muslim Brotherhood to power.
How Iran would play its hand is anybody’s guess. Should it be simultaneously attacked by Israel and Azerbaijan, would it be able to wage a war on two fronts or against two armies?
That the newest Israeli-Palestinian war is so far contained indicates that, in a very volatile world, there seems to be little appetite by outside players to intervene in what seems to be a scramble for enlarging territory or capturing resources at a time when a big geopolitical reshuffle seems to allow predatory states to carry out land grabs as the postwar world order is collapsing. Yet the outcome of any war is always unpredictable, and the current containment would seem to indicate that cooler heads are still prevailing.
For how long, however? One major cause of wars is insecurity about one’s rivals’ intentions. Some actors may genuinely feel compelled to attack as a preventive measure. There is sometimes a sense of a long-delayed Third World War waiting to happen, with nobody willingly marching towards it —who really likes wars? The early stage of the Second World War after the German invasion of Poland is remembered in British historiography as the “phoney war”; the French call it the “drôle de guerre” (a literal translation would be “funny war”). We all know it was not phoney or funny. Yet it would sometimes seem that we are sliding towards a bigger catastrophe in slow motion. As Trotsky is reputed to have said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”