Smoke ascending over the Gaza Strip (RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

November 1, 2023   5 mins

As Israel continues to mourn and Gaza continues to be turned into rubble, many in the Middle East are coming to a grim realisation: that things could soon become much, much worse. Huge tectonic shifts now threaten to rupture the status quo — and even spark a global war.

Already, Israel is engaged in daily clashes with the Iran-linked armed group Hezbollah along the Israeli-Lebanese border and has launched several air raids on Syria, which is backed by Russia and Iran. Elsewhere, a US warship recently intercepted three missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen which may have been aimed at Israel. American forces in the region have also suffered a series of drone and rocket attacks, to which they retaliated by carrying out air strikes on two facilities linked to Iranian-backed militias in Syria.

The response in the Arabic world has been equally hostile, with every government — including those, such as Saudi Arabia, which had begun normalising relations with Israel — issuing strong denunciations of Israel’s actions. But the most strident response has come from Turkey, despite it being a Nato member. President Erdogan described Israel’s bombing of civilians in Gaza as a “genocide”, and claimed that Hamas is not a terrorist group but “liberators who protect their land”. Turkey also hosts several Hamas officials, and has refused to expel them in recent weeks. This is all part of Erdogan’s attempt to assert his leadership in the region.

Another country with a foot in both camps is Qatar. The country is home to the biggest US military base in the Middle East; it is also home to the political leadership of Hamas which has had an office in Doha since 2012. It is especially well-placed to act as a mediator between Israel and Hamas and has been credited for playing a crucial role in securing the release of four Israeli hostages.

Then there’s Iran, which has longstanding ties to Hamas and cheered on the October 7 attack. While US and Israeli officials have stated that there is no indication of a direct Iranian involvement in the massacre, there is little doubt that Iran benefits from the attack in several ways, and might even be using its proxies — in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen — to further maximise its gains.

Hamas’s attack, after all, has all but killed America’s strategy of promoting Arab-Israeli rapprochement as a way of reasserting US influence in the region at the expense of Iran and China. In September, Netanyahu took the stage at the UN General Assembly and presented a map titled “The New Middle East”, depicting a section of the region shaded in green — the Arab countries with which Israel was in the process of “normalising” relations. As for Israel itself, it was depicted as extending all the way from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — from the river to the sea, as the saying goes — with no delineations showing occupied Palestinian territory.

Netanyahu then drew a red line across the map, all the way from the Arabian Sea to southern Europe, speaking of “a new corridor of peace and prosperity that connects Asia through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel to Europe”. Both the Trump and Biden administrations, with the Abraham Accords and other agreements, played a major role in promoting this idea of a “new Middle East”, in which Israel, as Biden said, would enjoy “greater normalisation and economic connection”.

One of the major pillars of this project was the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) — the “corridor of peace and prosperity” mentioned by Netanyahu. Unveiled last month at the G20 summit in Delhi, the project envisages the creation of a logistical corridor linking the North-Western Indian Ocean to the Eastern Mediterranean via ports, railways and roads passing through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. The US has explicitly portrayed the corridor as a competitor in the Middle East to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Its aim was obvious: to limit China’s influence in the region and isolate Iran.

Yet while the IMEC’s dream now seems more elusive than ever, the truth is that it was always out of reach, based as it was on a dangerous illusion — that the Palestinians could be locked away forever inside Gaza. As Marwan Kabalan, Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, explains, the US-brokered deals normalising relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain undermined a long-standing pan-Arab stance that Palestinian statehood was a precondition for the establishment of normal relations with Israel. That is why Palestinian officials condemned the deals as a “stab in the back”. Under the surface of a relatively stable status quo, anger and instability have been brewing.

Since the latest attack, every Middle Eastern power has been using the chaos to further their own, often conflicting, interests in a geopolitical game that is as dangerous as it is complex. But this comes with its own risks. As one Washington insider told the Financial Times: “All the countries involved have thresholds that, if crossed, will make them believe they have to act. But nobody really knows what the other side’s threshold is.”

Of course, much will depend on what Israel does next. Iran and Hezbollah, for example, have both stated that they consider a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza —  especially if aimed at the complete annihilation of Hamas and the forced expulsion of part of the Gazan population — as a red line not to be crossed. Over the weekend, the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi issued a clear threat: “[The] Zionist regime’s crimes have crossed the red lines, which may force everyone to take action. Washington asks us to not do anything, but they keep giving widespread support to Israel.”

Yet this hasn’t deterred Israel from expanding its ground operations in Gaza over the past few days. Even more worryingly, there is growing evidence that Israel’s plan may be to drive many Palestinians — potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands — out of Gaza and into Egypt. A week into Israel’s military operation in Gaza, the retired IDF Brig. Gen. Amir Aviv called on Egypt “to open the border and let all the Palestinian civilians move south into the Sinai Peninsula”. The Egyptian President, Abdulfattah al-Sisi, warned that “what is happening now in Gaza is an attempt to force civilian residents to take refuge and migrate to Egypt, which should not be accepted.” Then, on October 17, an Israeli think tank with ties to Netanyahu issued a report, subsequently leaked, promoting the “unique and rare opportunity” for the “relocation and final settlement of the entire Gaza population”. More recently, a “concept paper” was leaked, this time from the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence, recommending the permanent transfer of the entire population of the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

The Israeli government has since claimed that the document is conjectural, and isn’t being considered as an option. This can only be good news, given that such a policy, aside from being a catastrophe for Gazans, would inevitably spark some form of retaliation from the Iran-led so-called Axis of Resistance, which includes the Syrian government, Hezbollah and the Houthi movement in Yemen. At that point, the situation could rapidly escalate. Not only would Israel respond by heavily bombing Iran-backed forces in Lebanon and elsewhere — but the US would almost certainly get involved as well.

Indeed, over the past weeks, the US and Nato have been assembling the biggest fleet seen in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf for decades, encompassing no fewer than 73 ships from a dozen countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The US alone has deployed two nuclear-powered carriers, as well as aircraft, cruisers, destroyers and submarines equipped with Tomahawk missiles.

Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin responded by announcing that, over the waters of the Black Sea, Russia has commenced around-the-clock rotations of MiG-31 interceptors armed with Kinzhal hypersonic anti-ship missiles, whose operational range extends to 2,000 km. “This is not a threat, but we will exercise visual control — control with weapons — over what is happening in the Mediterranean Sea,” Putin told reporters. China is also following events in the region very closely, with up to six Chinese warships present in the Middle East over the past weeks.

It’s not hard to see how all this might end. With all the world’s major powers present in the Middle East, it is almost certain that, in the eventuality of an escalation, the US and Nato would be drawn into a conflict against Russia and China. The consequences of this would be catastrophic, its economic, military and humanitarian repercussions rebounding in the West. Faced with such a risk, calling for a ceasefire is no longer just in the interest of Gazans, but of the world as a whole.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.