No good options

Published April 21, 2024
The writer is a former foreign secretary and chairman Sanober Institute Islamabad.
The writer is a former foreign secretary and chairman Sanober Institute Islamabad.

FOR over six months, Israel has been on a killing spree in Gaza, bombing residential buildings, hospitals, mosques, even refugee camps. The overwhelming majority of casualties are civilians, mostly women and minors. Adding to Israel’s crimes against humanity are the restrictions on the Gazans’ access to humanitarian assistance, including food and medicine supplies, and the killing of aid workers. The harrowing details of the apocalyptic, famine-like conditions in Gaza are heartbreaking.

Initially, after the Hamas attack on Israel last October, Western countries justified the ferocious assault on Gaza’s people as Israel’s right to self-defence. However, when the bombings intensified and the killings multiplied, massive protests erupted across the world, including in major American and European cities. Public opinion in the West began to swing against the Israeli government for the brutalities it was committing. A series of Security Council resolutions were mooted, calling upon Israel to effect an immediate ceasefire, but the US veto prevented their adoption. In January, the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel must take measures to prevent the crime of genocide against the Palestinians. The ICJ is now considering charges against Germany for facilitating Israel’s genocide by supplying weapons.

With public pressure growing, the US modulated its position and abstained on the Security Council resolution of March 25 that called for an immediate ceasefire. President Joe Biden’s calls for Israel to reach a deal with Hamas also became more emphatic. At home, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is losing popularity, and has been facing protests from the families of the hostages.

A desperate Netanyahu ordered an attack on the Iran embassy premises in Damascus on April 1, ostensibly to shift global attention from Gaza to Iran, and bring the US into the war. Iran gave a measured three-step sequential response through the launch of drones and missiles, some of which pierced Israel’s iron dome defence system and hit the intended target. There are reports of Israel’s missile strike near Isfahan, which Iran has downplayed.

In every scenario, Israel emerges as the loser.

The world now waits with anxiety as Iran and Israel weigh their options. Three factors are relevant. First, the US has made it clear to Israel that it is opposed to a wider war, even though the Western countries stand firmly behind Israel and are reinforcing sanctions against Iran. Second, both countries have tested each other’s offensive and defensive capabilities and Iran is satisfied that its deterrence has been established. Third, Israel’s effort to divert attention from Gaza and drag the US into the war have failed. Global attention will shift back to the situation in Gaza, in particular Rafah.

However, given that the war in Gaza is still continuing, further escalation of confrontation by other means cannot be ruled out. In the days ahead, Israel might carry out a major strike against pro-Iran militant groups, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon, obliging Hezbollah to respond with force, aided by other militant groups in the area. If this confrontation expands, Iran would again get involved. In such circumstances, if Israel attacks the Iranian nuclear installations deliberately, covertly, or by mistake, the ambit of conflict would escalate sharply. A nuclear war would engulf not only the region but the entire world. The consequences of this scenario are so horrendous that Israel would be careful not to move in this direction.

A more likely scenario, however, is that Israel will continue its low-key attacks on Iranian regional proxies, coupled with intensified covert operations against Iranian assets, evoking similarly covert responses from Iran. Since Israel’s efforts to expand the ambit of war have failed, the US pressure on Israel would grow to end the war in Gaza, and allow humanitarian access, particularly because of America’s election dynamics.

In every scenario, Israel emerges as the loser. It has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, reminiscent of what the victims of apartheid and the Holocaust faced. Israel’s hubris about the invincibility of its military machine has been shattered. Given that Iran could penetrate Israel’s high-tech defence, the people of Israel are feeling increasingly worried.

The Arab countries have not been able to exert much pressure on Israel beyond efforts to facilitate negotiations for ceasefire. All said and done, Israel has failed to achieve its objectives of creating a ‘Greater Israel’ or eliminating Palestinian resistance. For its part, Pakistan can take pride in having extended consistent and unwavering support for the right of Palestinians to have a sovereign state of their own within pre-1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and chairman Sanober Institute, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2024

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