This is probably not how Antony Blinken wanted to start the new year. The United States secretary of state has concluded a week-long visit to the Middle East, his fourth since the war between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. His latest round of shuttle diplomacy, like the ones before it, had two main goals: to try to head off a broader regional war and to talk about the future of a Gaza largely destroyed by three months of fighting.
He went home with few obvious successes. Israel has begun to change its tactics in Gaza, something America has demanded. But it still has a very different view of who should govern the region after the war – and the war does not look like ending soon.
Elsewhere in the region, Blinken heard a familiar message: Arab states want a ceasefire, and any talk of a postwar order will have to wait until that happens. Countries in the region are more and more concerned the fighting in Gaza will have much wider consequences.
Essentially, the conflict has already become regional. Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militia in Lebanon, has been firing missiles at Israel for three months. Militias in Iraq have been attacking American military bases. And for months the Houthis, a rebel group that controls much of Yemen, have been using rockets and drones to terrorise commercial ships in the Red Sea – which has now drawn retaliatory strikes from the US and allies.
A multinational coalition meant to secure the waterway did little to reassure the world’s big shipping companies. Most are avoiding the sea, instead routing their vessels around the southern tip of Africa, which adds weeks of delay and huge expense to shipping costs. On Friday, US President Joe Biden announced that America and the United Kingdom, with the support of countries including Australia, were launching strikes “against a number of targets in Yemen used by Houthi rebels to endanger freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways”. The retaliation follows a “final warning” to the Houthis on January 3 to cease their attacks. The group responded, hours later, by detonating a naval drone a few miles away from commercial ships and American military vessels.
Biden declared in his statement, “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary”. Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said that this country’s support amounted to “personnel in the... headquarters for this activity”, and that protecting trade routes in the Red Sea was “utterly central to Australia’s national interest”.
Meanwhile, Israel’s northern front is slowly heating up. On January 8 an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon killed Wissam al-Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite commando unit, the Radwan force. He was the highest-ranked Hezbollah officer killed in the past three months. A day later Israel said it killed another of the group’s commanders, this one in charge of its drone unit – though Hezbollah denies the man killed held such an important role.
The twin assassinations came a week after a suspected Israeli drone strike that killed Saleh al-Arouri, one of Hamas’s top leaders, in the southern suburbs of Beirut. It was the first time in years that Israel was thought to have struck the Lebanese capital. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, vowed the attack would not go unpunished.
Hezbollah then fired a barrage of rockets at an Israeli army base on Mount Meron, an important surveillance facility. An army spokesman said the attack damaged the base’s radar installation. The group also targeted an Israeli base in Safed, 14 kilometres south of the border, the first time it has struck so deep inside Israel during the war.
Still, in a pair of speeches after Arouri’s assassination, Nasrallah also signalled he still wanted to avoid an all-out war, like the one his group fought against Israel in 2006. On January 5, he hinted Lebanon would be open to talks with Israel to resolve territorial disputes along their land border – though only after the war in Gaza ended.
The fear in Washington is even if Hezbollah does not want a war, Israel is determined to push it into one. Israeli officials worry the group could carry out an attack such as the massacre Hamas committed on October 7. Tens of thousands of Israeli civilians have been displaced from towns in the north and they are unlikely to return while Hezbollah has elite forces positioned just across the border.
Though Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is often seen as a hawk, he is more reluctant to go to war in Lebanon than some of his generals and his political partners in the war cabinet. A poll in December by the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, found 57 per cent of Israeli Jews wanted to expand the war on the northern front, up from 48 per cent in October.
Elsewhere in the region, a pair of suicide bombers from Daesh killed scores of Iranians at a commemoration for Qassem Soleimani, the general the US assassinated in 2020, and an American drone strike killed a militia leader in Iraq. All of this adds to a feeling that the Middle East is on the edge of a much bigger conflict.
In private, US officials say those tensions will remain high until the war in Gaza ends. The conflict erupted on October 7 with Hamas’s attack on southern Israel, which killed 1139 people, according to Israeli authorities. Israel says 132 of the 240 people seized by Palestinian armed groups on that day are still being held in Gaza and 25 have died, as reported by Al Jazeera. Palestinian officials estimate more than 23,200 people, most of them women and children, have been killed in Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza.
A permanent ceasefire is still out of the question for Israel, which argues that ending the war now would leave Hamas intact to rule Gaza. The US has spent weeks pushing Israel to change its tactics: to lower the intensity of its bombardment, thin out its ground forces and focus on targeted raids.
Israeli officials now say they are making that shift. The army is withdrawing thousands of troops from northern Gaza, much of which is now destroyed. It has begun to demobilise some of the 300,000 reservists called up after the October 7 massacre – though it has warned them to expect another call-up notice later this year. Sending them home is meant to ease pressure on an Israeli economy that has suffered a labour shortage due to the mass mobilisation. Still, Israel insists the war in Gaza will be a long one, lasting through 2024 and perhaps beyond.
One United Nations official calls this a “long transition between the day before and the day after”. That was the second focus of Blinken’s visit to the region: what to do about a Gaza on the brink of famine and totally dependent on humanitarian aid.
Both Western and Arab states are keen to see the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the occupied West Bank, return to Gaza. That is a nonstarter for Netanyahu’s far-right allies, in part because it would bring pressure for Israel to negotiate a peace agreement that would create a Palestinian state.
On January 4, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defence minister, outlined his own four-point plan for the future of the enclave. Israel would retain full military control. It would not rebuild the Jewish settlements evacuated in 2005 but nor would it create a role for the Palestinian Authority. Instead an amorphous local authority would be in charge of civil affairs with backing from the US, the European Union and Arab countries. The latter is unrealistic. Gaza is in ruins; it will need more than a committee of local notables to rebuild homes and infrastructure.
Israel also rebuffed the US demand that it allow Palestinian civilians displaced to southern Gaza to return to the north. It did agree to let UN experts visit northern Gaza to assess the damage, although it is unclear when that will happen.
Even if the fighting ebbs, there are growing fears hunger and disease will kill large numbers of Gazans this year. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says almost everyone in Gaza is skipping meals and 26 per cent of its 2.2 million people are suffering from a “catastrophic” lack of food. There is not enough aid coming across in convoys from Egypt and the UN and other agencies are struggling to distribute the supplies that do arrive.
Experts say if nothing changes the territory will tip into full-fledged famine within the next six months. As the occupying power in Gaza, Israel has a responsibility under international law to prevent that. But Netanyahu’s government and much of the Israeli public have little interest in helping the territory.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are crammed into Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza. Tent cities have sprung up in empty lots and around UN facilities. Even finding a tent can be difficult: supplies are limited and prices are high. Some families huddle under crude makeshift shelters or sleep in the open. The World Health Organization says disease is rampant amid unsanitary conditions, with only one toilet for every 220 people in Gaza.
A few optimistic diplomats hope that as Israel lowers the intensity of its war in Gaza regional tensions will ebb and more aid will be able to flow. But optimism is in short supply these days. Blinken will no doubt be back to the region soon.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 13, 2024 as "Diplomacy failing in expanding Israel–Hamas war".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription