Away from the media spotlight which remains on Israel’s war on Gaza, there are reports of growing confrontations between the Shia militias of Syria and Iraq and the American soldiers stationed in these countries. There are even reports, eagerly suppressed by both the US and Iran, of an increasing number of American casualties being treated in the region’s hospitals, which makes the situation all the more dangerous and susceptible to an unintended and sudden escalation.
Since the beginning of this latest Gaza war, the international community found solace in the fact that Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, has publicly tried to de-escalate the situation and made clear that he is not seeking an immediate direct engagement with Israel or its allies. The fact that he had to come out and do so twice within a week, however, speaks volumes about the build-up of pressure in the region, which might get out of control at any moment.
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While we live through the unravelling of one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since World War II – the collective punishment of a besieged population of 2.3 million, which has already resulted in the deaths of more than 14,000 people, including over 5000 children – the G7 leaders have struggled even to utter the word “ceasefire”.
Instead, the US and its allies have rallied to call only for much more diluted, inconsequential, and short-lived “humanitarian pauses”. Even as a four-day truce was finally agreed after 47 days of war crimes and indiscriminate violence on Wednesday, the US and its allies did not hesitate to announce their support for Israel’s declared intention to continue its brutal and disproportionate attacks on Gaza after the end of this short “pause” in hostilities.
By effectively giving Israel a carte blanche to do whatever it pleases in Gaza without any consideration of international law or the most basic human rights of the Palestinians, these states shattered their self-constructed image as the guardians of a “rules-based world order”.
They did so partly because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu manipulated their leaders and elites (who seem to be totally disconnected from the populations they represent) to buy into the misleading narrative that on October 7, Israel has experienced an event comparable to the Holocaust at the hands of an evil force that is identical to ISIS.
By evoking memories of the Holocaust, Netanyahu managed to ascribe a level of sanctity to Israel’s unlawful and totally disproportionate reaction, projecting himself and his country as a perpetual victim and creating disdain for any attempt to question or criticise his narrative, both within Israel and in the Western world.
And by likening Hamas to ISIS, he was able to further dehumanise Palestinians and convince the international community of the need to annihilate Gaza to eradicate Hamas, just as they had to do so a few years ago in Mosul to eradicate ISIS.
This, of course, ignores the fact that, unlike ISIS, Hamas is driven not by a blind ideology that requires it to kill nonadherents across the globe. Netanyahu knows well that Hamas is more than just a group of fighters – he knows that it is an idea that is rooted in the aspirations of an oppressed population to resist and liberate itself from the shackles of its oppressors. Even if Israel somehow goes on to kill all the existing Hamas fighters, which is inconceivable without the unleashing of a human catastrophe of biblical proportions on the region, it will only have sown the seeds for a new generation of resistance, united under Hamas or a different avatar, that will make the world yearn for the moderateness of the earlier one.
So, if Netanyahu knows all this, why is he working so hard to convince the world that Hamas is the same as ISIS and thus has to be completely eliminated at any cost?
The answer is simple: Benjamin Netanyahu’s objective, beyond unleashing his wrath on Gaza with impunity, is to convince or manipulate the US into fighting Iran on his behalf. This is something that the veteran Israeli Prime Minister has consistently been advocating ever since the US has done his bidding in Iraq. And he is succeeding – the US has never been as close to an actual confrontation with Iran as it is today.
Iran, on the other hand, and despite its high-pitch rhetoric, remains keen to avoid a direct confrontation with the US. Iran had already made it clear that it did not want to go to war with the US when it refrained from responding in any major way to the January 2020 assassination of its Major General, Qasem Soleimani. Iran’s distaste for escalation was also apparent in its muted response to repeated bombings of Iranian bases in Syria and Iraq by the US and Israel prior to October 7.
In the wake of its first significant diplomatic success against the US since 1979 – which included the unfreezing of $6bn in Iranian assets held in South Korea – rather than embarking on a costly direct confrontation, Iran clearly prefers to act through its various proxy armed groups in the region. These groups have been engaged in a controlled escalation against Israel and the US since October 7 to demonstrate their readiness to act as a deterrent while preventing Iran from being forced into a direct war.
The strongest among Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah, no longer enjoys the regional standing that it once did due to its support of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people in the civil war. Hezbollah is also wary of dragging its fragile home country, Lebanon, into a war that is not its own (considering that Hamas carried the attack on Israel without consulting Hezbollah), and that will inevitably lead to Lebanon’s total economic collapse.
Furthermore, Hezbollah’s praise for the deal Lebanon reached with Israel on the Karish gas field demonstrates its pragmatism in light of the precarious political and economic situation in Lebanon. Hezbollah, for now, is content with helping their ally, Hamas, by ensuring substantial Israeli forces are committed to the north, thus relieving some pressure off Gaza while exacerbating the economic and social woes of Israel by forcing the evacuation of Israelis from the north.
However, despite both Iran and Hezbollah’s desire to avoid a direct confrontation with the US, Netanyahu appears determined to secure his political survival at any cost. In the wake of the biggest intelligence failure in the history of Israel taking place under his watch, Netanyahu declared a religious war on the Palestinians, likening them to Amalekites, thus justifying their genocide, enforced emergency laws by formally declaring war for the first time since 1973, called the army and the reservists, thereby arm-twisting the entire Israeli society into partnership with him and closing the doors to any critical voices against his innumerable failures.
Netanyahu’s repeated provocations and especially his presentation of the war as a religious one, coupled with the US reluctance to reign him in and de-escalate, mean that there is a serious risk of the conflict in Gaza eventually morphing into a much larger regional conflagration, one in the face of which Iran will no longer be able to calm its own proxies in the region.
The region is already at a boiling point. There is a growing antipathy among the Arab, Muslim and wider Global South populations towards the US, whom they see as being complicit in Israel’s war crimes. With the recent Arab uprising still fresh in their memory, the Arab leaders will be careful not to test their populations and be seen as aligning with the US. It is highly probable that in such a volatile situation, Israel will engineer a situation that will instigate a direct confrontation between the US and Iran. It is up to the US to decide if it is willing to become a partner in blood with Netanyahu in this region and get embroiled here for another 10 years, replaying or perhaps even dwarfing their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.