In Gaza’s Shadow: The Middle East in 2024

No end in sight: damage to buildings in Gaza following aerial bombardment by Israel. Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza is dominating the start of 2024 in the Middle East, but the fallout from the war will also shape the region once the fighting eventually ends.

Israel’s furious military response to the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October is about to enter its fourth month, and there are signs that it will not be the last. Early in the new year, Israel announced that it would withdraw some of its ground forces from Gaza, but rather than signalling an end to the war, this likely represents only a shift in Israel’s approach towards a slightly less intensive campaign.

The fact is that Israel is unlikely to stop and declare victory until it can credibly claim to have reached its war aims: the removal of Hamas from power in Gaza, and the destruction of the group’s capacity to pose a military threat to Israel from the territory. Given the somewhat intangible nature of these goals, this may well require – at least from the perspective of the Israeli government – achieving some symbolic victories, including the killing of Hamas’s elusive senior leaders Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Daif, who are widely thought to have been behind the 7 October attacks. How long it will take the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to track them down is anyone’s guess. Other questions, including how Israel intends to deal with an almost completely destroyed Gaza and a displaced and starving population after the war, are even more difficult to answer.

The other way this war could end, it has long been assumed, would be as the result of increased US pressure on Israel to wrap up the fighting, which would eventually culminate in Washington joining the increasingly global consensus to call for a ceasefire. The Biden administration’s rhetoric has changed gradually over the past three months, from an unconditional embrace of Israel and its right to strike back after 7 October to growing warnings about the long-term consequences of the mounting civilian death toll. But the president himself still seems reluctant to do more than to try – presumably – to exert influence on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in private. Moreover, it is also far from certain that Netanyahu would be particularly receptive to US pressure, at least in the short term, and especially in a presidential election year in which he might see an opportunity to extract as much as he can from across the US’s deeply polarised political spectrum.

The Iranian/Houthi Challenge in the Red Sea

As the war in Gaza continues, the risks of an expansion of the conflict will remain ever-present. At the beginning of 2024, the Red Sea and the Houthis in Yemen have moved into the spotlight in this regard. Through a combination of missile and drone attacks and hijackings, the group whose rebellion against the Yemeni government in 2014 triggered the war in Yemen that is still going on today and which has close ties to Iran has significantly disrupted traffic through one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.

The US, backed by European allies like the UK, is leading the international response, and will likely do what it can to keep Israel from taking direct action against the Houthis. From Washington’s perspective, it is clearly preferable to treat the Houthi problem as one akin to that posed by piracy off the Somali coast in the 2000s, rather than to let the Yemeni militia claim to be part of a regional war against Israel and the West. Still, any military effort to remove the Houthi threat to international shipping through the Red Sea is liable to have unintended consequences and might reduce the chances of bringing the war in Yemen to a close in 2024.

The challenge of how to deal with Iran, including its nefarious influence across the Middle East and its nuclear programme, must once again be a top priority for policymakers everywhere

Moreover, unless they are destroyed completely (a highly unlikely prospect), the Houthis – and with them their backers in Tehran – have already succeeded in shifting parts of the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East and beyond. From 2023/24 onwards, anyone with a stake in global shipping – that is, almost every economy in the world – will have to face the fact that Iran and its allies now hold at risk two of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints, the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab Al-Mandeb. In other words, the challenge of how to deal with Iran, including its nefarious influence across the Middle East and its nuclear programme, must once again be a top priority for policymakers everywhere, from Washington to capitals across Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The Risk of a Hezbollah–Israel War Remains

But escalation risks loom large elsewhere too. Thus far, the much-feared escalation between Israel and Hezbollah has not happened. Violence across the Israeli-Lebanese border has reached its highest level since the 2006 conflict, but both Israel and Hezbollah have carefully avoided a full-scale war. This could change in 2024.

The assassination of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut on 2 January, widely attributed to Israel, should put everyone on notice. Israel may bet on Hezbollah’s – and its backer Iran’s – continued desire to keep most of its powder dry for some future confrontation. But brazen strikes on residential areas in Lebanon’s capital are precisely the kind of actions that are liable to increase the political pressure on Hezbollah, which likes to present itself as Lebanon’s protector, especially against its southern neighbour. (It must also be noted that the al-Arouri assassination highlights the possibility that Israel could make good on its threats to pursue Hamas leaders elsewhere in the Middle East – with obvious deleterious consequences for regional stability.)

Yet, the risk of war between Israel and Hezbollah goes beyond the possibility of a tit-for-tat spiralling out of control. In October, fearing Hezbollah might follow Hamas’s example and try to invade northern Israel, the IDF evacuated dozens of towns and villages near the border (including Kiryat Shmona, a city of more than 20,000 residents). The Israeli government now faces the dilemma that it can hardly tell people to go back to their homes unless it can claim that their security situation has meaningfully changed. Israel insists that Hezbollah must at least comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and withdraw to the north of the Litani River – about 20 miles from the border with Israel – but to no avail.

This raises the risk that Israel might eventually resort to using more force than it already does in its near-daily skirmishes with Hezbollah. Israeli leaders may convince themselves that they can achieve their objectives with a limited military campaign, but any operations by Israeli ground forces on Lebanese soil could well upend the restraint Hezbollah has shown to date and result in a war that could be hard to contain. At the very least, the front in such a war would likely extent beyond Lebanon to the Israeli-Syrian border, where Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups have long been expanding their positions.

Beyond Boiling Point: The West Bank and Israel

The third area in which the war in Gaza is likely to contribute to existing instability, with potential consequences for the wider region, is the situation in the West Bank and Israeli domestic politics, which are closely linked.

In 2024, regional powers will likely seek to protect whatever they can of the de-escalatory trend of the past few years

Although overshadowed by the death and destruction in Gaza, the West Bank has seen the highest levels of violence since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. More than 450 Palestinians were killed in 2023 – most of them in IDF operations, some by extremist Israeli settlers; 28 Israelis, including 24 civilians, also died in the West Bank in 2023. The Palestinian Authority, which nominally controls at least part of the West Bank, is feckless and despised by the people it is meant to represent. Within the Israeli government, the territory falls under the purview of Netanyahu’s most right-wing allies, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, both of whom are committed to further settlement expansion and removing any prospect of a future Palestinian state. This, together with a Hamas’s aspirations to expand its influence in the West Bank, is a recipe for the eruption of a Third Intifada. But even if there is no escalation in 2024, the West Bank is likely to move to the centre of the reinflamed Israeli-Palestinian conflict once the war in Gaza ends.

One key driver of developments in the West Bank will be Israeli domestic politics. Hamas’s 7 October attack brought Israel’s deeply polarised political landscape together, but the stark divisions clearly remain. On 1 January, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the judicial reform the Netanyahu government had pushed through the Knesset in July in the face of massive public protests. The prime minister has been on the ropes politically since 7 October; with the worst breakdown of security in Israel’s history happening on his watch, his defeat in any upcoming election is widely regarded as almost certain. However, Netanyahu has been nothing if not a political survivor. His and his right-wing allies’ fight to stay in power will shape Israel – and what Israel does, including in Gaza, the West Bank and the wider region – throughout 2024.

A Regional Order in Tatters

Zooming out to the regional level, 2024 in the Middle East will likely be defined – once again – by questions about the region’s future order. The Gaza war has upended what appeared to be the beginnings of a new arrangement in the region that was characterised by a collective pragmatic emphasis on de-escalation among regional powers. The Gulf Arab states, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and even Syria all appeared intent on finding ways to work together despite their differences; Israeli-Arab normalisation seemed to be progressing towards an eventual deal to formalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In 2024, regional powers will likely seek to protect whatever they can of the de-escalatory trend of the past few years. Their domestic socioeconomic development, the number one priority for most governments in the region – especially those in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the region’s most influential Arab states – depends on maintaining at least a modicum of stability. However, as the events of the past three months have shown, their ability to prevent the region’s various complex conflicts – not only that in Israel–Palestine, but also those in Libya, Syria and Yemen – from exploding in their faces is very limited.

In late 2023, the US stepped in. From the perspective of most of the US’s long-term Arab partners in the region, the Biden administration has given Israel too much leeway and been too uncritical of its response to the Hamas attack. But they were also relieved that the massive deployment of US military assets to the region after 7 October, aimed at deterring Iran and Hezbollah, helped to stave off an immediate widening of the conflict. Riyadh is also glad that the US is dealing with the Houthis’ disruption of traffic through the Red Sea, enabling the Kingdom itself to preserve its own fragile understanding with the group which it hopes can allow it to end its eight-year military intervention in Yemen.

However, Saudi Arabia and other regional states can be under no illusion that the US, regardless of who is elected president at the end of the year, ultimately does not want to regard the Middle East as one of its top priorities anymore. At the same time, the current crisis has shown that neither China, Russia nor any other contenders – real or imagined – to the status of centres of gravity in an emerging multipolar order have the ability or will to meaningfully support or manage regional security and stability. For the Middle East, 2024 will therefore be yet another unsettling year, in which governments will have to dedicate far more bandwidth than they would like to their region’s disorder and uncertain place in the world.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Tobias Borck

Senior Associate Fellow

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