“It’s important, I think, that we all condemn the targeting of civilians in any form at any time,” Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said Saturday, at the beginning of a meeting with Antony Blinken. “The priority now has to be to stop further civilian suffering.”
The Saudis this week suspended a US-led effort to normalize ties with Israel, a serious setback for the Biden administration which has struggled to develop a rapport with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The crown prince is keen to cast himself as a reformist and a modernizer, but the 2018 execution of a dissident in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate and Riyadh’s brutal war in Yemen say otherwise.
The Saudis haven’t formally condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel, to Washington’s consternation. MBS even entertained a call with Ebrahim Raisi this week to discuss the situation. You’d be forgiven for calling that ironic: MBS spent the better part of seven years at war in Yemen with an Iranian proxy which repeatedly launched cross-border attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia, including a spectacularly brazen strike on the Kingdom’s oil infrastructure in September of 2019. The Saudis everywhere and always branded those episodes “terrorist” attacks funded, encouraged and in some cases directly planned by Iran.
But you’d be more than a little naive to suggest a parallel with Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The Palestinian cause is deeply personal for many in the Arab world, and the notion that it can be sidestepped, subjugated to economic concerns or otherwise swept under a prayer rug in the course of high-level diplomacy spearheaded by the US is a dangerous delusion.
MBS and Israel share a common enemy in Iran, but as Ghaith al-Omari, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiation team, wrote for Foreign Affairs, “The Saudi government cannot appear to be cultivating ties with Israel at a time when the country is in an active conflict with the Palestinians.” “For the duration of the fighting in Gaza and its immediate aftermath, a deal with Israel is out of the question,” al-Omari went on.
To casual audiences, this all seems impossibly convoluted. The Mideast is a kind of moving Venn diagram that continually vexes even the most seasoned outside observers, foreign diplomats and Western intelligence services. Every player — the Saudis, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq — have their own unique decision calculus. Washington has never successfully navigated those waters, and it never will, particularly not on something as delicate as Palestinian rights.
Local officials in Gaza on Friday said 70 people were killed by airstrikes while trying to flee south following Israel’s evacuation order. To millions of angry people across the Arab world, it doesn’t matter if Israel targeted them or not. The optics were egregious. The Israeli military on Saturday provided a six-hour window during which civilians can traverse the strip’s two main roads “without any harm.”
In recent days, I’ve endeavored to stress how perilous this situation really is, and I’m thoroughly convinced that the vast majority of Western observers don’t appreciate the gravity of what’s unfolding. It seemed quite clear by Friday that Israel intends to level northern Gaza, invade it, kill anyone deemed a militant and destroy Hamas’s network of tunnels. What was (and will remain) completely unclear is what happens after that.
The trappings of government in Gaza won’t exist anymore. There won’t be any place for the hundreds of thousands of displaced to come back to. The infrastructure, the homes, all of it, will lay in ruins. The idea that impoverished Gazans are going to hike back, rebuild and establish a functional government that’s amenable to peaceful coexistence with Israel isn’t just laughably far-fetched, it’s completely impossible. One idea — I guess — is to impose temporary martial law under the IDF then convince Palestinian authorities in the West Bank to take over. But the West Bank isn’t exactly a bastion of stability, nor is it exemplary of competent governance. It’s just as likely as not that an Israeli ground campaign in Gaza will spark an uprising in the West Bank.
One way or another, Israel will have to occupy — temporarily or otherwise — whatever’s left of northern Gaza. For the entirety of that occupation, the IDF will face an armed insurgency. That insurgency will enjoy popular support from scores of citizens all over the region, not to mention governments, and the longer the war of attrition goes on, the worse the optics will be — not for the insurgents, but for Israel. The odds of this being an “in and out” kind of deal are vanishingly small.
In the meantime, the US and the UN will have to figure out how to get humanitarian aid at least to southern Gaza. That won’t be easy. The track record for so-called “safe zones” and the provision of aid to such specially designated areas during violent conflicts is quite poor. Invariably, Israel will be accused (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) of targeting aid convoys, hospitals, shelters and on and on. In the event it becomes clear that nowhere in Gaza is safe, the crossing with Egypt will be overrun, and it’ll be impossible to determine who’s who in the melee.
In a worst-case scenario, Gaza turns into a mini-Syria. Although geography will severely limit the flow of people, arms, resources and fighters, this is, effectively, a Holy War. I struggle to find a polite way to say this, so I’ll employ a colloquial cadence to soften what might otherwise be an abrasive assessment: The Arab world is excitable, and nothing gets the locals more excited than the idea of a Holy War.
On Saturday, the UN Relief and Works Agency said “hundreds of thousands of people” have been displaced in Gaza “in the past 12 hours alone.” Hamas claimed Israeli airstrikes inadvertently killed another nine hostages.
We should, but never will, get beyond religion. Whatever good can be said of it, the fact that people die every, single day in defense of pure, unadulterated fiction makes it irredeemable. On that front, at least, our species has made worse than no progress in a millennium.