What’s next in Middle East? Consider these six factors
Iranian Leader Khamenei and drone

Written by

Peter Jennings

Sunday, January 7, is three months since Hamas’s terrorist attack in southern Israel, where more than 1500 jihadists crossed over from Gaza on the morning of a Jewish religious holiday, killed 1200 people, raping and torturing many, and taking several hundred hostages.

The attack aimed to traumatise Israel’s population and it worked. Fearful of similar attacks, a quarter of a million Israelis fled their homes in the south of the country and near the northern border with Lebanon.

Saleh al-Arouri, deputy chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, who was assassinated by a drone strike in Beirut on Tuesday, said shortly before October 7: “A total war has become inevitable. We all consider it necessary. We want it.

“The war will not be like the one in 1967, when the Israeli air force destroyed the Arab air forces, and then was free to hunt down the Arab armies. This will not happen again. Now there are precision weapons, smart weapons, cyber warfare … Since its foundation, Israel has relied on its superiority in classic warfare. They themselves are surprised by the new achievements of weapons, which can be obtained by non-state entities.”

Since then, a massive Israel Defence Forces air and land offensive into Gaza has sought to destroy the political leadership and military capability of Hamas. This operation has not been surgical – military conflict seldom is. Just before Christmas the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry claimed 20,400 Gazans had been killed and 54,000 wounded.

The numbers must be taken with caution but they are not groundless and regularly are quoted in the Israeli media. A December 9 review of this data from Israeli newspaper Haaretz concluded that perhaps 60 per cent of those killed were civilians, including several thousand people killed by misfired Hamas rockets.

Another Israeli assessment is that 8000 Hamas fighters have been killed. A significant number of these are males under 18, called children by the Gaza health ministry, but many are combatants nonetheless.

Sixty per cent of buildings in Gaza are said to have been damaged in hard street-to-street fighting. Dozens of Hamas rockets are still fired daily into Israel, with an estimated 10,600 rockets fired since October 7.

At the end of 2023 the respected Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (known as BESA), an independent think tank near Tel Aviv, reported that 486 IDF personnel had been killed and 1700 wounded on all fronts.

It seems the war in northern Gaza is lessening in intensity with the core of Hamas resistance destroyed. The IDF is withdrawing some combat brigades and switching focus to areas south of Gaza city. Israel’s leaders warn that fighting will continue for months.

What we are seeing in Gaza is a scaling back of large-scale conventional ground forces, possibly over time to be replaced with special forces-type raids against identified Hamas leadership and military concentrations, backed up with human and technical intelligence capabilities and air power.

Hezbollah’s strategic position in Lebanon remains the bigger threat for Israel because of its vast missile arsenal and larger number of fighters.

By the end of last month there had been an estimated 130 Hezbollah casualties, including nine in Syria.

Arouri’s assassination eliminates a key figure in the planning nexus of the terror groups surrounding Israel, all funded, equipped and supplied by Iran. His death also presents a potential trigger for widening the war depending on Tehran’s calculation of the costs and benefits of sustaining a “total war” against Israel.

Making strategic sense of these developments is difficult given the pace and complexity of events. Here I suggest six factors that may play out for Israel, Gaza and the Middle East in coming months.

1 Israel was surprised by October 7 but now understands that it faces a much more difficult strategic problem than can be handled by “mowing the grass” – that is, limited military and intelligence operations to keep the lid on terrorist ideation in Gaza and Lebanon. There is no going back to a tenuous peace with Gaza where thousands of people come into Israel for work under a relaxed secur­ity overwatch. Arouri’s assessment of the changing strategic balance was partly right. Technology and numbers of willing jihadi fighters create a direct existential threat to the Israeli state.

2 Putting the US to one side, the world is not interested in helping Israel. Note the absence of any serious Western democratic effort to try to find a new basis for peace. This has been replaced with vacuous calls for “moderation” with an eye to Muslim diaspora communities but no intent to do anything of substance. The drop-off in Western democratic support for Israel is driven by the rise of an anti-Jewish ideology on the progressive left of global politics, now deeply embedded in universities, areas of the media and the grassroots membership of left and green political parties.

3 Note that Middle Eastern governments have no interest in helping the Palestinians. There has not been a single initiative in the past three months where these states do anything more than posture in international forums about Palestine’s plight or give tokenistic aid. Hezbollah, Hamas and other jihadi groups increasingly threaten Middle Eastern states. They harness a theological and ideological proposition attractive to many in the Arab street. This weakens ruling parties.

4 Jihadi ideology is strengthening, enabled by Iran through the work of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, killed in an American missile strike on January 3, 2020.

Soleimani was the architect of strengthening jihadist proxy groups around Israel – “tightening the noose”, as it was described.

This was aided by linking religious, political, civic and military ideology.

Writing for BESA, Israeli Major-General Gershon Hacohen says: “Hamas’s leadership has taught us that its conduct is guided not by the Palestinians’ economic situation but by a deep religious rationale.”

In 2021 a conference called The End of Days was held in Gaza to shape an approach to “the end of occupation” whereby the Jews would be eliminated from Palestinian lands. Hacohen’s assessment is that: “Religious dreams and prophecies among Muslims led to a belief that the time had come for the revelation, and that what was required of them was military action.”

Central to this ideology is the idea of resistance, that constant momentum is needed towards delivering ultimate victory against the Jews, and a “global Islamic religious conquest”. Victory may not be swift or guaranteed but it is the role of the believer to accept that great losses are justified in pursuing this objective. The October 7 attack was shaped by the idea that this was the moment to start the definitive struggle against Israel. Shortly before his death Arouri told an Al Jazeera interview that “the possibility of a ground invasion into Gaza by the enemy (that is, Israel) is the best scenario to end this conflict and defeat the enemy”.

5 This leads to a fifth judgment: the so-called two-state solution will remain a remote prospect after the war in Gaza.

There is no centre of power in Palestinian politics that will tolerate the existence of the state of Israel and no trust on the part of most Israelis that two states would produce peace. The statement “From the river to the sea” is not just a slogan; it is the only acceptable religious and strategic end-state for Hamas, Hezbollah and other jihadi groups.

It is striking how quickly Western analysts may have forgotten the religious underpinnings to Islamist extremist ideology but important to remember that the ideology has global reach, including into Australia, where it resonates with firebrand Islamist preachers and some in the crowds attending regular Palestinian protests in our capital cities.

6 Iran is working to dominate Middle East security. Last October it was often suggested that Iran sponsored the Hamas attack, thinking that an Israeli response would derail plans to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The Abraham Accords – agreements normalising relations between Israel and several Arab states – have not collapsed. This reflects a reality that many Arab states see Iran as a more immediate threat than Israel, but the Gaza war puts on hold prospects for expanding the accords.

Tehran’s strategic objectives are broader than disrupting the accords. Last month Iran tripled its monthly production of enriched uranium, putting it in a sprint to achieve nuclear weapons capability that will take weeks rather than months.

Iran also has brought itself more directly into the spotlight by using a drone to attack the chemical tanker Chem Pluto, 200 nautical miles off India’s northwest coast, on December 23.

According to the BBC, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have warned they could force the closure of waterways other than the Red Sea if “America and its allies continue committing crimes” in Gaza. The most likely strategic outcome is that Iran will use Hezbollah, Hamas and other proxy forces to string out military action against Israel that remains short of a regional conventional war.

This sustains the jihadist idea of struggle against Israel, and distracts the US from putting strategic priority on supporting Ukraine and resisting Chinese assertion in the Asia-Pacific. Iran is watching reactions in the democracies very closely and judges that Western disarray over supporting Israel can only benefit Tehran’s objective to be the dominant strategic player in the Middle East.

There is a risk that conflict might escalate. It is fundamentally in American, Western, Israeli and the Sunni Arab world’s interest not to let Tehran dominate the Middle East. No country, including Iran, benefits from escalation to all-out war, but just because it’s a bad strategic outcome doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in Iran that killed more than 80 people on Wednesday during a gathering in the city of Kerman to mark the 2020 assassination of Soleimani. Even extremists face threats from other extremists – a reminder that Islamist ideology remains a regional and global threat.

A US airstrike in Baghdad on Thursday killed Moshtaq Talib al-Saadi, a leader of an Iranian-backed Shia militia group that, the US Defence Department claimed, had been attacking American forces. This is a step-up in the willingness of the Biden administration to use force in the Middle East and a message to Tehran that the US will defend its interests.

Both developments point to the highly tense state of the region in which escalation to wider military conflict is both possible and hard to control. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began his fourth visit to the Middle East since October 7, visiting nine capitals and the West Bank in an effort to focus attention on post-conflict reconstruction of Gaza. An underlying objective must be to stop the conflict from widening.

China and Russia are the key beneficiaries from a beleaguered Israel and a fractured Western approach to Middle East security. A former chairman of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Mashal, told Turkish television on October 26: “This is an opportunity. Moscow and Beijing are striving for an international balance of power that will abolish (American) unipolarity. Well, this is your opportunity.” According to translations provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington DC, a Hamas official, Ali Baraka, said in a November 2 interview with a Lebanese YouTube channel: “Today, all of America’s enemies – or all those shown enmity by the US – are growing closer. Today, Russia contacts us on a daily basis. The Chinese sent envoys to Doha, and China and Russia met with the leaders of Hamas. A Hamas delegation travelled to Moscow, and soon a delegation will travel to Beijing.”

Over time Israel will recalibrate who its genuine long-term friends are. China and Russia don’t fall into that category, for all of the failings of traditional Western friends to support Jerusalem.

The war in Gaza points to an increasingly polarised world, split between the democracies and a group of resurgent authoritarian powers. Some key lessons emerge from Australia, most importantly that Middle East security affects our strategic interests even though the Albanese government has little appetite to be involved.

Australia’s global trading interests demand that we should actively support international efforts to keep the Red Sea open to shipping. If the Houthis and Iran succeed in closing that waterway, fuel prices will rise in Australia, as will the cost of trade with Europe.

Australia signed a January 3 joint statement released by the Biden White House calling for Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea to stop and threatening unspecified consequences. Australia’s endorsement of the statement is useful, but words are cheap.

More important is the principle that Australia should stand up for a beleaguered democracy such as Israel, if only in the hope that others will support us when the Indo-Pacific security outlook is worsening.

Australia has always sought to behave in international affairs as a serious country, with global interests, that our actions have substance and that we expect to be treated as a significant power. The Albanese government’s failure to be a practically and actively engaged supporter of Israel and a promoter of the international rule of law is a post-war nadir in Australian foreign policy. Our superficial posturing on what is an immensely complicated set of strategic problems is deeply disappointing.

Australia’s approach should not be uncritical. A Gareth Evans, Alexander Downer or Julie Bishop would have flung themselves into international efforts to construct a pathway to peace and to give Israel a sense that we have their back even as we remain concerned for innocents in Gaza.

Finally, we should remind ourselves that Australia is not immune from the contagion of Islamist extremism.

The weekly protests and sermons from jihadi preachers are not harmless exercises in letting off steam. They promote a radicalising ideology that we cannot tolerate.

This gives rise to the risk of terrorism returning to Australia and throughout our region. Hezbollah claims one Australian has travelled to Lebanon to undertake jihad. Will more be allowed to follow?

Conflict in the Middle East will continue and may get worse. The Albanese government must ensure the right policies are in place to prevent, divert and suppress any impulses on the part of some Australians to join this ideological struggle.

This article originally appeared in the Weekend Australian of 6-7 January 2024