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Israel-Gaza: Why this war is different to the others

By Jeremy BowenBBC international editor
Reuters A girl is helped from rubble after an air strike.Reuters
Palestinians search for casualties at the site of an Israeli strike on a house in the southern Gaza Strip last week

If this Gaza war was like all the others, a ceasefire would probably have been in force by now.

The dead would be buried and Israel would be arguing with the United Nations about how much cement could come into Gaza for rebuilding.

But this war is not like that. It is not just because of the enormity of the killing, first by Hamas on 7 October, mostly of Israeli civilians, followed by Israel's "mighty vengeance" as its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it, which has mostly killed Palestinian civilians.

This war is different to the others because it comes at a time when the fault lines that divide the Middle East are rumbling. For at least two decades, the most serious rift in the region's fractured geopolitical landscape has been between the friends and allies of Iran, and the friends and allies of the United States.

The core of Iran's network, sometimes called the "axis of resistance", is made up of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen and assorted Iraqi militias that are armed and trained by Iran. The Iranians have also supported Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

Iran is also getting closer to Russia and China. Iran has become a significant part of Russia's war effort in Ukraine. China buys a great deal of Iranian oil.

The longer the war in Gaza goes on, and as Israel kills more Palestinian civilians and destroys tens of thousands of homes, the greater the risk of conflict involving some members of those two camps.

WAEL HAMZEH/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters on a TV screenWAEL HAMZEH/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
Hezbollah, and leader Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened to open a second front in the war

The border between Israel and Lebanon is heating up, slowly and steadily. Neither Israel nor Hezbollah want a full-scale war. But as they trade increasingly heavy punches, the risks of uncontrolled escalation will grow.

The Houthis in Yemen have been launching missiles and drones towards Israel. They have all been brought down, so far, by Israel's air defences or by US Navy warships in the Red Sea.

In Iraq, militias supported by Iran have attacked American bases. The US retaliated at some of their sites in Syria. Again, all sides are trying to limit escalation, but controlling the tempo of military action is always difficult.

On America's side are Israel, the Gulf oil states, Jordan and Egypt. The US continues to give strong support to Israel, even though it is clear that President Joe Biden is uncomfortable about the way Israel is killing so many Palestinian civilians. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said publicly that too many Palestinian civilians are being killed.

America's Arab allies have all condemned what Israel is doing and called for a ceasefire. The sight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing their homes in northern Gaza and walking down the main road south raises the ghosts of Israel's victory over the Arabs in its independence war in 1948.

More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes at gunpoint by the Israelis, events referred to by Palestinians as al Nakba - the catastrophe. The descendants of the 1948 refugees include much of the population of the Gaza Strip.

Dangerous talk by some of the extreme Jewish nationalists who are supporting the government of Benjamin Netanyahu about imposing another Nakba on Palestinians is alarming Arab states in America's camp, particularly Jordan and Egypt. One minister in Netanyahu's government even mused about dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza to deal with Hamas. He was reprimanded but not sacked.

All that can be dismissed as the ravings of the lunatic fringe, but it is being taken seriously in Jordan and Egypt. Not nuclear weapons, of which Israel has a large and undeclared arsenal, but the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being forced over their borders.

As for the war itself in Gaza, senior western diplomats from countries that are firm allies of Israel's allies, told the BBC that ending the war, and dealing with the aftermath will be "difficult and messy".

One said that "the only way through will be rebuilding a political horizon for Palestinians". That was a reference to an independent Palestine alongside Israel, the so called two-state solution, a failed idea that survives only as a slogan.

Reviving it, perhaps in the context of a wider accommodation between Israel and the Arabs, is an ambitious plan, and perhaps the best idea around. But in the current atmosphere of pain, alarm and hatred it will be very difficult to deliver.

Reuters Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference with a fingers on his lipReuters
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will have "overall security responsibility" for the Gaza Strip "for an indefinite period"

It won't happen under the current leaderships of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has not revealed his plan for the day after the fighting ends in Gaza, but he has rejected America's idea of installing a government led by the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and ejected by Hamas from Gaza in 2007.

The second part of the American plan is for negotiations on a two-state solution, something that Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed throughout his political life.

Not only is Mr Netanyahu against independence for the Palestinians. His survival as prime minister depends on support from Jewish extremists who believe the entire territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean was given to the Jewish people by God and should all be inside Israel's borders.

Many Israelis want him out, blaming him for the security and intelligence failures that allowed the attacks of 7 October to happen.

The Palestinian President Abbas is in his late 80s and is discredited in the eyes of potential voters, though he has not subjected himself to the ballot box since 2005. The Palestinian Authority cooperates with Israel on security in the West Bank but cannot protect its own people from armed Jewish settlers.

Leaderships change, eventually. If this terrible war in Gaza doesn't force the Israelis, Palestinians and their powerful friends to try again to make peace, then the only future is more war.

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