Stopping the Israel-Gaza War to Contain Wider Escalation

December 2023

The longer the war endures, the more complex will a long-term peace be.

By Julien Barnes-Dacey and Hugh Lovatt

Gaza Israel ECFR Beitrag
IMAGO / APAimages

Two months after Hamas's horrific attacks killed more than 1,200 Israelis, Israel’s devastating war on Gaza has killed at least 15,000 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children. This has provoked an immense humanitarian crisis, and left much of the strip completely devastated. Israel’s targeting of Hamas has hurt the group operationally but left it far from destroyed. Meanwhile, there is little-to-no plan for what will come next, and the prospects of renewed political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians seems further off than ever.

But stepping back, a dangerous, even greater threat hangs over the conflict: that of wider escalation. Not only has violence intensified in the West Bank, threatening a deeper Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it has also increased along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon where Hezbollah, which like Hamas is backed by Iran, has stepped-up its attacks on Israel to pressure it to end its offensive in Gaza. Since October 7, the two sides have been engaged in their most intense military exchanges since the 2006 Lebanon war. This has been accompanied by increasing clashes between Iranian-backed militias and US forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as attempted missile attacks on Israel by Yemen’s Houthi movement. The Houthi intervention, accompanied by the group’s hijacking of a commercial ship not far from the Saudi coast, highlights the complexities of a spiralling regional war. Without a sustainable end to the conflict, there is now a real risk that Israel – and its Western backers, namely the United States – will be drawn into a deeper conflict with Iran’s network of regional allies. The U.S. has already sent two aircraft carriers to support Israel, and signalled to Iran and Hezbollah that it will take military action if the conflict widens.

Neighbouring countries and their interests

For the moment, regional actors appear to want to avoid this open-ended and wider conflict, and have been careful to calibrate their attacks to avoid crossing key red lines. While Hezbollah wants to demonstrate support for Hamas and tie up Israeli military resources, it also wants to avoid a repeat of the destruction inflicted on Lebanon by Israel in the 2006 war. A new conflict would result in an even more devastating Israeli military response on the country, backed by U.S. military support. This would place Hezbollah under severe pressure at a time when it already faces significant internal challenges in light of Lebanon's dire economic and political situation.

For its part, Iran does not want to get sucked into a broader conflict that would see key regional partners such as Hezbollah, which it views as critical elements of its wider deterrence posture, dramatically weakened. It is also keen to prevent a full unravelling of ties with the U.S. given its ongoing desire to see some relaxation of U.S. sanctions to allow it to address domestic economic challenges. 

Israel too would suffer in the event of wider conflict. Not only would this divert resources away from Gaza, but Hezbollah now has the capability to deploy an arsenal of around 150,000 missiles. Even against advanced Israeli anti-missile systems, this could impose a catastrophic cost on northern Israel.

But the risks of this regional war will increase as Israel pushes deeper into the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian death toll mounts further. Moreover, even if all parties seek to avoid intentional escalation, one stray missile could unintentionally push the two sides dangerously up the escalatory ladder.

The situation remains fragile

Amid these worrying dynamics, the release in late November of some Israeli hostages in exchange for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza offered a narrow possibility of an alternative pathway, with regional clashes also witnessing a decrease in intensity during the pause. But it was a fragile track, and Israel has since renewed its military campaign on Gaza, taking the fight to the south of the strip where more than 1.5 million Gazans are now sheltering in horrendous conditions. This can be expected to provoke new regional clashes.

For Germany and its European partners, the conflict has forced hard reckonings as strong ongoing support for Israel’s right to self-defence increasingly clashes with its violations of international humanitarian law. This has been accompanied by growing recognition that Israel does not have a viable post-conflict plan. For these reasons, as much as the need to prevent a wider regional unravelling, it is imperative that Europeans now press for a new and prolonged ceasefire: one that is immediately focused on ensuring all Israeli hostages are released, that the suffering unleashed on Gazan civilians ends, and that regional war is prevented.

Moreover, although Israel has had some military success as it has expanded its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, it remains unlikely to completely uproot Hamas, a reality that should also shape European thinking. Whatever happens, the Islamist movement will survive. Beyond its extensive military capabilities, its social, religious, and ideological roots are deeply embedded in Gazan society. Hamas is also not just limited to Gaza. Many of its senior leaders are based abroad, including in Qatar and Lebanon.  

Why Hamas benefits from Israel’s military raids

Equally important, Hamas benefits from strong support among the Palestinian public in the West Bank where it is challenging President Mahmoud Abbas’s deeply unpopular Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli actions are exacerbating this dynamic in a manner that will make the desired end goal of dislodging Hamas even harder. Israel’s nightly military raids deep into Palestinian towns are driving popular anger and strengthening Palestinian support for armed struggle. This spiral of violence is exacerbated by growing attacks by Israeli settlers who are taking advantage of the war in Gaza to threaten Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and in Area C of the West Bank.

Faced with the proliferation of these competing dynamics and regional risks, Europeans need to focus their efforts on a political track that is ultimately the only viable means of dislodging Hamas – which should remain the desired goal – and preventing a regional conflict. Having dealt Hamas a military blow in response to its attacks, this is now the necessary pathway to guarantee Israeli security and Palestinian rights, which are both needed if there is to be sustainable peace.

This means pressing for an extended ceasefire, and using that to wedge open space for a wider diplomatic effort. This will need to contain a strong focus on reforming and renewing the legitimacy of the PA as a viable alternative to Hamas, as well as pressing Israel to make the hard choices to salvage prospects of reaching a two-state solution. Europe has not seriously engaged on either of these two fronts for a very long time. But as difficult as it is to imagine this political outcome, it is the only means of preventing a wider escalation in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, and across the broader region, which will prove even more devastating than the violence witnessed so far. It demands stepped-up European support.

ECFr Julien Barnes-Dacey
seesaw foto

Julien Barnes-Dacey  is the director of the Middle East & North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He works on European policy towards the wider region, with a particular focus on Syria and regional geopolitics.

ECFR Hugh Lovatt
seesaw foto

Hugh Lovatt is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Lovatt has focussed extensively on regional geopolitics and advised European policymakers on the conflicts in Israel-Palestine and Western Sahara.

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