The signs are ominous—especially in Israel and its neighbours, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Violence, both actual and rhetorical, has been escalating on all three fronts. Gaza could become the immediate flash point as the Palestinians’ ‘March of Return’, which began on 30 March, intensifies and Israeli retaliation becomes increasingly lethal.
On 28 September, 20,000 Palestinians marched to the Gaza–Israel border and seven of them were killed by Israeli bullets. Such confrontations are now becoming an almost daily occurrence. The march began as a civil-society movement born of the mounting economic and political frustrations over the Israeli blockade of the territory that has made life in Gaza ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
Initially, it also had anti-Hamas overtones because of the organisation’s misgovernance of Gaza and its inability to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority that is in nominal control of parts of the West Bank. However, over time it has become a movement organised and orchestrated by Hamas itself. That has made the situation highly combustible, with senior Israeli officials threatening a full-scale invasion of Gaza as happened in 2014. It may lead to a Palestinian eruption in the West Bank as well.
Gaza isn’t the only front on which Israel could be engaged in a war. Another major military confrontation is looming between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed in his address to the UN General Assembly on 27 September that Israeli intelligence had unearthed evidence that Hezbollah is building a missile site near the Hariri International Airport in Beirut and a storage facility underneath a soccer stadium nearby.
According to Israeli sources, those projects are part of a joint effort with Iran to upgrade Hezbollah’s missile capacity so that it becomes an increasing threat to targets deep within Israel. In his speech at the UN, Netanyahu threatened Hezbollah explicitly: ‘I have a message for Hezbollah today: Israel knows what you’re doing. Israel knows where you’re doing it. And Israel will not let you get away with it.’ It sounded almost like a clarion call to combat, for any Israeli attack on these sites is bound to bring about severe retaliation by Hezbollah that could lead to an all-out war like the one witnessed in 2006.
The Israeli threat implicates not only Hezbollah but also Iran and Syria since the missiles are of Iranian origin and are being shipped through Syria. In fact, over the past year Israel has been engaged in repeatedly attacking Iranian troop concentrations in Syria and likely sites for missile trans-shipment to Lebanon with a high degree of impunity. That has introduced increasing recklessness into Israeli actions and led to a major diplomatic spat with Moscow after a Russian plane was accidentally downed by Syrian air defences attempting to intercept Israeli military aircraft attacking targets in Syria.
While a direct military confrontation between Israel and Russia isn’t yet on the cards, Moscow has strongly warned Israel that its irresponsible military adventurism could inadvertently lead to such a clash. It also warned that such actions could put the Israeli–Russian military coordination in Syria in danger. Russia cautioned Israel that its attacks on Syria, even if limited to Iranian targets, are weakening the Syrian regime and harming its attempt to end the war in the country, which is an important Russian objective as well.
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In an immediate response to the downing of the Russian plane, Russia began supplying Syria with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to beef up the latter’s air defences against Israeli air attacks. Israel considers that ‘a worrisome upgrade’ but one unlikely to prevent the Israeli Air Force from operating in Syrian airspace.
Nonetheless, continuing air attacks by Israel on Syrian territory in the context of Russian warnings has the potential to further damage Russian–Israeli relations. One of the consequences of the escalation in tensions could be Russia’s withdrawal of the guarantee it has given Israel that it will persuade Iran to keep its forces at least 100 kilometres away (except in and around Damascus) from the Israeli border to prevent inadvertent clashes. The deployment of Iranian troops and allied Shia militias, including Hezbollah, close to the Syria–Israel border could be the prelude to ground clashes that would add to the combustible situation in the Middle East.
President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has assured Netanyahu that Israel and the United States are on the same page on Iran. He is therefore once again vigorously pursuing his favourite goal of totally eliminating Iran’s nuclear capacity in order to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. That agenda—in combination with the likelihood of an Israeli–Iranian confrontation in Syria, even if unintentional—is highly dangerous and may land the region in a major conflagration that drags in Washington as well.
The Middle East is sitting on a powder keg. No one knows when it will blow up. What is certain is that it’s likely to do so sooner rather than later.
Mohammed Ayoob is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University.
This first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here.