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War on Gaza: Israel is dragging the US into a future regional war

If Washington allows Israel to turn Gaza into a giant refugee camp that gradually forces Palestinians onto the boats, an unprecedented existential battle will unfold across the region
US President Joe Biden looks down as he speaks during a campaign event at El Portal Restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, on 19 March, 2024 (AFP)

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked whether he agreed with the recent “Victory of Israel” conference, which called for the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, he said the ministers from his government who attended were “entitled to their opinions”.

This was, as usual, misleading. Just months earlier, he had reportedly tasked Ron Dermer, one of his closest aides, with exploring ways to “thin out” Gaza’s population.

The idea was to bypass the resistance of Egypt, the US and Europe to another mass wave of refugees, by opening up the sea as a humanitarian gesture.

Israel Hayom, which got a copy of the plan, noted: “The phenomenon of refugees in war zones is an accepted thing. Tens of millions of refugees have left war zones across the globe in just the last decade, from Syria to Ukraine. All of them were found to have an address in the countries that agreed to accept them as a humanitarian gesture.

“So why would Gaza be different? … The sea is also open to the Gazans. At its will, Israel opens the sea crossing and enables a mass escape to European and African countries.”

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There is no sign that Netanyahu has abandoned his plan to push significant numbers of Palestinians onto boats - nor, despite the many tensions in the war cabinet, that the army is resisting these orders. 

Addressing a private meeting of the Knessett's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Netanyahu said the port could facilitate the removal of Palestinians from Gaza. He added there was "no obstacle" to the Palestinians leaving the Gaza Strip apart from the unwillingness of other countries to accept them, according to a Kan News journalist.

If no cogent plan for the day after the war yet exists, there appears to be a consensus on keeping the whole population of Gaza in tents, dependent on aid that Israel alone controls.

Famine and exile 

Things are proceeding to plan. After five months of war, 1.1 million people - half the population - have completely exhausted their food supplies and are struggling with catastrophic hunger. This is the highest number of people ever recorded as facing catastrophic hunger by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification.

The famine is most acute in Gaza’s two northern governorates, where around 300,000 people remain trapped. 

It could be stopped within 24 hours, such is the amount of aid waiting at Gaza’s borders. Thousands of trucks have been stalled on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, while a shipload of aid from Turkey was stuck at Israel’s Ashdod port for months. 

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But no amount of dire warnings from the United Nations and the White House, nor indeed the pending genocide case before the International Court of Justice, is pushing Netanyahu into releasing the aid that is brimming on Gaza’s borders. Instead, world leaders talk as though the bottleneck at the borders has no agency; that it is just happening. 

Restricting the flow of aid is a policy owned as much by MKs Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot as by Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. Mass famine is a tried and tested means of propelling unruly subjects into exile. As is often the case in the history of colonialism, Britain tried it first.

The consequences of what is happening before our eyes today are powerful enough to fuel resistance and victory for generations to come

US President Joe Biden clapped, but he must have been inwardly squirming when Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar reminded him of the parallels between what is happening now under his watch and the 19th-century Irish famine.

Speaking at the St Patrick’s Day shamrock ceremony at the White House, Varadkar said: “Mr President, as you know, the Irish people are deeply troubled about the catastrophe that’s unfolding before our eyes in Gaza. When I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have such empathy for the Palestinian people, and the answer is simple: we see our history in their eyes. A story of displacement, of dispossession and national identity questioned or denied, forced emigration, discrimination and now hunger.”

A group of historians of the Great Famine have appealed in a letter “to the conscience of Irish America”.

“We ask Irish Americans in their capacity as citizens, as members of cultural and benevolent societies, as political leaders, to use their influence to avert a Famine as severe as the one faced by their ancestors,” the letter states. “To do this it is necessary that the United States ceases arming Israel; that it puts pressure on Israel to halt its military action and lifts its blockade on Gaza; that it refrains from using its veto at the UN Security Council in relation to Palestine; that it restores funding to UNRWA, the agency best-equipped to provide relief; that it acts as an honest broker to bring about an agreed political settlement between Israel and Palestine.”

Powerful message

This list is so far from Biden’s agenda that it takes a truly well-oiled machine politician to clap and nod at Varadkar, while going ahead with the sale of F35s to Israel

Away from the hot mikes, Biden reportedly shouted and swore when told at a private meeting at the White House about his falling poll numbers in Michigan and Georgia over his handling of the war on Gaza, saying he believed he had been doing what was right, despite the political fallout.

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But there is an even more powerful message behind the parallels between the two famines. 

As Biden knows only too well from his own history - he is a descendant of a survivor of the Great Famine - British repression did not quench the flames of rebellion. It fanned them. 

The Great Famine laid the roots of the struggle for independence, quite literally, in the parts of Ireland that were hit hardest. Skibbereen, on the extreme western tip of West Cork, was one of the regions worst affected by the famine between 1845 and 1852. The area went on to produce three of the leading figures of the Easter Rising of 1916: Michael Collins, Tom Barry and Jeremiah O’Donovan-Rossa.

By 1916, few people were alive who remembered the famine, but that mattered little. Their descendants did

The same applies to the Palestinian national cause today. The fight for a Palestinian state, for an end to Israeli occupation, has been electrified and regenerated by mass starvation in Gaza. The consequences of what is happening before our eyes today are powerful enough to fuel resistance and victory for generations to come. 

But Netanyahu’s Doomsday machine is in no mood to give up trying. In fact, it has only just started.

The plan in action

Ever since tribal leaders in Gaza rejected plans to distribute aid under Israel’s control, and form the prototype of a Vichy regime, there has been a burst of fighting in the northern provinces and another battle at al-Shifa hospital

The two are connected. The tribes organised “popular committees” to guarantee the delivery of aid convoys to Unrwa distribution centres. In reality, the convoys were guarded by a variety of factions, including Fatah and Hamas. The deliveries were a huge success, the first that had gotten through by land for weeks.

But they were also a huge blow to Israel - firstly by showing that Hamas was still active and capable of organisation in the north, and secondly because they meant that Israel had temporarily lost control of the distribution of aid, its key point of pressure on the population.

An aid convoy enters the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing with Egypt on 20 November 2023 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
An aid convoy enters the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing with Egypt on 20 November 2023 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Accordingly, Israeli forces targeted and killed the man responsible for coordinating the convoys, police operations director Faiq Mabhouh, after trapping him in al-Shifa hospital.

Air strikes followed, and on Tuesday, at least 23 Palestinians responsible for providing security for aid supplies were killed. This is an extremely unwise thing for Israel to do if it is trying to establish some form of civilian control when the war ends. 

By declaring war on the tribes with whom it had been trying to talk for the past five months, Israel is uniting the entire population of Gaza behind the Palestinian factions.

There is no shortage of organisational capacity in Gaza; it is now united against Israel.

Writing on the wall

Netanyahu’s game plan is now clear: prolong the war as long as possible; seal all the land borders, ending with Rafah; and make the sea the only escape route for Palestinians from Gaza.

Behind the hot words of condemnation, Biden and the EU have thus far played into his hands. The infrastructure for just such a plan is being built before our eyes, with Washington’s willing assistance. 

The floating pier was not a reaction to impending famine. It was part of the planning that created it

A “temporary pier” is being constructed to accept aid directly into Gaza, with Biden saying it would be able to “receive large shipments carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelter”. The goal is to allow “a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day,” he said.

Biden is making out as if the port was his idea, and a response to the famine. It was neither. 

The plan for a maritime route to Gaza via Cyprus was initiated by Netanyahu, a senior diplomatic source told The Jerusalem Post. “Netanyahu took the initiative to establish maritime humanitarian aid for the civilian population in the Gaza Strip, in collaboration with the Biden administration,” the source said.

The date when this happened is more important than the identity of the scheme’s author. According to this report, Netanyahu outlined his strategy to Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides on 31 October, just three weeks after the Hamas attack, and revisited the matter with Biden on 19 January.

In other words, the floating pier was not a reaction to impending famine. It was part of the planning that created it.

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And look where the pier is being built. A perfectly good and bigger port already exists in Gaza City, but this would not suit Netanyahu’s purposes. The new port is appearing at the end of the road the Israeli army has carved through the centre of the Gaza Strip to divide north from south. While US troops will build the pier, the aid that comes through it will be administered or checked by the Israeli army.

As the pier-building ship chugs its way slowly towards Gaza, and it will be two months before the new port is up and running, US Navy sources say the details of how aid will flow into Gaza from the sea have yet to be worked out - for good reason.

The road and the port will be under the Israeli army’s control, the same army that has throttled existing points of entry and targeted Palestinians trying to secure UN aid trucks. Anyone who knows the region and the history of this conflict should beware the use of the word “temporary” when applied to infrastructure of this nature. 

The separation wall in the occupied West Bank was meant to be a temporary reaction to suicide bombers. The siege of Gaza was supposed to be temporary. And now we are being asked to accept a port in Gaza under Israeli army control as a temporary structure to deal with famine.

Coming your way

If anyone should wise up quickly to these plans, it should be the governments of Cyprus, Greece and Italy, who will be the destination points for the new refugee crisis that Israel is planning.

The EU has just announced an $8bn package as part of a deal to check migration from Egypt, giving it to the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose misrule created the problem. 

That’s the logic of Fortress Europe: back a dictator who creates havoc in his country and forces thousands of Egyptians onto boats, and then reward him by turning the human tide of misery he has created into a much-needed revenue stream.

By closing Rafah for good, Israel will deprive Egypt of its last strategic card: Gaza. Having surrendered the status of leader of the Arab world, lost all influence over its neighbours, Sudan and Libya, Sisi is only left with one task, acting as Europe’s XL bully against refugees.

The EU is about to repeat the same mistake with Netanyahu: allow Israel to stop the flow of international aid to Gaza through all land borders, and then help build the infrastructure for the next tidal wave of refugees. After all, if it worked in Syria, it can work in Gaza.

Palestinians clear rubble after an Israeli bombardment in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp on 20 March 2024 (AFP)
Palestinians clear rubble after an Israeli bombardment in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp on 20 March 2024 (AFP)

If Brussels does not wise up today to the Israeli government’s plan for Gaza, it will very soon, when the boats filled with Palestinians start arriving on the islands of Greece and the shores of Italy.

But there is another point that Washington needs to recognise. It listened to Netanyahu when in 2002, as a private citizen, he testified to Congress that the invasion of Iraq would be “a good choice”.

The US listened, and look what happened. The invasion of Iraq set off a chain of events that plunged the whole region into turmoil, vastly expanded the reach of Iran in the Arab world, and reignited sectarian divisions.

Israel is no longer a strategic US asset and military partner. It is the seed, incubator and hothouse of a regional war

Today, Israel’s invasion of Gaza is uniting the Arab world against Israel. The Houthis are now the toast of Arabs all over the Middle East for their campaign against western shipping in the Red Sea. But US policy keeps on being led by Netanyahu.

A dangerous and potent mixture is brewing in Arab hearts all over the world: anger, deep humiliation and guilt. This is a recipe for an existential war the likes of which this generation of Israelis has never experienced and has no appetite for. 

If Biden follows Israel down this path, he will lose the next election. The fury among Arab Americans is off the charts. But that is of little strategic consequence, so badly has the Democratic president behaved. 

If the US allows Israel to turn Gaza into a giant refugee camp that gradually forces Palestinians onto the boats, though, that will be of huge strategic consequence, dwarfing the fallout of the doomed invasion of Iraq.

Israel is no longer a strategic US asset and military partner. It is the seed, incubator and hothouse of a regional war. If that happens, the US deserves everything that is coming to it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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