The prospects for peace in the Middle East, particularly in the volatile Israel-Palestine region look bleaker than ever following the deadly events of the past two weeks.
The crisis in this region has been simmering for over 70 years, ever since the British created Israel out of mainly Palestinian lands in 1948, but the flashpoint for the current imbroglio was the brutal attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas two Saturdays ago.
Hamas, designated as a terrorist group by the US FBI and intelligence agencies of many other countries, launched a surprise air, sea and land attack on Israel, in which nearly 1,500 Israelis, mainly civilians, perished. A bigger number of Palestinians perished in Israeli counterattacks in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. The casualties multlplied as Gaza, just half the size of Singapore, squeezes in as many as 2.3 million residents.
Gaza has been subjected to a blockade by both Israel and Egypt (which shares a border crossing) since 2007 with severe restrictions on who can get in and out of the conclave. Since the Hamas attacks of October 7, which came on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel has cut off power, electricity and even food supplies to Gaza, which international human rights organisations have decried as a form of collective punishment violating International Humanitarian Laws (IHL).
The biggest violation of IHL in the ongoing Israel-Gaza war was the bombing of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, with the death toll estimated to be over 500. Most Arab and other Global South countries have pinned the blame on the attack on Israel, although Israel and Western allies have pointed the finger at the Islamic Jihad, the other militant group operating in Gaza. Whoever is responsible, it is a reprehensible and senseless act. The deliberate targeting of any civilian facility, leave alone a hospital, during a war is an unpardonable crime.
The hospital bombing derailed the little efforts that were under way for peace, including a planned summit that would have brought the leaders of Jordan, Palestine Authority and Egypt together with US President Joe Biden, as outrage grew in the Arab world over what they perceived as an extremely cruel act of Israel.
The only concession that President Biden got during his visit to Israel to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was an assurance by Egypt that it would allow aid convoys to pass into Gaza through the Rafah Border Crossing, which it controls.
However, there is still no word from Egypt on opening the crossing to allow Gazans to flee into the Sinai region of Egypt. This is apparently to prevent an exodus of Palestinians into Sinai and also to assure Jordan that it too would not be overrun with Palestinians who might want to leave the restive and occupied West Bank, which the Palestine Authority (PA) nominally controls.
Israel, PA, Arab nations and allies of Israel must somehow prevent the present clash from developing into a wider regional or even global conflict, given the already tense situation in Lebanon where the Iran-backed Hezbollah holds sway.
Iran is also known to be backing Hamas, although the US has pointed out that there is no clear evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the recent Hamas attack. Syria, whose Golan Heights territory was annexed by Israel in 1967, could be another spark waiting to ignite. The world is already on fire as a result of the Russia-Ukraine War, which has upended everything from the energy supply to food transport. Another war could escalate into a wider theatre and affect the entire world in unforeseen ways, in the backdrop of the importance of the Middle East to the global energy supply.
These concerns were highlighted in a lecture delivered in Colombo recently by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who called on the international community to think along the lines of a “four-State solution” for the Israel-Palestine conflict in the context of developments in Lebanon, Syria and even Jordan.
This is a worthy proposal that deserves the attention of the world community, including foes and friends of Israel. But at a minimum, there should be a two-State solution that involves a sovereign Israel and a sovereign Palestine with clearly defined borders and border crossings.
The fate of any conclaves such as Gaza must be clearly spelled out in such an agreement. Israel has for far too long trampled on the rights of Palestinians and to complicate matters, the current Government in Tel Aviv is the most extreme Right-wing administration in Israel since 1948.
But living in peace should be much more desirable than living with hostile neighbours, a fact that “Bibi” as well as Palestinian militants should have realised by now. And even the most robust of defences can sometimes fail.
The outlook for peace may be grim right now, but a start has to be made somewhere as both Israel and Gaza cannot afford to lose any more precious lives. Perhaps we may finally see a flicker of peace arising out of the ashes of conflict in the Middle East this time around.