The ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been a long-standing issue, involving terrorist acts, riots, uprisings, targeted assassinations, failed diplomatic talks, and attacks. This latest rematch, referred to as the fifth Arab-Israeli War, has unprecedented risks and far-reaching implications, potentially engulfing the entire region and attracting external great powers. The situation is in flux, but it appears to foreshadow larger events that may reshuffle the regional balance of power for generations to come.
The belief that the post-Cold War era was a turning point for global peace, cooperation, and prosperity has been muddied by reality. The dream of the ‘Arab Spring’ pushing the MENA region towards progress has been buried by nightmarish events, and the spectre of war haunts the current international system in a way not seen since WW2. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas is merely the final nail in the coffin of the ‘end of history.’ In this confrontation, even the most basic rules of war are being intentionally disregarded, and when belligerents think their survival is at stake, anything goes, including bloodshed. Hamas is responsible for the execution of hundreds of unarmed Israeli civilians, while Israel’s retaliation seeks not just the elimination of Hamas but also a Carthaginian peace in which Gaza is no longer livable, even if such an outcome requires a deliberate humanitarian disaster.
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran highlights the importance of understanding the consequences of unrestricted cruelty. Both sides seem to believe their actions are justified, but they are overlooking the warnings of Machiavelli about the counterproductive fallout of unrestricted cruelty. The “rules-based order” is a delusion, as it ignores the consequences of ignoring the harsh truth. War is a complex phenomenon, with nonstate forces increasingly participating in conflicts. In this confrontation, Hamas launched attacks that combined sophisticated operational tactics with brutal acts. It remains unclear whether the Islamic Republic of Iran supported the devastation unleashed by Hamas with logistics, cash, materiel, technology, or intelligence.
Iran’s involvement would be consistent with Tehran’s modus operandi as the mastermind behind militant proxies, the pursuit of regional hegemony, and its apocalyptic religious ideology. Israel’s intelligence chiefs have noted an undeclared and hybrid war between Jerusalem and Tehran. Both regional powers have not clashed directly with kinetic instruments of power projection, but have been fighting indirectly through cyberwarfare, targeted killings, covert operations, and proxy battles.
The Israeli counteroffensive uses traditional tactics like airstrikes and military mobilizations to invade Gaza, but also employs unconventional measures like suspending water, fuel, electricity, and fuel supplies. The aim is to elicit humiliating surrender or exodus. The counteroffensive also involves spreading black propaganda and disinformation, fueling aggression in American and European cities.
States are driven by impersonal forces to engage in a constant Darwinian struggle over strategic control of space to secure the Lebensraum needed for survival, strength, and resource harvesting. This principle is one of the key assumptions of geopolitical thinking, which understands international relations through the lens of historical security materialism. The Levant, as the Eastern flank of the Mediterranean, has always been fought over by Western and Eastern empires because it is a platform for the projection of power through both land and sea.
The territorial claims of Israelis and Palestinians are mutually exclusive, and Israel needs to increase its strategic depth and ensure a favourable demographic balance. Hamas is relying on asymmetric tactics to terrorize and demoralize Israeli society, trigger the slow-motion downfall of the Jewish state, and weaken the territorial control of the West Bank by Fatah. Iran’s imperial endgame is the creation of a regional Shiite Crescent that goes from the Levant to the core of Central Asia.
The “two-state solution” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians is dead, with only one “between the river and the sea” possible. The long-term state is uncertain, as history shows weaker enemies often defeat stronger forces. The concept of politics, identified by Carl Schmitt, is the collective categorical distinction between friends and enemies. Human beings belong to collective structures that share common denominators like language, historical background, religion, worldviews, cultural heritage, traditions, and expectations. However, identities are relational and make them exclusive of outsiders. The concept of the political presupposes the prospect of aggression as a latent possibility, which is why most Israelis are willing to forget their differences to rally around the flag under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu. Hamas also understands the concept of political and is willing to kill as many Israeli citizens as possible because they belong to a state seen as its collective existential enemy.
The concept of the political is ambivalent, as it can ensure survival, preparedness, and vitality but can also lead to bloodthirsty antagonism. In this case, both Israelis and Palestinians understand the concept of the political and its ominous implications. The conflict is not due to a lack of mutual understanding, but rather because both sides understand each other well enough to know that their fundamental interests cannot be reconciled. Diplomatic solutions have failed because neither side truly wanted peace, only to buy time and manage the conflict until the scores could be settled permanently.
Conventional wisdom dictates that order is preferable to chaos in high politics, but turmoil can bring strategic windows of opportunity worth harnessing to seek advantages, turn the tables, establish facts on the ground, and alter the existing correlation of forces. The attack launched by Hamas has undermined the diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf petro-monarchies, likely intended to reverse the increasing loss of support for Palestinians in much of the Arab world. Israel is attempting to eliminate Hamas, regain its deterrence credibility, and expel the Gazan population under the same tense conditions.
Jerusalem realizes it will never be truly loved in the Arab world, but seizes the opportunity to make itself feared. If Iran is the orchestrator and sponsor of the attacks launched by Hamas, Tehran likely expects to derail the normalization of ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh, instigate unrest throughout the Arab world, and potentially generate the critical mass needed to bring down regional regimes seen as too close to the West and Israel. Another hypothetical Iranian purpose could be the proliferation of inter-ethnic tensions and jihadist violence in Western Europe.
Teheran has become a powerful tool in weaponizing chaos, offering opportunities for states not directly involved, such as Russia. A war in the Middle East would divert Western weapons and diplomatic support from Ukraine to Israel, deepening and accelerating the depletion of supplies for the Ukrainian war effort. This would give Moscow an upper hand, bolstering its efforts to rewrite the balance of power in Eastern Europe and strategic corners of the post-Soviet space by its national interests.
The prospect of a conventional war in the Middle East would bring substantial economic benefits for Russia due to the increase in international prices of fossil fuels. China can leverage its pragmatic ties to key actors (Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) to position itself as a credible diplomatic broker, advancing Beijing’s agenda in the Middle East. According to the realist school, statecraft is rational in the sense that it involves the instrumental use of power, capabilities, resources, and assets in the pursuit of national interests. Miscalculations can cause unforeseen externalities and trigger chain reactions, highlighting the importance of accurate strategic intelligence in crises to prevent backfires.
Hamas’ attack against Israel could potentially lead to its demise due to Jerusalem’s counterstrike. Israel is now caught between a rock and a hard place, and if Israel does not respond decisively, the perception of weakness will strengthen the resolve of jihadist militants to attack Israeli targets.
If Israeli reprisals are too harsh, they might be a recipe for disaster in the long run. Israel has the potential to flatten Gaza, but the resonance of such a tactical victory could bring an unpleasant strategic blowback, potentially overthrowing Arab regimes seen as Israeli partners, which could be leveraged by Tehran and its regional pseudopods.
Israel may have unintentionally contributed to Iran’s rise as a regional hegemon in the Greater Middle East, with the resurgence of the Persian imperial tradition in the 21st century being influenced by the US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The liberal school of thought in political economy suggests that free trade and economic exchanges can create a ‘Pax Mercatoria’ where people can engage in business rather than wage war. However, this view is based on an inaccurate view of human nature, which is driven by an Animus Dominandi.
Israel initially offered economic benefits to Palestinians to discourage conflict, but this approach was not effective. In 2021, Gaza’s GDP per capita was higher than Egypt’s, making economic sanctions less useful in deterring aggressive behaviours. The Islamist militia, Hamas, was not sacrificing its political outcomes in exchange for money, but simply buying time until it could harm and humiliate Israel.
Israelis became complacent, adopting a high-tech merchant princeling mindset and developing intelligence, cyberwarfare, and special operations forces instead of conventional mobilizations. The Biden administration unfroze 6 billion USD worth of Iranian assets in an attempt to pursue détente with Tehran. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran is more hawkish and determined to fight Israel to the last Palestinian. In the grand scheme of things, economics is the extension of politics through other means, but not an alternative.
The ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel is not solely driven by territorial, strategic, or political reasons but is also exacerbated by militant ideological and religious worldviews. Unlike previous Arab-Israeli wars, Zionism, a secular movement, has evolved into a confrontation with hardliners who represent religious Zionism, Caesarist tendencies, and theocratic aspirations.
The Palestinians, once the dominant political faction, have seen Fatah fade into oblivion due to diminishing legitimacy, political failures, corruption, and the proliferation of jihadism. This has led to the empowerment of militant Islamists who embrace a messianic ideology with eschatological undertones. Both sides in this conflict embrace illiberal ideologies, which are increasingly uncompromising. A confrontation between zealots and cynical statesmen guided by self-interest is dangerous, as the protagonists are zealots rather than cynical statesmen.