November 2, 2023
IntelBrief: Dangerous Escalation in Gaza Imperils Civilians, Risks Global Ramifications
Nearly a month into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the situation continues to escalate, with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attempting to push further into Gaza as part of its long-awaited ground incursion. And while the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains dire, with hospitals running out of fuel, one small glimmer of hope appeared yesterday when Reuters reported that – as part of a deal mediated by Qatar and the United States, and agreed to by Egypt, Israel, and Hamas – 81 wounded Palestinians and as many as 500 foreign passport holders would be allowed cross through the Rafah border crossing to Egypt in the coming days. According to an Egyptian official, so far, 76 wounded and 335 individuals with foreign passports have entered Egypt from Gaza. NBC News reported on Wednesday that less than ten Americans had been granted permission to join the initial evacuation, though a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State did confirm that multiple Americans had left Gaza. According to Reuters, approximately 7,500 foreign nationals will be evacuated from Gaza in the coming weeks; the hope is that the recent agreement will serve as a building block for further negotiations related to the hostages.
Even with the positive news of the Rafah crossing, the situation in Gaza remains grim. Israeli airstrikes hit the Jabaliya refugee camp on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Israel stating that one of its strikes killed Ibrahim Biari, one of the alleged planners of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack. Yet the collateral damage was immense, with scores of Palestinian civilians killed and injured. The images from Jabaliya were devastating, showing civilians combing through rubble to save those trapped underneath. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an IDF spokesperson, commented that “this is the tragedy of war” in response to questions about the attack. Some military analysts have suggested that whatever tactical gains Israel has secured from its campaign to date, its approach has been myopic, and Israel is risking losing the battle for public opinion, in the Middle East and beyond. In one high-level example of how the situation is viewed internationally, Craig Mokhiber, the director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, resigned over the war in Gaza, distraught over how things are unfolding and frustrated that the UN has little power to prevent further tragedy. More than eight thousand Palestinians have reportedly been killed so far in the current conflict, many of them children.
The situation in the region continues to escalate, with Iran-backed proxy groups, including the Houthis in Yemen and Shia militia groups in Iraq, firing missiles and rockets at Israel and U.S. forces based in the region, respectively. As part of its regional strategy, Iran has mastered the ability to walk right up to the line of conflict without crossing it, avoiding major blowback. In addition to stoking its proxies, Iran is also working behind the scenes to wage cyberattacks against Israel and other regional governments, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah remains a wild card, with the region awaiting a Friday speech planned by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to see if his remarks will indicate whether the group will become more directly involved in the conflict. So far, Hezbollah has engaged in tit-for-tat exchanges with Israel in what some have described as controlled escalation. However, there is significant room for miscommunication and miscalculation, even as the United States signals to Hezbollah and its primary sponsor, Iran, to avoid more direct confrontations. In a clear show of strength intended to deter Hezbollah, the U.S. has moved major military assets into the region, including two carrier strike groups and a host of missile defense batteries.
Even as the war has so far managed to avoid ensnaring the region, it has spilled over beyond the Middle East. As mentioned in Congressional testimony on Tuesday from FBI Director Christopher Wray, the Hamas-Israel conflict could inspire violent extremists and lone actors to attempt attacks on U.S. soil. According to Wray, “Here in the United States, our most immediate concern is that violent extremists—individuals or small groups—will draw inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks against Americans going about their daily lives.” However, he also said the FBI has “no information to indicate that Hamas has the capability or intent to conduct attacks inside” the United States.
The stabbing of a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Chicago is an example of the globalization of the war, and there is a significant risk of reciprocal radicalization, with supporters of Israel on one side, and of the Palestinians on the other, attacking each other at protests, rallies, and demonstrations. The tense situation on college and university campuses could breed further incidents, as well. Earlier in the week, a 21-year-old student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, was arrested and charged with posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications, according to federal prosecutors in the Northern District of New York. The suspect allegedly threatened to “shoot up” a predominantly kosher dining hall on campus, “stab” or “slit the throat” of Jewish men, and rape and murder Jewish women. Citing U.S. government statistics, FBI Director Wray noted that Jews in America suffer "something like 60 percent of all religious-based hate crimes and incidents" despite representing only about 2.4 percent of the American population. Anti-Semitism has surged abroad, too, with ugly scenes playing out recently at the airport in Dagestan when roving gangs stalked the airport in search of passengers who were scheduled to arrive in the Russian republic from Tel Aviv.
In the United States, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are split over U.S. President Joe Biden’s request for $105 billion in aid, a package that includes money for both Israel and Ukraine. Some Republican lawmakers are insisting that aid to Israel and Ukraine be unbundled, and the newly elected Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives opted to force a separate vote on the Israel aid, stealing away hope that support for Israel could be used to overcome growing Republican resistance to furthering support for Ukraine. Both U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have sought to make the case for including assistance to Israel and Ukraine together by portraying the threat posed by an Iranian-Russian axis. Domestic political dysfunction in the United States could greatly imperil Ukraine’s efforts to resist Russia’s continued war of aggression. Given the political infighting and backbiting in Washington, there is growing concern that the United States will be ill-prepared to respond to a number of global contingencies: the potential for escalation in the Middle East, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and a myriad of other hotspots worldwide. Just as Israel was caught off guard by the Hamas attack of October 7 by focusing too narrowly on the growing threat of Iran, the United States could also fall victim to strategic surprise from a near-peer competitor like China, which could recognize that the U.S. is preoccupied with the situation in Gaza and consumed by political partisanship and polarization at home.