Jamie Dettmer is an opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
BEIRUT — At dawn, just hours after the deadly explosion at a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds, the border between Israel and Lebanon crackled with bombings and warplane strikes as Israeli warplanes were responding to an increase in Hezbollah bombings.
No matter who hit the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the needle is now rapidly moving in a dangerous direction. And hopes are pinning on US President Joe Biden and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who are due to hold an emergency summit in Cairo on Saturday. But the chances that a wider war will engulf Lebanon and the entire region will be plunged into violent chaos again are growing by the hour.
As Hezbollah announces ‘a day of anger’ against Israel, protests have targeted US missions in the region, more embassies in Beirut have started sending non-essential personnel and security teams are being sent by aircraft to protect diplomatic missions and European NGOs, preparing with contingency plans for the evacuation of personnel. An ever-increasing sense of dread and apprehension now grips the Levant.
Currently, Israel insists that the hospital explosion was caused by a rocket fired by Islamic Jihad – and the White House agrees. But the Palestinian militant group, aligned with Hamas, says it is a “lie and a fabrication”, insisting that Israel is responsible. However, regardless of blame, the explosion at the hospital – where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were sheltering after days of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave of Gaza – sends shockwaves far and wide.
This has already derailed Biden’s trip to the region, as his scheduled meeting on Wednesday with Arab leaders in Jordan had to be canceled. The meeting was supposed to take place after his visit to Israel, where Biden had the delicate task of showing solidarity while pressuring reluctant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid to Gaza.
A White House statement said the decision to cancel the meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Egyptian President El-Sissi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was made jointly in light of the strike in hospitals.
But Arab leaders made clear they had no hope the meeting would be productive. Abbas withdrew first, before Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested a meeting would be pointless. “There is no point in talking about anything now except stopping the war,” he said, referring to Israel’s near-constant bombardment of Gaza.
The removal of the Jordan shutdown caused the U.S. leader to miss a major face-to-face opportunity to manage the crisis, leaving U.S. efforts to avoid a broader conflict in disarray.
The United States was already facing heavy criticism in the region for being too supportive of Israel and failing to condemn the country for the deaths of civilians in Gaza. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have ignored efforts by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to get them to denounce Hamas – they refuse to label the organization a terrorist group, seeing the October 7 attacks as the inevitable consequence of failure to create two states. solution for the Palestinians and lift the Israeli blockade of Gaza for 17 years.
It is very uncertain whether anyone can now stop a larger war. But there is one word that stands out clearly from Biden’s remarks immediately after the Hamas attacks, and that is “don’t do it.” “To any country, to any organization, to anyone who plans to take advantage of the situation, I have one word,” he said. “Don’t do it.”
But this situation is today drowned out by furious cries for revenge. Anger grips all parts of the region, as old hatreds and grievances surface and the resulting blows accelerate. Much like Mark Antony’s exhortation in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “Shout ‘Havoc!’ “and let the dogs of war run away,” is the sentiment that is now being heard here, clouding reason and leaving struggling diplomacy in its wake.
Immediately after last week’s massacre, righteous fury naturally seized the Israelis. Netanyahu channeled that rage, promising “powerful vengeance” against Hamas for the surprise attacks, and pledging to destroy the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group. “Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man,” he said a few days later.
However, Israel has not officially announced that it will launch a ground mission – something it has refrained from doing in recent years due to the risk of losing high numbers of troops. But he massed troops and armor along the border, enlisted 300,000 reservists – the biggest call-up in decades – and two days after the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that Israel had no other choice than to launch a ground operation. Publicly, he warned Israelis that the country faced a “long and difficult war.”
The only hope that devastation will not be unleashed in the region now rests partly – but largely – on Israel’s reduction of its military objectives and the decision not to launch a ground offensive on Gaza, which would be the most likely trigger for Hezbollah and its allies. launch a large-scale attack, either across the southern border or into the Golan Heights.
This was certainly the message from Ahmed Abdul-Hadi, the main representative of Hamas in Lebanon. He told POLITICO that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would be one of the main triggers that could bring Hezbollah fully into the conflict, and that Hamas and Hezbollah are now closely coordinating their responses.
“Hezbollah will pay no attention to anyone’s threats against its entry into war; he will ignore warnings to stay out of it. Whether Hezbollah wants to enter the war or not will be linked to Israeli escalation and incidents on the ground, and especially if Israel attempts to enter Gaza on the ground,” he said.
Lebanese politicians are now pinning their hopes on the fact that Israel will not choose to launch a ground offensive on the densely populated enclave – an operation that would almost certainly result in a high number of civilian casualties and spark more Arab outrage, in addition of a probable intervention by Hezbollah. They see possibility in Biden’s warning that any move by Israel to reoccupy Gaza would be a “grave mistake” – a late sign that Washington is now trying to impose a limit on Israel’s actions in retaliation for Israel’s attacks. Hamas.
And how this fits with Netanyahu’s stated goal of “demolishing Hamas” and “defeating the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against us to destroy us” is another of the major uncertainties that will determine whether the dogs of war will be fully unleashed.
But for now, an apparent pause in Israeli ground operations gives some reason for hope. While assembled units are on standby and await orders, an Israeli military spokesperson suggested Tuesday that a large-scale ground attack may not be what is in the pipeline.
Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, suspects that a “rethink” is underway, likely driven by the realization by Israeli military leaders that a ground offensive would not only be bloody, but would not rid Gaza of Hamas either. . “When the PLO was driven out of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, it was still able to maintain a presence in the country and Yasser Arafat was back in Lebanon less than a year,” he said.
Similarly, MK Ashraf Rifi — former director of Lebanon’s internal security forces — told POLITICO that he believed Israeli generals were probably just as behind this apparent takeover as their Western allies. “Military commanders are always less enthusiastic about waging war than politicians, and Israeli military commanders are always cautious,” he said.
“Let’s hope so, otherwise we’ll all be thrown into hell.”