Ending Israeli exceptionalism the first step toward a new world order
Regardless of where one stands on the Israeli war on Gaza, when the dust finally settles on the killing fields, the world will not be the same. The deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants on southern Israel and what has followed, in the form of a frenzied Israeli reaction, has polarized the world in a way not seen since the 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq. That attack has significantly altered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s trajectory for both sides and beyond. It is an understatement to declare that this latest war in the Middle East will have resounding aftershocks that will rattle an already teetering world order.
Before this war settles down — and no one knows how it will — one should look at how the Israeli side reacted. The Hamas attack was spectacular in a dark sense for Israel. The pain, the humiliation, the scandalous breach of the most technologically watched fence surrounding a 16-year-old siege of the Gaza Strip was mind-boggling. Israel will investigate this one day, as it did following the 1973 war, and heads will roll. We may never know the whole truth for months or maybe years.
The Israeli reaction was expected: full, unrestricted aerial bombardment of Gaza. We have seen this before. But this time, the declared goals of the campaign have changed: the total eradication of Hamas’ military and political infrastructure. That can only be achieved through a significant land invasion, which is yet to happen.
But that is not all. It now appears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom most Israelis blame for this gross failure, and his war Cabinet hope to do more than decapitate Hamas. They want to drive millions of Gazans into Egypt. Call it forced transfer or ethnic cleansing; whatever the case, it is a war crime.
Any failure to do this with a short land incursion would mean a Hamas win — despite the hefty civilian casualties. A longer one would create two possible scenarios: enormous Israeli losses in the south and a possible flaring-up of the northern front with Hezbollah. The latter would open up the prospect of a regional war with unexpected results.
So, for now, Israel is resorting to the massive bombardment of the northern part of Gaza, forcing millions to head to the south in the hope of creating a buffer zone 3 km, 5 km or even 9 km deep — a dead zone. Is that something Israel would be willing to accept to end the war? It is difficult to know.
Then there is Hamas, a militant group that has been in control of Gaza for more than a decade and a half and that, after many lethal rounds of hostilities with Israel, has proven to be stronger, not weaker. The Oct. 7 offensive must have been planned for years. Whether or not it anticipated the magnitude of Israel’s slow response, or if its sole goal was to take some hostages to negotiate the release of some of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, we will never know. But it now finds itself in an open war with Israel — a state with superior firepower and political backing from Western governments.
It is clear that more than two weeks of brutal bombing by Israel — by last count, more than 5,000 Palestinians are dead, including children and women — has done minor damage to Hams’ military infrastructure. It has learned the lessons of the 2014 war and is using a Hezbollah war game playbook. It is readying itself for a ground offensive and will use 20th-century guerrilla warfare tactics against a 21st-century high-tech army. If it happens, the confrontation will be something that the history books will refer to for many years.
Israel’s impunity has been allowed for so many years without empathy for the hellish conditions of Palestinians.
So, what about Iran and Hezbollah? This is the most pressing question on the minds of millions. The US has moved two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean, along with elite forces and strategic missile batteries, for fear of Hezbollah-Iran involvement. So far, Hezbollah has only responded to Israeli provocations and is adopting a vague position, keeping the Israelis guessing.
The fear is that an embattled and disgraced Netanyahu will want to lure the US into another Middle Eastern war to cover for his unabashed attempt to alter the genetic DNA of Israel. He is a dangerous man who would do anything to save his skin. That would be catastrophic for the US, the region and, inevitably, Israel. He must not be allowed to use the Oct. 7 calamity to ignite a wider regional war.
Having said this, Western governments’ reactions have been generally myopic and irresponsible. The European leaders parroted the White House’s position that Israel had the right to defend itself. The hypocrisy and double standards were simply disgusting. Forget about Ukraine. The calamity and suffering of the Palestinians have been going on for decades. Israel’s impunity has been allowed for so many years without empathy for the hellish conditions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel’s occupation is the longest in modern history. It is a European colonial legacy that started as far back as the 19th century. The historical narrative has been neutralized by Zionist propaganda for decades, but in this latest conflict global public opinion has woken up to the reality of Palestinian sacrifice.
For decades, Israel’s exceptionalism has stumped all attempts to enforce what Western governments have preached about a rules-based international world order that fits all. With more than 5,000 civilians dead, including 2,000 children, and the destruction of entire blocks of residential buildings, mosques, churches, hospitals, schools and other buildings in one of the most horrific massacres of civilians in modern times, one must ask about the rules-based order and the even-handedness of dealing with complex conflicts.
The unipolar world order has had a dismal track record for more than three decades. The scenario is the same as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Syria. This is the time when a multipolar world order is needed. Regional countries must have a say in their own future. Israel has been an anomaly for decades. Its exceptionalism must end. It must comply with international law, like all others, for a more just world. Western governments are at odds with their people. The reverberations of this crisis will be felt in the West for years to come.
Regardless of what happens in Gaza, the world needs a new rules-based order, and the West can no longer be trusted to have the final say on it.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.