Gaza crisis unveils broader regional challenges
Amid the tumultuous Gaza crisis, the entire region teeters on the edge of a volcanic eruption. The dynamics extend far beyond the immediate struggle for survival waged by Hamas and the retaliation efforts of Israel that aim to erase its humiliation and reclaim its status. In this complex scenario, Gaza emerges as the charger for a much larger and more explosive situation.
Here, the pivotal question arises: Should nations ride the wave and strategically align themselves with the prevailing popular sentiments or rather adopt a stance of detachment when addressing the Gaza crisis?
Before exploring potential solutions, it is imperative to delve into the origins of extremism and its intricate connection to the theater of warfare. Wars, it seems, often produce fertile grounds for the cultivation of extremist ideologies.
Reflecting on the aftermath of the US war on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, extremism took root within the fabric of mosques, homes and schools across the region. This pattern was repeated on a grand scale after the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Then, Saddam Hussein’s forces crumbled within three weeks, and Baghdad was occupied easily.
The battle’s compass shifted a year later, with the extremist narrative successfully luring thousands of young Arabs to join the ranks of Al-Qaeda and later Daesh; thereby reshaping the geopolitical landscape, resulting in the US forces’ withdrawal and the rise of Iran’s influence in the region.
Dissatisfied with their impact in Iraq, extremist groups pressed forward between 2003 and 2010, expanding their influence to more than half of the Arab nations.
In this complex scenario, Gaza emerges as the catalyst for a much larger and more explosive situation
As their efforts to instigate change faltered, the so-called Arab Spring erupted in 2011, serving as a continuation of the preceding events. It showcased a myriad of protest movements and local leaders in countries with a history of extremist activity, including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria — previously a breeding ground for groups linked to Iraq.
The current crisis in Gaza is not merely a standalone event. It is, indeed, part of an ongoing war, with the Strip assuming the role of the charging agent, akin to the roles played by Afghanistan, Iraq and the Arab Spring in the past. It has become evident that only a handful of nations possess the adeptness to control and fortify their internal landscapes in the face of emerging risks.
The battles raging in northern Gaza and the ensuing tragedies threaten to obscure the larger picture evolving within Arab societies. The recurrent theme across past wars, and the current conflict, is the exploitation of these crises by opposition forces to encircle governments and regional powers. These entities that persist in their repeated attempts are now making a comeback for the first time since setbacks in Iraq, Syria, Libya and their defeat in Egypt.
Each nation, however, charts a unique course in addressing the crisis. Saudi Arabia has unambiguously opposed the Israeli offensive on Gaza. Spearheading diplomatic initiatives, it played host to Arab and Islamic summits, along with African leaders. Moreover, it has facilitated substantial donations, exceeding SR500 million ($133 million) — an unparalleled figure in the region. Notably, traditional breeding grounds for extremism, such as schools, mosques, public gatherings and local media, no longer serve as the hotbeds they once were. Calls for extremism and youth recruitment have notably diminished.
Some governments have chosen the opposite path; engaging in a bidding war with purveyors of provocative rhetoric in a bid to channel public anger and gain popularity. These governments risk repeating past mistakes, when extremist ideologies surpassed governmental countermeasures, when they demanded severing ties with Western countries, the imposition of import bans, and challenged them to combat and advocating violence.
Israel’s approach inadvertently fuels the narrative of extremist groups, amplifying their influence among the public
Historical precedents indicate that such actions often backfire, regardless of Gaza’s fate. Solidarity with the people of Gaza and “Hamas” does not warrant elevating extremist discourse, unleashing propaganda campaigns or opening religious, educational and media platforms for it.
It is evident that the groups orchestrating extremist propaganda have honed their organizational skills and have become more adept. In today’s landscape, their outreach is notably swifter, even amid the tumult of the 2011 revolutions.
Amid the ongoing Gaza war, extremists are strategically promoting symbols and ideologies, leveraging figures such as Abu Obaida, Osama bin Laden, Hassan Nasrallah and many other figures that emerged after the events of Oct. 7.
For them, Gaza is not a central cause, but rather it mirrors the situation in Fallujah, Iraq. The trajectory of Gaza’s fate is likely to follow a comparable path, marked by devastation, fading from the limelight and leaving its populace to navigate an uncertain destiny.
Israel’s actions in Gaza, in the meantime, manifest as a vengeful and brutal assault, primarily targeting innocent civilians. This approach inadvertently fuels the narrative of extremist groups, amplifying their influence among the public. As Israel remains indifferent to the proliferation of extremism and extremists, it often capitalizes on extremism by portraying its Palestinian adversaries as such.
Thus, societies that tolerate extremist discourse by opening up platforms in schools, mosques and the media, face heightened risks. This time, their adversaries are individuals born in the last two decades, having matured within expansive, borderless networks, armed with more effective tools and a higher level of expertise.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. X: @aalrashed