Will the Israeli-Hamas conflict spark a wider regional war, pulling in the U.S.?
The conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza has set off a chain reaction in the Middle East, and Western officials are increasingly concerned that it could trigger a wider war that draws in more nations.
Growing outrage in Middle Eastern capitals and much of the world over the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza is adding more fuel to an already volatile mixture that has seen violence spread to the West Bank, Israel’s northern border, the Red Sea and to Iraq and Syria, where U.S. forces have come under repeated drone and rocket fire from Iran’s proxies.
Photos and videoclips emerged Wednesday that appear to show soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces abusing and humiliating Palestinians in the West Bank, with some of the victims screaming in pain. NBC News could not independently verify where or when any of the footage was shot. The circumstances under which the videos were captured are also unknown, as are the events preceding and following them. The IDF vowed to investigate, but the footage threatened to aggravate a conflict that U.S., European and Arab governments are struggling to contain.
Whether the conflict in Gaza expands will hinge in large part on Iran and the militant groups it has armed across the region, with Western officials watching to see how far Tehran is willing to go in using its proxies against Israel and the U.S. So far, U.S. and Western intelligence officials say Iran does not appear to be gunning for a direct war with the U.S., and instead is using its partners to undermine Israel and pressure the West.
But current and former officials say there is a greater risk that as Iran’s proxies carry out more attacks and test Israeli and U.S. forces, the skirmishes could steadily escalate, leading to an unintended war with potentially devastating and unpredictable consequences.
“There are so many factors that could push this into something uncontrollable,” said one Western official. “It’s a dangerous moment.”
Since Oct. 17, Iranian-backed militia have carried out 28 rocket and drone attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. In response, President Joe Biden ordered an airstrike last week against a weapons depot in eastern Syria, but the rocket and drone attacks have continued. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has suggested the U.S. may carry out more bombing raids to deter Iran’s proxies. If the U.S. hits back harder, it’s unclear if the pro-Iran militias will up the ante.
Reminiscent of the events that led up to World War I, there is a growing risk that one actor’s attempt at deterring an enemy could be interpreted as an act of aggression, analysts said, or that one stray rocket causing mass casualties could set the region ablaze.
“The danger is not that Iran is going to declare war, but some field commander is going to do something stupid and we’ll be a spiral within a day,” said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank who served as a senior State Department official overseeing Middle East policy during the George W. Bush administration.
Iran’s calculus may change if it concludes Hamas is in danger of defeat in Gaza, at which point it could unleash its Lebanese Hezbollah militia, by far the most powerful and well-armed force in the regime’s proxy network. Israel would then face a two-front war, a daunting prospect that would stretch its military and possibly force Washington to consider weighing in with airstrikes to back up Israeli troops.
A long-awaited speech due to be broadcast Friday by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has stayed silent since the Hamas attack, could signal whether his militant force is ready to ratchet up its attacks on Israel, or possibly wade into the war full throttle just as Israeli troops are concentrating on their battle with Hamas in Gaza to the south. Nasrallah, known for his militant rhetoric against Israel, is scheduled to give his address at a ceremony to honor the “martyrs who died on the road to Jerusalem.”
Since the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent response by Israel’s military in Gaza, Hezbollah and Israeli forces have exchanged fire daily along Israel’s northern border. The clashes have been limited but have gradually escalated, involving a wider area and more powerful weapons. In recent days, Hezbollah began using surface-to-air missiles, along with artillery and rockets. Israel has had to deploy tens of thousands of troops to the northern border to counter the threat from Hezbollah and evacuated the civilian population near the frontier.
Dozens of Hezbollah fighters reportedly have been killed in the border skirmishes, and Israel says the fighting has claimed the lives of seven of its soldiers. Israel, which fought a war with Hezbollah in 2006, says it is not seeking a conflict with the Iranian-backed militants.
In the wake of the Hamas attack, which caught Israel unprepared, Israel has been keen to “re-establish deterrence.” Syria has accused Israel of carrying out missile strikes at airports in Damascus and Aleppo, damaging the runways. Israel, which has not commented on the airport strikes, has previously accused Syria of allowing Iran to move weapons through its territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The long-festering emotions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also are shaping the reactions of governments and key players.
The Hamas attack on Israel, which claimed some 1,400 lives and featured atrocities against civilians, including children, has prompted an intense response from Israel, with a relentless aerial bombardment and ground incursions into the Gaza Strip.
A Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, told the Lebanese media outlet LBCI last week that his group’s actions were justified and that Israel should be removed from the region.
“Israel has no place in our land. We must eliminate this country because it constitutes a military, security and political disaster for the Arab and Muslim nations; therefore, it must be finished. We are not ashamed to say this,” Hamad said.
As Israeli leaders have vowed to destroy Hamas and drive the militants out, it has faced growing international scrutiny about the military’s tactics. Although Hamas has been condemned for deploying its forces among civilians and inside hospital compounds or other civilian sites, human rights organizations and U.N. officials accuse Israel of failing to take sufficient precautions to protect civilian life in its bombardment of the coastal enclave and its partial blockade of water, electricity and fuel supplies.
Israel has defended its military operation in Gaza, saying it is abiding by the laws of war but that Hamas is firing rockets from residential areas and using civilians as human shields. Israeli President Isaac Herzog told the BBC that Israel was putting “a huge focus” on reducing civilian casualties.
Israel says it has carried out hundreds of airstrikes a day, hitting 7,000 targets in the first 19 days of the campaign. Based on Israel’s own tally, its air campaign — carried out in a densely populated area the size of Washington, D.C. — has surpassed that of any previous Israeli operation, the level of bombing in any single year of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the most intense month of the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State terror group, according to the British independent war monitoring group Airwars.
Israel faced fresh criticism after it acknowledged striking a refugee camp Tuesday near Gaza City, which destroyed apartment buildings housing civilians. But Israel defended the action, saying the airstrikes targeted a Hamas military chief, a command center and underground tunnels.
Western officials worry that the longer the Israeli offensive lasts, the more it risks stoking militant reactions across the Middle East and alienating Arab governments — including those that strongly oppose Hamas — that will be crucial to any future political arrangements in Gaza.
“They are losing the narrative,” one former senior U.S. official said.
In protest over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Jordan and Bahrain this week recalled their ambassadors to Israel.
On Monday, the U.N. ambassador for the United Arab Emirates, Lana Nusseibeh, told her counterparts on the U.N. Security Council that without an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, a wider conflagration could erupt.
“This council ignoring the expressed will of the majority of the world may be what breaks it. Colleagues, we need a cease-fire now,” she said. “Across the region, there have been several credible warnings of a wider escalation. The drums of war are beating.”