Is the war in Gaza approaching Pakistan?

It is Iran, Pakistan’s immediate neighbour, which has been caught in the conflict

Shahid Javed Burki April 08, 2024
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


The question posed in the title of this essay has a simple answer. It is in fact another question. How will the Muslim world beyond Palestine react to the war in Gaza, a Palestinian enclave surrounded on three sides by Israel? On the fourth side is the Mediterranean Sea which Israel also blockades. Most of 2.2 million Palestinians who live in what is sometimes called the ‘Strip’ have lost their homes. Some 20,000 have been killed by the relentless bombing and artillery fire by Israeli forces. Majority of those killed are women and children. Israel has also destroyed the main hospitals in the area. The assault by the Jewish state was in response to a brutal attack by the Palestinian group called Hamas that has vowed to destroy the Jewish state of Israel.

The United States in public statements as well as in private conversations between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was urging the Israelis to limit their operations. They had weakened Hamas but would not be able to eliminate it altogether. By the beginning of April 2024, they had pushed the Gaza population into the area around the city of Rafah. Israeli military experts expect the Israeli Defense Force, IDF, having ordered civilians into Rafah in the early stages of the war will now order them to leave neighborhood by neighborhood. Once that was done, troops and armoured vehicles will enter the city to capture and kill Hamas fighters who were supposed to be hiding there. In a conversation with a visiting US congressional delegation in the closing days of March 2024, the Israeli Prime Minister said that Rafah was the ‘last bastion’ for Hamas and that Israel was weeks away from victory, describing the coming battle as existential.

A senior US official who feared “a full-scale, and perhaps a premature military operation that could endanger more than one million civilian lives in Rafah” was concerned that a major ground push into the city could further destabilise the region by forcing Palestinians into Egypt. The fear was echoed by Michael Milshtein, the former head of Palestinian department in Israel’s military intelligence agency, who said it was vital that any future actions be closely coordinated with Washington. “Very quickly clashes in Rafah could spill into Egypt, and accidents could happen between the IDF and Egypt,” said Milshtein who is now head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University. Yet it was unclear what kind of leverage the American administration is prepared to use to persuade Israel to change course and whether that leverage would work. Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, said, “I can’t imagine an end game without an effective resolution in Rafah.”

The Hamas draws its support from the Palestinians who were displaced when Israel was founded as a Jewish state in 1948. The creation of Israel had the support of the West, in particular the United States and Britain. The West has continued to support the Jewish state even at this time when the pain inflicted by Israel has been great and inexcusable. However, the use of the military to kill those who were coming in to help the Gazans who were near starvation may have brought the curtain down on Israel. It may also shake the non-Arab Muslim world that includes countries such as Pakistan and Turkey.

‘Strikes by Israel kill aid workers and draw outcry’ was the headline carried by The New York Times on the front page of its issue of April 3, 2024. “Israeli strikes on an aid convoy run by the charitable World Central Kitchen killed seven of its workers in the Gaza Strip, setting off international outrage and underscoring the risks to humanitarian workers trying to alleviate a looming famine,” wrote the newspaper. “The said workers — a Palestinian, an Australian, a Pole, three Britons, and a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen — were travelling in two armored vehicles clearly marked with the World Central Kitchen logo and a third vehicle when they came under attack.” On the same day, an Israeli missile fired from a F-35 fighter supplied by the United States killed the Iranian General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, belonging to Quds Force whose commander General Qasem Soleimani was killed by the United States in a similar precision attack in 2020. Also killed with General Zahedi were a number of senior officials working in the Quds force. The use of force by Israel to eliminate its adversaries was examined in a book, Rise and Kill First, by Roene Bergman, an Israeli journalist. “Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western World,” he wrote. By his reckoning Israel had conducted at least 2,300 such operations as of 2018.

Even before the killing of General Zahedi, Israel’s unrelenting campaign against Hamas in the narrow Gaza Strip had begun to affect the country’s relations with the Muslim world. Both Arab and non-Arab Muslim nations began to react against the hardship to which the Israeli attacks had subjected millions of people crowded in the Strip. The local elections in Turkey over the weekend of March 30-31 gave a clear indication that the conservative elements in the Turkish society were upset with the results of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had his worst year in an electoral contest that exhibited anger over a deep and debilitating economic crisis. Also playing a role were defections from Erdogan’s political party to an Islamic organisation that had criticised the Turkish leadership for not breaking off economic relations with Israel during the war in Gaza.

It is Iran, Pakistan’s immediate neighbour, which has been caught in the conflict. The question is: how will Tehran react to the killing of an important figure? Tehran has already indicated that it would not let the loss of such an important figure go unpunished. The Iranians had reacted to the Soleimani’s murder by the United States by firing a number of rockets at the American assets in Iraq. It did so by first warning the Americans that it was taking that action in retaliation for the US using a drone to kill the general. The Americans evacuated the targeted buildings, and no one died from the Iranian assault. This time the Iranian action or actions may come without warning and destabilise the region around Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2024.

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