‘An incredibly volatile time’: From Iran to Yemen, how the Israel-Hamas war is sparking violence across the Middle East

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — A conflict that started on a tiny perimeter of land on Oct. 7 is, less than four months later, reverberating throughout the region, from Lebanon in the north to Morocco in the west, Iran in the east and Yemen in the south.

“This is an incredibly volatile time in the Middle East,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday at a press conference. “I would argue that we’ve not seen a situation as dangerous as the one we’re facing now across the region since at least 1973, and arguably even before that.”

The epicenter of the Israel-Hamas conflict remains Gaza, where tens of thousands have been killed, and where much of the population is displaced and at risk of famine. Hamas’ invasion of Israel killed some 1,200 people, and more than 200 soldiers have died in the months following Oct. 7. As the war has continued, momentum toward an extended truce and hostage release has mounted.

But because of the war, the broader region is changing, too. The rivalries, intimacies and enmities among the different peoples and religious communities in the Middle East have been churning for millennia. Now, as in other times of crisis, they are threatening to erupt into a broader war that could ensnare the United States.

Here’s a rundown of how the Gaza war is sparking, or inflaming, conflicts across the region.

Iran’s proxies take aim at U.S. troops 

The strike last weekend by an Iran-backed militia, which killed three American soldiers in Jordan, demonstrated how central Iran has become to the conflicts unfolding across the Middle East. Believed to be on the precipice of nuclear weaponization, Iran is the eminence grise in the current war: Hezbollah in Lebanon is its proxy and it has funded and trained Hamas and the Houthis.

Since Oct. 7,  Hezbollah has engaged Israeli forces in a constant exchange of fire. Syria, another Iran ally, has fired rockets on the Golan Heights, the plateau Israel seized in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequently annexed.

Israel has fought back against Hezbollah and other threats. Iran and Syria blamed Israel for a strike last month in Damascus that killed five members of Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp. Iran “reserves its right to respond to the organized terrorism of the fake Zionist regime at the appropriate time and place,” its foreign ministry said.

That strike came weeks after what Iran said was an Israeli attack on Damascus, which killed another top IRGC figure.

The strike on American troops came from an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. Since Oct. 7, those militias have launched more than 150 attacks on American troops, with the United States counter-striking against the militias’ bases. Like the Houthis and Hezbollah, the militias say they are motivated by Israel’s war with Hamas.

Iran also exchanged fire with Pakistan two weeks ago, aiming its strikes at separatist groups. Eleven people died in the strikes. 

Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that Iran may be flexing its muscles as it feels besieged by American counterstrikes against its Iraq-allied militias as well as alleged Israeli strikes on Damascus. In addition, a massive Islamic State attack last month at a memorial for Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani killed nearly 100 people. 

“It has to do, I think, with Iran’s overall threat perception in the region rising. And at the same time, feeling the need – as a result of domestic and external pressure – to respond,” he told Al Jazeera.

Kelly Shannon, a member of the Atlantic Council think tank’s Iran Strategy Project, said recent Iranian-backed strikes were the country’s “attempt to project strength at home and to its allies and proxies, as well as to issue a warning to its enemies that it will use force to defend its interests.”

Tensions simmer on the Lebanese border

For Israel, Hezbollah presents the most immediate threat aside from Hamas. The Lebanese terror group launched missiles at Israel’s north the day after the war began. The barrage led to Israel’s evacuation of tens of thousands of Israelis from the northern perimeter, joining families displaced by the Gaza war.

Agence France Presse estimates that at least 175 people have been killed in Lebanon, including 130 Hezbollah fighters. At least nine Israeli soldiers and four civilians have also been killed. 

Hezbollah’s commander, Hassan Nasrallah, has cast his group’s attacks as an aid to Hamas as they divert Israeli forces from Gaza. “Some would like Hezbollah to engage in an all-out war, but I can tell you: What is happening now along the Israeli-Lebanese border is significant, and it is not the end,” he said in November.

Israeli cabinet ministers have mulled launching a preventive war in Lebanon, and polls have shown substantial support for such a strike. But defense officials in Israel, as well as the Biden administration, have cautioned against it. Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006. 

“If Hezbollah chooses to start an all-out war, it will by its own volition turn Beirut and southern Lebanon, not far from here, into Gaza and Khan Younis,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in December, referring to two cities in Gaza. 

Nasrallah has reason to refrain from all-out war: The organization he leads, which is the country’’s preeminent militant group and political force, is increasingly unpopular in Lebanon after decades of neglect and corruption. It is also depleted after years of assisting the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War.

That doesn’t mean the situation is stable. Nasrallah promised retaliation after Israel assassinated one of the top Hamas officials while he was under Hezbollah’s protection last month. He issued another warning less than a week later after Israel killed one of the top Hezbollah commanders in the country’s south.

Conflict escalates with the Houthis in Yemen

The Houthi militia, which controls much of Yemen after years of civil war, has launched almost daily attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, ostensibly to pressure Israel into drawing down its forces in the Gaza Strip. But some of the ships have nothing to do with Israel, or with the United States.  

Last month, in retaliation, U.S. and British combat aircraft struck Houthi targets, killing five fighters. There have been forays since then. 

“These strikes were designed to disrupt and degrade the capability of the Houthis to continue their attacks on global trade and innocent mariners from around the world, while avoiding escalation,” said a joint statement last week by the United States, the United Kingdom and another 22 countries lending the operations logistical and diplomatic support.

The Houthi strikes on commercial vessels have not flagged. In an impromptu Jan. 18 press conference, a reporter asked Biden if the strikes were working.

“Well, when you say ‘working,’ are they stopping the Houthis? No,” Biden said. “Are they going to continue? Yes.”

Qatar houses Hamas — and pushes diplomacy

If there’s a winner so far in this war, it’s Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich Gulf nation that has gained outsize influence since Oct. 7. Qatar funds Hamas and houses some of its leadership; it also was among the first Gulf nations to establish low-level ties with Israel in the 1990s. It simultaneously has relations with Iran and hosts one of the largest overseas U.S. bases.

That’s made it a key player in efforts to return the hostages and ultimately end the war. Netanyahu reportedly told hostage families last week that he’d like the United States to leverage Qatar into doing more to bring back the hostages. 

That earned a rebuke from Qatar’s foreign minister, but they’re still committed to negotiations — and the United States is committed to Qatar, with Blinken calling the country “indispensable.” Despite the criticism, Israeli officials acknowledge Qatar’s centrality, meeting with its representatives last weekend in multilateral talks over a hostage deal.

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the influential Jewish Maryland Democrat who has been a leading advocate for the hostages, said Qatar was key to any solution.

“Qatar obviously has been involved with Hamas in economic, strategic and ideological ways,” Raskin said in an interview. “So  it can use its leverage to get the hostages back and to change the brutal dynamics of this situation.”

Washington area Jews rally outside the Qatari embassy, Jan. 24, 2024. (Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington)

Jewish communities in the United States are also urging Qatar to stay in the game. Several hundred Washington area Jews rallied recently outside the Qatari embassy in Washington, asking for greater efforts to free the hostages. More rallies are planned for Friday outside Qatari missions in Washington, New York and Ottawa.

“The goal was to simultaneously express appreciation and frustration,” said Ron Halber, the director of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, which organized the rally. “The appreciation for the role that Qatar played and the initial release of hostages and frustration that it’s been over a month, and that over 130 people are still languishing.”

Israel seeks a future agreement encompassing Saudi Arabia and beyond

When they discuss the “day after” the war in Gaza, Israel and the United States frequently refer to a role for Middle Eastern nations that either have relations with Israel — or are close to establishing them.

On that list are Egypt and Jordan, which have long-standing peace treaties with Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, a wealthy partner that Biden hopes will lead funding for reconstruction in Gaza. 

Egypt borders Gaza, making it an essential part of any solution. Jordan borders the West Bank — a territory Israel hopes to keep calm despite spiking unemployment and a rise in Israeli counter-terror raids in the territory that have killed hundreds of Palestinians. This week, Israeli troops entered a West Bank hospital in disguise and killed three Hamas operatives. 

But Israel’s desired partner to spearhead the “day after” in Gaza is Saudi Arabia. Israel and the kingdom appeared to be on track to sign a treaty before the war broke out, a would-be signature accomplishment that Netanyahu hopes to salvage, in part through working with Saudi Arabia to set up a new government in Gaza. 

Saudi Arabia has stressed that if Israel wants relations, it will have to agree to Palestinian statehood. That’s something Biden wants, too. 

“We need stability” for Israeli-Saudi normalization, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan told CNN last week “and stability only will come through resolving the Palestinian issue.”

Netanyahu and his far-right partners have publicly rejected Palestinian statehood. But a middle ground of sorts may be emerging. Israeli outlets reported this week that a clandestine group of businesspeople has sketched out a plan whereby a postwar Israeli military government would give way to a new Palestinian government in the territory set up with the help of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and others.

Could that lead to a Palestinian state? Netanyahu has so far said no, though that could change, writes Ben Caspit, an Israeli journalist and Netanyahu biographer, in an article laying out the details of the plan

“We must remember that Netanyahu knows his days are numbered,” Caspit wrote, alluding to the prime minister’s low poll numbers. “His legacy at present is the Oct. 7 massacre… Steps toward an accord with Saudi Arabia, and some kind of progress on the Palestinian front could help change, a bit, the impression he will leave on the pages of history.”

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