The Israel-Gaza crisis and turmoil in the Middle East

March 7, 2024

The surprise cross-border attack on Israel by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, and the subsequent invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces have shaken the world and disrupted the political order in the Middle East. Professor Satoshi Ikeuchi, an expert on Middle East politics at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, discusses the recent moves toward normalization with Israel among its Arab neighbors and the impact of the continuing conflict.

Satellite imagery of the Gaza Strip taken in May 2023, before the invasion by Israeli forces beginning in October.

The question of Palestine in Middle Eastern affairs

── How did the current situation in Palestine develop?

Israel, Palestinian territories and neighboring countries (detailed view)

In order to understand how the current crisis came about, it is first necessary to understand the timeline of the relationship between Israel and Palestine. At the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement emerged among Jewish people in Europe. The movement sought the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, land where the holy city of Jerusalem is located (and considered by Jewish people as their ancient homeland). This is when the Jewish settlement of Palestine began. However, the area was inhabited by Arab peoples, resulting in many disputes over land and property between the two sides. The British Mandate for Palestine adopted after World War I (which placed Palestine under British administration by the League of Nations) failed to resolve the problem, and during World War II, the Jewish people faced persecution at the hands of the Nazis, forcing many more Jews to relocate to Palestine.

After World War II, the United Nations in 1947 adopted a partition plan, which proposed the creation of two states, one Arab and one Jewish, on the British Mandate land of Palestine. However, when Israel unilaterally declared independence in 1948, neither the Palestinians nor neighboring Arab nations recognized its statehood and invaded the territory allocated to Israel, sparking the First Arab-Israeli War (1948-49). Israel won the war and claimed far more territory than was initially proposed in the U.N. resolution. As a result, many Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees.

Conflicts continued in the years that followed. In the Third Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six-Day War), in 1967, Israel seized the West Bank, which was then Jordanian territory, and the Gaza Strip, which belonged to Egypt; Palestinians living in these two areas have lived under Israeli occupation ever since. In the 1970s, Israeli settlement activity in both areas escalated. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which seeks the liberation of the Arab people of Palestine, put up an armed resistance, but in the late 1980s, it switched to a policy of peace in response to international pressure. In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to peace negotiations under the Oslo Accords, and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip became Palestinian autonomous territory. Though this appeared to be a step toward the formation of two states coexisting with each other, peace would not come so easily.

Israel, Palestinian territories and neighboring countries (broad view)

── What kind of trends have we seen since 2020?

In 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel normalized relations. Since then, other Gulf states and Arab nations followed suit in reassessing and normalizing their relations with Israel. The peace agreements that ensued are known as the Abraham Accords, named for the biblical prophet Abraham, common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration brokered negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations, promising Saudi Arabia that the U.S. would guarantee its security.

The signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords
The signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, between Israel and two Arab countries, held at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15, 2020. (Seated, from left) Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. U.S. Department of State (CC BY 4.0)

Those around Saudi Arabia’s King Salman have maintained consistently that there has been no change in the basis of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which called for the resolution of the Palestinian problem through coexistence of the two states with the pre-1967-war borders and the recognition and normalization of relations by the Arab states with Israel. It has been said, however, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may hold a different view. Given the growing threat from Iran, some believe he may put the Palestinian issue on hold and normalize relations with Israel in expectation of a security guarantee from the U.S. In fact, when the crown prince traveled to the U.S. in September 2023, he appeared on Fox News and revealed that negotiations for the normalization of relations with Israel were underway.

The oil-producing Gulf states have remained ambiguous about their intentions in their negotiations with Israel: While Israel has appealed to the UAE and Saudi Arabia that a solution to the Palestinian question can be found after the normalization and strengthening of relations, the Arab states have not agreed, but nor have they rejected the proposition outright. It is believed that they are making a strategic decision to recognize the merits of engaging and continuing negotiations with Israel. For example, for Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as a threat, demonstrating that it is forming an alliance with Israel in itself serves as a deterrent. However, because it wants to avoid making concessions on the Palestinian issue, it is not making its intentions clear.

On the other hand, Israel had believed itself to be one step away from normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia. It had also hoped that if an agreement with Saudi Arabia was reached, many of the Islamic and Arab nations that are heavily dependent economically on Saudi Arabia and the UAE would adopt a friendly stance toward Israel. This would allow Israel to avoid conflict with the Arab nations and the ensuing oil crisis that such conflict would create. This had been the situation just prior to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

National consciousness on the rise

── What has changed as a result of the attack by Hamas?

It is not clear why Hamas launched such a large-scale attack on Oct. 7, nor is its immediate cause or purpose evident. What was certain, however, was that once Israel and Saudi Arabia normalized relations, the Palestinian issue would be forsaken and there would be no future for Hamas. Given those circumstances, it is possible the attack was a kind of resurrection tactic or perhaps an outburst resulting from pent-up stress. Nevertheless, the attack has pushed back official normalization among states that would not have dealt with the Palestinian problem, for a long time to come.

I was in Türkiye on the day of the attack, and I had been scheduled to return to Israel on Oct. 8 to convene an international conference. We had planned to discuss such topics as how much progress had been made on the Abraham Accords and to what extent Japan could be involved in the formation of a new multilateral relationship in the region built on strengthened relations between the Gulf oil states and Israel. When negotiating prior to the conference with members from the Gulf oil states, I felt a sense of resistance against the sixth government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed at the end of 2022. Haram al-Sharif (also known as Temple Mount), which is located in the Old City in East Jerusalem, is an important place of worship for Muslims, and the Arab side was strongly opposed to any religious Zionism that would make it possible for Jewish people to worship there. Gulf states like the UAE made no effort to hide their unwillingness to strengthen relations with the current government; but at the same time, they were trying not to break relations with Israel, by communicating with former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett or former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid, both from previous governments that had been negotiating the normalization of relations.

The Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most holy sites, sits atop Haram al-Sharif. © Tony Kane (CC BY 2.0)

When informed of the massive attack on Oct. 7, there seemed to be a feeling on the Arab side, including the Gulf oil states, that it was not only an attack against Israel, but a reaction against the Arab nations themselves for neglecting the Palestinian issue while negotiating normalization with Israel. And it seems to have spawned a sense of guilt among some. By demonstrating that Hamas still had the wherewithal to carry out an act of such magnitude despite many years under the blockade, the Arab world became instantly aware that normalizing relations with Israel would be impossible without addressing Palestine.

── How have Arab nations reacted to the conflict in Gaza?

The timing of the Oct. 7 attack brings back memories of the Fourth Arab-Israeli War in 1973 when social activities, including public services, were halted for a religious holiday and defenses were thin. The war, which began with a surprise attack by Egyptian forces, is known in Egypt as the October War or “the Crossing,” the latter being a reference to reclaiming the Sinai Peninsula, which was being occupied by Israel, by crossing the Suez Canal. In Israel, however, the war is called the Yom Kippur War because the war began on Oct. 6, which that year was the date of the Jewish holy day of atonement, Yom Kippur. As this name suggests, the memory of the war has been passed down in Israel as a date on which Israelis were attacked on a day for fasting and prayer. The recent Hamas attack occurred on the final day of Sukkot, a weeklong holiday that follows Yom Kippur and concludes the largest holiday season of the year. From the perspective of the attackers, it likely seemed to be the date when Israelis would have let their guard down the most, but for Israelis, the attack felt targeted at their very sense of religious community, pushing their distress and sense of aggrievement to the limit.

The attack by Hamas and subsequent Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip have also forced the people of the Arab world to confront their identity and question who they are. Even people in countries with friendly policies toward Israel were made to feel, after witnessing Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza, that they were not on the side of Israel, but rather on that of Palestinians clearly trapped in Gaza. Israel called Hamas’ attacks acts of terrorism, and with the approval of the U.S. and European nations, embarked on a full-scale retaliation. However, this endorsement led the Arab, and more broadly the Islamic, world to the realization that they were being lumped together and being grouped in the terrorist camp, and coming under sweeping attack. They came to share a sense of pained disgrace and humiliation and victimization that the attacks on Palestinians were also directed against them, feelings that are likely the result of a heightened sense of national identity. Even the wealthy Gulf states, which were once thought to have little interest in the Palestinian issue, have recently developed a strong sense of national pride and increase in diplomatic and military statuses.

Because of Oct. 7, people in the Arab nations have shifted to recognizing that there is no chance for peace and stability in the region without a solution to the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, Israel continues to attack Gaza based on the idea that there will be no peace and stability as long as Hamas exists. Israel’s unilateral removal of the Palestinians is unacceptable to the Arab world.

There may not yet be an end in sight, but if the issue in Palestine is to be resolved, the Israeli government and Palestinian leadership would have to accept a new agreement that leads to a two-state solution, including the establishment of a Palestinian state in some form. Such an agreement would need to be inclusive and comprehensive: The initiative would be led by the U.S. and U.K., or Western Europe and the G7, with involvement from major powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar or Türkiye, cooperation from adjacent nations like Egypt and Jordan, as well as endorsement of the United Nations. Because it would be difficult for the current Israeli and Palestinian governments to accept such a solution due to internal political resistance on both sides, even replacing the current regimes could be on the table. Rebuilding a destroyed Gaza requires significant international involvement, and temporary international control may be considered for governing a Hamas-free Gaza. Whether or not such a new, comprehensive agreement will be reached depends on policy decisions of the administration of U.S. President Biden, who is up for re-election, and the will of major powers in the Middle East. 2024 will be a year in which we will see the development of a post-Gaza crisis diplomacy.

Ikeuchi Satoshi

Satoshi Ikeuchi
Professor, Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology

Assumed current position in 2018 after experience as a research fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies in the Japan External Trade Organization; associate professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies and Graduate University for Advanced Studies; visiting professor at Alexandria University in Egypt; and associate professor in the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo. Author of numerous publications in Japanese, including Isurāmukoku no shōgeki (“The Shock of the Islamic State”) (Bungeishunju, 2015).

Interview dates: Nov. 15, 2023, and Feb. 8, 2024
Interview: Yuki Terada, Hannah Dahlberg-Dodd

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