As the Israel-Hamas war rages on for a second week, there is mounting pressure on neighboring Arab governments to take a more active role in the conflict—whether as peacemakers or as allies.
Since Hamas’ surprise, unprecedented attack against Israel on Oct. 7—which killed at least 1,400 people, with an estimated 199 others taken hostage—Israel has carried out thousands of airstrikes against the densely-populated Gaza Strip. More than 3,300 people have been killed in Gaza, with Islamic Relief aid workers reporting that at least 1,000 children have died.
In the wake of the deadly blast at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital, Jordan canceled its summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, who arrived in Israel for a planned visit Wednesday to meet the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority.
Israel initially imposed a total siege of water, fuel, and electricity into the Strip. U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said Wednesday up to 100 trucks of aid per day were needed, citing pre-war levels. Israeli airstrikes forced the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt to shut last week, as thousands lined up at the border attempting to flee.
After calls from human rights groups and diplomatic observers, Biden confirmed Wednesday that Israel had agreed to the opening of the Rafah crossing to allow for the passage of 20 trucks carrying food, water, and medical supplies into Gaza, on the condition that Hamas did not intercept deliveries being made under the supervision of the U.N.
Biden pledged $100 million in humanitarian assistance to support civilians in Gaza and the West Bank. Biden’s administration will also ask Congress for a further $2 billion in combined aid for Israel and Ukraine.
As the possibility of a ground invasion by Israel remains likely, here’s how neighboring powers could respond to the unfolding war.
Lebanon, which shares its southern border with Israel, has one of the tensest recent histories with Israel among Arab nations. But there has been relative calm since 2006, when Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid into Israel, killing three soldiers and abducting two others. At least 1,000 Lebanese and 165 Israelis were killed in the 34-day conflict before a U.N. brokered ceasefire was reached, according to the New York Times.
As a result, the biggest fear of escalation depends on whether the battle-hardened and well-armed Hezbollah will enter the conflict. Deadly skirmishes between the Iran-backed Lebanese militia and Israel have taken place at the Israel-Lebanon border. On Oct. 15, Israel’s defense minister said that Israel had no interest in war on its northern front provided Hezbollah also shows restraint. But clashes erupted along the border on Tuesday, leaving five Hezbollah fighters dead, amid a series of low-level skirmishes since the Israel-Hamas war began.
Lebanon, the Arab world’s most religiously diverse country, has had a caretaker government with limited powers since November, when Lebanese lawmakers failed to elect a new president for an eleventh time. Hezbollah, as both a militant group and political party, is the dominant force in Lebanon. The group emerged in 1982, during the country’s civil war, as a response to Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. Its involvement in the war could exacerbate Lebanon’s religious divisions.
The Lebanese government is hence keen to “keep the border with Israel quiet,” says Imad K. Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC. The country has since experienced myriad crises in recent years, including the August 2020 Beirut port explosion and an ongoing economic meltdown that the World Bank has said may be among the top three worst globally since the 19th century. But it is Hezbollah that will have the final say, Harb adds.
Hezbollah is linked to Hamas through Iran’s regional network of allied militias. “When it comes to Hamas’ involvement in a campaign against Israel of this scale, this cannot be something that Hezbollah will stand by and observe without doing anything,” says Lina Khatib, director of the SOAS Middle East Institute.
“Since the first rockets that Hezbollah launched, we’ve seen a widening of the geographical scope that rockets are reaching in Israel… However, I still think the probability of an all out war between Hezbollah and Israel remains low,” Khatib says. She cites Hezbollah’s “domestic calculations,” given the economic costs and how polarizing such an intervention would be.
Egypt is the only country aside from Israel to share a border with Gaza, and it has long found itself in the role of mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Egypt is one of the few parties that can talk to all sides,” says Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. But the nation finds itself overwhelmed by Western pressure, notably from the U.K. and U.S., to host Gazans who wish to escape the conflict, Elgindy adds.
“On this occasion, Egypt is being asked to potentially take on tens of thousands of Palestinian people who are fleeing,” says SOAS’s Khatib. “The concern is that this may lead to a long term, if not permanent presence of these Palestinians who end up not as evacuated people but as displaced people.”
As home to the Rafah crossing, the only entry point to Gaza that is not controlled by Israel, rights groups say Egypt has a responsibility to act as a corridor for essential humanitarian aid. But Egypt is also grappling with deep domestic issues, including a flailing economy that has seen its currency lose almost half its value against the dollar since March 2022.
“It’s really an untenable situation and rather than demanding that Egypt be the pressure release valve, the U.S. and the international community should be telling Israel to stop putting the pressure on the civilian population,” Elgindy says.
Egypt has for years maintained that permitting an exodus from Gaza would “revive the idea that Sinai is the alternative country for the Palestinians,” Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political scientist at Cairo University, told the New York Times.
Read More: Why Egypt’s Border With Gaza Is Sealed
Jordan has historically supported the Palestinian cause and more than half of Jordanians claim Palestinian ancestry, according to Human Rights Watch. Jordan has long played a custodian role in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories, particularly around the West Bank it once administered that is home to holy Muslim and Christian sites, most of which are in East Jerusalem.
Hours after the start of Hamas’ attack, the Jordanian government released a statement that said Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi had spoken about the situation with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. “Al-Safadi stressed the need to protect the region from the consequences of a new cycle of violence, create a real political horizon to end the occupation, and stop all measures that foment tension and undermine the chances of achieving a two-state solution,” the statement read.
Presently, Harb says, the only role Jordan can play is that of an advocate. “I am not sure that it can play a big role in the current crisis because it is far from Gaza,” he says.
MEI’s Elgindy says that Jordan’s main concern is to ensure stability in the bordering West Bank. Since the war broke out, at least 61 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian health ministry, and over a thousand more wounded in the deadliest week since 2005. If violence escalates, Jordan could take on a larger role in mediation, says Elgindy, “but for the time being I don’t see them as having a role in Gaza.”
Syria’s role in the present-day conflict will likely be small. The country is still recovering from the economic fallout from earthquakes in February that killed at least 5,500 people and injured thousands more. Syria continues to suffer from the long-term impact of the uprising-turned-civil war, which broke out in 2011.
The nation does not currently have much leverage over the conflict, Rim Turkmani, director of Syria Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics, tells TIME.
“Hamas is not much dependent on the support of the Syrian regime. The support the Syrian regime gives to Hezbollah and Iran is far more important,” she says.
Syria, along with Egypt and Jordan, fought against Israel in the Six Day War in 1967 and Yom Kippur war in 1973. But it has been relatively quiet since in terms of direct military confrontation between Israel and Syria. Turkmani notes that this is in part due to a United Nations Disengagement Observer Force that maintains the 1973 ceasefire between the two countries, and that Syria has remained focused on issues around the Israel-annexed Golan Heights that is internationally recognized as Syrian territory.
Regardless, Syria hosts over half a million Palestinian refugees who have arrived in waves since 1948, and the Syrian public, like most Arab nations, remains largely pro-Palestinian.Leave a comment