|Image: Al Jazeera|
Tensions in the Middle East have reached a boiling point as Israel gears up for a ground invasion of Gaza while continuing to pummel the strip with artillery and airstrikes. Meanwhile, Iran has warned of possible “preemptive action” against Israel in the coming hours.
Over 10 days into the conflict, more than 200 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed as Israel retaliates for Hamas rocket attacks. Israel insists its bombing campaign specifically targets Hamas militants and infrastructure. But Palestinian officials say most victims are civilians, with entire neighborhoods flattened.
Now Israel is signaling plans to send ground forces into Gaza to root out Hamas, the militant group governing the besieged strip. But the risks of a ground war are immense, threatening to expand the conflict as Hamas has vowed to fiercely resist any Israeli incursion.
Regional tensions are already spiraling with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah exchanging fire with Israel across the Lebanese border. On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian warned that resistance groups would not allow Israel to operate freely in Gaza and then target other areas.
“All possible options and scenarios are there for Hezbollah,” he said, referring to his meeting with the Lebanese group’s leader. “Any preemptive measure is imaginable in the coming hours.”
Amirabdollahian suggested Iran and allied militias may need to open other fronts if Gaza is not defended now. He accused Israel of using banned phosphorus bombs in its strikes, though Israel denies this allegation.
The ominous threat of regional escalation comes as unrest spreads across mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel over the Gaza bombing and clashes in Jerusalem. Israeli police arrested hundreds of Palestinian citizens as violence between vigilante mobs erupted.
With over 70 years of tangled history, this outbreak of hostilities was sparked by efforts to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem. Hamas demanded Israel withdraw security forces from Al-Aqsa mosque and the threatened Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
When Israel refused, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets, prompting Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. At least 12 people in Israel have died from Palestinian rocket fire.
No Sign Of Letting Up As Gaza Bombing Intensifies
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared war on Hamas, vowing to continue strikes “as long necessary” to weaken their military capabilities.
Israel claims its bombing campaign specifically targets Hamas militants and infrastructure while trying to avoid civilian casualties. But growing international criticism alleges Israel’s disproportionate response has devastated Gaza’s civilian population.
Over 450 buildings in densely populated areas have been destroyed, leaving 66,000 Palestinians homeless, according to UN estimates. Photos of dead children and entire families buried in rubble have shocked the world.
Officials in Gaza say Israeli strikes have damaged power lines providing electricity to hundreds of thousands. Shortages of clean water and medical supplies are also desperate, adding to struggles under Israel’s blockade since Hamas took control in 2007.
“The severity of injuries and lack of hospital capacity and medications are a very big concern for us,” said Médecins Sans Frontières’ emergency coordinator in Gaza. “Besides injuries related to air strikes, patients with chronic diseases are not able to get their regular treatment.”
Diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire have stalled as both sides vow to press on. President Biden affirmed support for Israel’s right to self defense in a call with Netanyahu while expressing hope for de-escalation.
With ceasefire talks going nowhere, Israel’s security cabinet approved a ground operation into Gaza if needed to curb Hamas’ military power. A ground invasion risks significant military and civilian casualties on both sides.
Hamas’ exiled leader Ismail Haniyeh said the group is “ready for a long battle” and will not stop firing rockets into Israel.
Tensions Boil With Iran, Hezbollah
As the Gaza crisis intensifies, tensions are also skyrocketing between Israel and Iran-backed militias along Lebanon’s southern border and potentially beyond.
For over a week, Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged cross-border fire focused on military sites. But the Shiite group has thousands of advanced rockets that could reach deep into Israeli territory if the fighting escalates.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has expressed readiness to expand the confrontation in support of Hamas and Palestinians. “The resistance in Lebanon is on alert and ready for defense and also ready for appropriate offensive retaliation if the Israeli enemy engages in any foolishness,” he said last week.
Iran’s foreign minister reinforced this threats, warning no one can guarantee conflict will not spread if Israel invades Gaza. Iranian leaders say other pro-Palestinian forces may have to open new fronts if Gaza is not protected.
Some analysts believe Hezbollah may seek to draw Israeli forces away from Gaza while avoiding provoking full-scale war. But miscalculations could unleash a regional conflagration as Iran sees the crisis as a rallying point for its “axis of resistance” against Israel.
Tehran has cheered the Hamas rocket attacks while denying direct involvement. Israel has accused Iran of providing weapons and support to militant groups. A commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force vowed Palestinians would be armed to fight until Israel is destroyed.
Rising Civil Unrest Roils Israel
Along with the military confrontation, Israel faces surging civil unrest between Arabs and Jews within its borders as decades of tensions boil over.
Protests by Palestinian citizens against the Gaza strikes and heavy-handed police tactics have devolved into violent riots. Extremists torched synagogues while Jewish vigilantes damaged Arab-owned businesses. Hundreds of rioters were arrested this week.
Israel imposed emergency laws in mixed cities like Lod, where a Palestinian citizen was shot dead after killing an Israeli early Wednesday. Police say rioters threw rocks at officers and burned patrol cars. Israeli leaders condemned Jewish extremists taking the law into their own hands.
“We have no other choice,” said Prime Minister Netanyahu of empowering police to halt mob violence between Arabs and Jews. “This is the policy: Freedom of action for police, backing from the state institutions.”
But Palestinian citizens accuse Israeli police of ignoring Jewish mobs while cracking down harshly on Arab protesters. Videos of police manhandling Palestinian protesters have heightened tensions.
With Palestinians comprising 20% of Israel’s population, longstanding frustrations over inequality and discrimination are now erupting amid the Gaza crisis. Palestinian citizensIDENTIFY with those suffering in Gaza while Jewish Israelis see the rockets attacks as an existential threat.
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have called for calm amid the communal clashes. But with bombardments ramping up in Gaza and the threat of regional escalation, the fury on all sides shows no signs of abating.
The next few days will prove critical as Israel weighs a ground invasion of Gaza and resistance groups weigh opening new battlefronts. The already dire humanitarian situation could quickly spin out of control, as Amirabdollahian forewarned.
“If we don’t defend Gaza today, tomorrow we have to defend against these bombs in the children’s hospital of our own country,” the foreign minister said, signaling Iran may be compelled to act.