Thursday, May 23, 2024

How Will Israel Respond? Cabinet Meets for 3rd Day After Iran Missile Barrage

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JERUSALEM — Smoke hung thick over the Promised Land on Tuesday as Israel’s war cabinet convened yet again behind fortified walls to grapple with a smoldering crisis – whether to strike back at Iran after the ayatollahs’ brazen missile attack, or resign itself to a moldering stalemate.

The Saturday night skirmish saw the Islamic Republic launch its first-ever direct assault on the Jewish state, hurling over 300 missiles, cruise missiles and drones in a provocative act of retaliation. Thanks to Israel’s sophisticated air defenses – and critical assistance from allies like the U.S. and Britain – most of the incoming fire was neutralized before causing mass casualties.

But the audacious barrage still inflicted scattered damage and injuries, including a 7-year-old Israeli girl wounded by shrapnel. More ominously, it has thrust the bitter enemies to the precipice of a wider war that could engulf the tinderbox of the Middle East.

From the cabinet’s cloistered war room in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his security chiefs now face a fateful decision with global consequences. Do they unsheathe the might of Israel’s military to punish Tehran’s aggression, potentially igniting a regional conflagration? Or do they stand down and risk emboldening an embattled theocracy beset by domestic upheaval?

The crisis has unleashed a frantic bout of statecraft. On Tuesday, European Union ministers held emergency video talks searching for a defusing economic and diplomatic salvo against Iran. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, jetted to Israel, aiming to “prevent this difficult situation from escalating further.”

In Washington, President Joe Biden pressed Netanyahu in a weekend call to exercise restraint and avoid violent retaliation, according to White House officials. The U.S. made clear it would not participate in any Israeli counter-strike on the Islamic Republic.

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All sides insist they want to avoid a full-blown war – for now. But the surprise attack shattered a fragile regional status quo and resurrected global panic over containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“We don’t want to see a regional conflict,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters, his statement carrying echoes of past Mideast crises that spiraled disastrously out of control. “It’s for Israel to decide whether and how they’ll respond.”

Rarely have the arch-enemies resorted to such an overt exchange of cross-border firepower. The crisis marks a potentially cataclysmic departure from the shadow war the adversaries have waged for years through covert strikes in Syria, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.

Tehran says the missile barrage was retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on its embassy compound in Damascus last month. But it also serves as a blustering show of defiance from the bruised ayatollahs to an inflamed domestic crisis.

For over six months, Iran has been roiled by anti-government protests calling for the downfall of the clerical regime. The unrest has drawn brutal crackdowns as leaders desperately try to cling to power. Some analysts believe the mullahs may have provoked the confrontation with Israel to distract from internal upheaval.

“They are lashing out,” said Hannan Iqbal, a geopolitical analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington. “The missile strikes showcase their capabilities, stoke nationalist fervor – and change the narrative for a restive population sick of the regime’s provocations.”

Mindful of the risks, the Biden administration has opted for economic pressure instead of military action, rallying allies for new multilateral sanctions to punish Iran’s strikes on Israel.

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On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the G7 nations were compiling a “tough package of sanctions” targeting Tehran. Italy, holding the G7 presidency, suggested the penalties would focus on Iranian individuals.

Although Israel has signaled little appetite for escalation, the cauldron of conflict is threatening to boil over on multiple fronts after Iran’s unprecedented attack.

In southern Lebanon, four Israeli soldiers sustained wounds overnight when they came under fire from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia sworn to Israel’s destruction. It marked Israel’s first deployment of ground troops into Lebanese territory since tensions escalated over the weekend.

In Israel’s besieged coastal cities, air raid sirens pierced the night as interceptor missiles blasted Iranian projectiles from the sky. While damage was limited, such air bombardments of densely populated areas risked sowing mass bloodshed.

In Gaza, celebratory gunfire and shouts of support rang out from Iranian-allied Palestinian militants after the barrage on Israel – even as over 2 million Palestinian civilians cowered under the spectre of being caught in the cross-fire once more.

For over six months, Gaza has endured a grinding Israeli military siege seeking to uproot Hamas, the Iran-backed militant group that controls the impoverished enclave. Already over 33,000 Palestinians have perished in the onslaught, according to Gaza health officials.

“We have been left caught between the Palestinian and Iranian conflicts with Israel,” said one Gaza resident who gave only his first name, Khalil, fearing reprisals. “Just when we hoped things couldn’t get worse, more devastation rains down.”

Indeed, devastating barrages from Iranian-supplied rockets have increasingly targeted Israel from both Gaza and Lebanon in recent months. Military analysts believe Tehran may have orchestrated the weekend strike as a probing salvo, aiming to study and degrade Israel’s air defense capabilities in preparation for a larger bombardment.

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While mustering its response, Israel knows any over-reaction against the Islamic Republic could unite Iran’s Arab rivals around a besieged regime – a scenario both sides wish to avoid for now.

In somber public statements, Israeli Lt. Gen Herzi Halevi, the military chief of staff, said only that “The Iranian attack this weekend will be met with a forceful response.” He provided no specifics but is sure to present a range of retaliatory options as Security Cabinet meetings continue.

As the sun rose over the scorched ruins of Gaza on Tuesday, tension hung thick across the Middle East. In rickety wards, doctors scrambled over bloodied stretchers, tenderly swaddling the broken bodies of children. Beneath the embracing hills of Jerusalem, the dull thud of artillery bombardment echoed down ancient lanes.

In looming skies above, Israeli jets and Iranian drones appeared poised for the next barrage in a conflict all too familiar – and yet one never seen before in its terrifying new dimensions.

With so much at stake, Netanyahu must now grapple with his nation’s stark choices in confronting an implacable foe: Answer the Iranian provocation with furious retaliation and accept the risks of regional escalation? Or bide his time, encircling Iran with international pressure and sanctions in hopes the smoldering crisis can be contained?

The world holds its breath to see which path is chosen through the acrid smoke swirling once more over the Holy Land.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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