Days after Palestinian gunmen from Gaza launched brazen attacks on southern Israel, killing more than 1,300 people in the broadest assault on the country in decades, the conflict is threatening to ripple across the Middle East.
In the Gaza Strip, while the Israeli military pummels the blockaded territory with airstrikes and demands that more than a million of its residents move south, Palestinians are hunkering down in fear. On Israel’s northern border, the army is clashing with a militant group in Lebanon. In Iraq and Yemen, armed groups have issued threats against Israel and the United States, its main ally. On Thursday, Israeli airstrikes hit the two main airports in neighboring Syria.
As Israel’s army prepares for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the inferno flaring out from Gaza is turning into a potential nightmare for the entire region, threatening to destabilize not just Israel and the Palestinian territories, but also Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
American officials have doubled down on their support for Israel, with President Biden defending Israel’s “right to respond.”
Analysts say the outbreak of the war — and the Hamas attack that was deeper than anything Israel has experienced in decades — is not only a shock for officials in the Biden administration, who had recently been promoting their successes in soothing Middle East crises. It is also a major setback for the oil-rich powerhouses of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which had spent the past few years declaring their commitment to easing regional tensions and arguing that it was time to focus on domestic development.
Those hopes for relative calm have disintegrated, frightening officials, scholars and ordinary people across the region. The war in Israel comes on top of several conflicts that never fully died down, including in Yemen and Syria, and a new war that broke out this year in Sudan.
“We’re going backward,” said Mohammed Baharoon, head of B’huth, a Dubai-based research center. “Suddenly, it’s back to people killing people, and people cheering others for killing people.”
While the Gulf monarchies survived the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the wars that followed — emerging wealthier and more powerful as neighboring countries collapsed — many of the underlying problems that fueled the revolts have intensified, including economic woes, corruption and political repression. That poses risks for the whole region, leaving many countries in a precarious position as this newest war unfolds, analysts say.
“Until political drivers of conflict, especially poor governance, start to be seriously addressed, it will be difficult for regional stability to take hold in a serious way,” said Anna Jacobs, senior Gulf analyst for the Crisis Group.
Saudi and Emirati officials have spent the past few years promoting what they described as a new approach, focused on economic diplomacy and de-escalating tensions.
In 2020, the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco established diplomatic ties with Israel — reversing their stance of refusing to recognize the country before the creation of a Palestinian state. This year, Saudi Arabia re-established diplomatic ties with Iran, its regional rival. And, more recently, Saudi officials had been talking with American officials about a potential deal to form ties with Israel.
Now, leaders are struggling to salvage their plans in a flurry of calls and meetings. Qatar, Turkey and Egypt are working with the United States to try to contain the conflict to Israel and Hamas by talking to various parties, including Iran, an Arab official said.
If the conflict fully reaches Lebanon, or Iran is brought into it directly, it would be a catastrophe, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid disrupting the sensitive talks.
There are already signs of increased regional unrest.
Israel’s army has been clashing for several days with militants in Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite group that is a sworn enemy of Israel.
In Iraq, more than 500,000 people filled Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Friday in a show of support for the Palestinians. Called into the streets by the nationalist Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, people poured out of Baghdad’s mostly poorer neighborhoods to join together in a Friday Prayer that was strikingly disciplined and only occasionally punctuated by chants of “No, No to Israel” and “No, No to America.”
Protests also erupted on Friday in Jordan, Bahrain and Lebanon.
“Right now you’ve got a lot of countries in the region that have disaffected youth, bad economies, struggling people in general that are looking at this as a source of dignity,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi analyst and senior fellow at the Middle East Initiative at Harvard’s Belfer Center, referring to the assault by Hamas. “And that’s dangerous.”
Opinions across the vast region vary widely, with many ordinary people interviewed by The Times saying they were pained by the killing of Israeli civilians, particularly women and children, but saying that a degrading, colonial-style occupation by Israel has seeded Palestinian anger. Others saw the attacks against Israelis as a legitimate form of resistance.
In the Saudi capital of Riyadh, a teenager who had recently left his war-torn country of Yemen told a Times reporter on Wednesday that his “one and only wish in this life” was to travel to fight alongside Hamas.
“It’s a holy cause,” said Abdullah, 18, who asked to be identified by his first name only, to avoid government retribution.
Authoritarian governments that are wary of stoking a backlash have faced a challenging balancing act as they respond to the attacks, torn between pressure from Western allies to condemn them and their domestic public opinion. Regional entities with close ties to Iran — known as “the axis of resistance,” including Syria and armed groups in Lebanon and Iraq — have responded most loudly.
The Iraqi group Kataib Hezbollah said the Hamas attacks would “open the way for new strategic deterrence against the Zionist-American axis.” In Yemen, the leader of the Iran-backed Houthi fighters, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, said on Tuesday that if the United States intervened in Gaza, the Houthis would join the battle with missiles and drones.
The potential escalation in Gaza “returns us to the era of conflict and confrontation defined by the axis of resistance,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It takes us back, not to the Arab Spring, but the pre-Arab Spring — 2007 or 2008.”
Chief among the region’s unresolved problems since then has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.
Azzam Tamimi, the author of a book about Hamas who has interviewed many of its leaders and members, said that before the attack on Saturday, Hamas was under growing pressure from its supporters to respond to what they saw as the marginalization of and increasing violence toward the Palestinians.
“The world was ignoring the Palestinians,” he said.
On Thursday, the Israeli army chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, said that his forces would completely dismantle Hamas. “We will break them,” he said.
But the history of Israel’s trying to stamp out Palestinian resistance with military action suggests that any such effort will not succeed, Mr. Tamimi said.
“Even if all of the people in Gaza are pushed out of the Strip and then Israel moves in and you have street battles and they try to liquidate as many fighters as possible, what will happen next?” he said. “Israel will continue for the Palestinians to be an invading power, an occupying power, and then there will be a new generation that will be more sophisticated.”
“There is no way forward other than recognizing Palestinian rights,” he said.
The United States response has disturbed many in the Middle East.
This week, Mr. Biden said, “We stand with Israel.” And in Israel on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he could only speculate about the goals of Hamas in carrying out its attacks. “The simplest explanation may be the most compelling — this is pure evil,” he said.
“This war has demonstrated the sweeping tendency of Western countries to support Israel at every turn,” the Saudi novelist Abdo Khal wrote in a column in the Okaz newspaper on Thursday. “Because the results of this war are known in advance, the Gaza Strip will be blown into smithereens: stones, trees, and people.”
More than 1,500 Palestinians have been killed and over 6,600 others injured since Israel began retaliating for the Hamas attacks on Saturday.
To many people watching aghast from around the region, the Hamas attacks laid bare the risks of allowing the Palestinians to remain in hopelessness, Mr. Baharoon, the head of the Dubai research center, and several other scholars said.
“There is no state to be seen — their land is shrinking; their rights are shrinking,” he said, pointing out how deprivation can fuel unrest and violence. “Despair can be a very important weapon.”
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Baghdad; Ben Hubbard from Cairo; Ahmed Al Omran from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Edward Wong from Tel Aviv; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, and Nazeeha Saeed from Berlin.