When The Besieged Becomes The Besieger: How Destroying Gaza Could Backfire And Jeopardize Israel’s Foreign Relations

Beatrice Ala

There is a recurring theme in Israeli political, social and cultural architecture: the siege mentality. The constant and irrepressible conviction that you are surrounded by enemies that want to wipe you off from the surface of the Earth. Israel spent the last 50 years working to normalize regional relations and alleviate the innate tension around the birth of the Israeli State. But now, just as Netanyahu’s government is conducting the most aggressive military operation in Gaza, leaving its people no way out of the Strip, the web of regional relations built so laboriously is rapidly deteriorating, and even the most solid allies are showing signs of discontent. 

What if the one who was always besieged, finds no relief in besieging its lifelong thorn in the flesh? What if Israel, by destroying Gaza, is now actually turning newly-made partners against itself? How are foreign relations being shaped by this protracted conflict?

Israeli bombardment of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 26, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas militant group. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

1: The Besieged 

The question of the birth of the Israeli State is structurally linked with the need to protect itself. Since the very first day of its coming to life, and even before 1948, Israel had to associate its existence with the undeniable awareness that it was not welcome, and that it had to defend itself by all means from the Arab neighbors who did not recognize its legitimacy. This developed in what Israeli scholars have identified as siege mentality: “a central belief that the rest of the world has negative behavioral intentions toward them”. Truth to be told, the early decades after 1947 were indeed marked with continuous and ferocious wars between the newborn State and its Arab neighbors, who carried the banner of the protection of Palestine. It was a matter of life or death. 

However, after the ardor of the revolutionary period, when the Palestinian issue started to lose its appeal to Arab governments, the Israeli strategy shifted towards a perhaps elusive, but more effective approach than brazen warfare: politics. The besieged, surrounded on all sides by states that wanted to annihilate it, found in the political tool a lever to negotiate its existence into the hectic space of the levant. Relentlessly, Israel has successfully worked on normalizing relations with states that had previously pledged to destroy it. Eventually, the Arab states laid down their arms, neglecting the ever dramatic Palestinian situation that no one was willing to deal with anymore. Egypt was the first to capitulate. Camp David, 1978; Jordan, 1994; Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, 2020. The web was expanding. More states declared to be interested in this odd but seemingly fruitful partnership. Does the besieged still feel threatened to its very core, or does this intricate net prove useful in covering its back?

2: The Besieger 

The attacks of October 7th caught the world by surprise. An organized attack by Hamas, unexpected by Israel itself, triggered a harsh reaction from Netanyahu’s government: a military response of such magnitude and violence that threatens to this day the very existence of Gaza. While the number of Israeli victims stopped at 1200, the Palestinian death toll currently is set to pass 30,000, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health – two-thirds of them women and children, and it’s constantly rising. Not a single functional hospital is left in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. The IDF’s joint ground and air offensive started in Gaza city and pushed further and further south, destroying more towns in its path and inexorably crushing civilians between the army’s advance and the closed Egyptian border. But as continuously stated by Israel’s Ministers and politicians, both from the current government and former diplomats, Gaza is only a hurdle to deal with in the decisive attempt to eradicate Hamas from its territory.

Palestinians search through the rubble of destroyed residential buildings following Israeli bombardment in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza, on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Western officials are growing increasingly alarmed at the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the US and its allies have been pressing Israel for details on how it plans to move the civilian population. Photographer: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg via Getty Images

3: Scorched Earth 

On the international level, mediators such as Qatar and Egypt have tried to negotiate a ceasefire and to de-escalate the feverish situation. This worked a first time, but recent talks -proposing a more ambitious agreement between the parties- might not yield the same result. In the meantime, the Israeli offensive shows no signs of waning in intensity; instead, the decisive attack on Rafah is looming.

The extreme and uncompromising stance adopted by Netanyahu’s cabinet has begun to make both old and new political partners feel uncomfortable. 

Egypt has barred the gates of the Rafah crossing, openly contrasting Israeli pressure to accept the growing number of Palestinian refugees displaced. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has seconded Egypt’s stance, declaring that the passage of Palestinian refugees into Egypt would be an exodus that would dramatically leave room for a permanent displacement of Palestinians, forced out of their land. 

Israel’s pursuit of victory appears to prioritize its goals over potential normalization with Saudi Arabia. Significantly, Netanyahu turned down a plan from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which would have seen Saudi Arabia normalize relations with Israel in return for Netanyahu’s commitment to giving the Palestinians a clear path toward the creation of an independent State.

Last year, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and US President Biden underscored their enduring commitment to a two-state solution, deemed essential to reach a comprehensive peace in the region. The Palestinian issue was encumbering on the relation between the Kingdom and Israel, already on thin ice since October: Saudi Arabia, already at the outset of the conflict, had spoken out for the two-state solution to be reevaluated. Now Riyadh has markedly reiterated that diplomatic relations with Israel won’t be opened unless an independent Palestinian state is recognised on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

However, the biggest snub for a government that seems to be absolutely unwilling to come to terms with those it designates as “terrorists” comes from its historic ally, precisely the one you really shouldn’t annoy: The United States.

A rift is growing between US President Biden and Netanyahu, as they seem to openly differ on the issue. Biden warned that the heavy campaign in Gaza might be undermining international support towards Israel and suggested that the offensive on Rafah should not be launched without a credible and executable plan ensuring the safety of the more than one million people sheltering there. Blinken also was opposed to any reoccupation of Gaza by Israel as well as any reduction in the size of the territory.

On Friday 23, the Netanyahu administration proposed a post-war plan for Gaza. It outlines an indefinite military control over Gaza, while ceding the administration of civilian life to Gazans without links to Hamas, and doesn’t mention the Palestinian Authority. Gaza would be completely demilitarized and its southern border with Egypt would be closed, giving Israel complete control of entry and exit from the enclave. Finally, the creation of a permanent settlement for the Palestinians is completely crossed out, under the pretext that the recognition of a Palestinian State now would be “a huge reward to unprecedented terrorism.”

Such a proposal, which admits no concession or recognition to the Palestinian political counterpart, does not help the Israeli situation of increasing isolation and it further alienates it from the international dynamics, that are instead working to de-escalate and reduce the consequences of the conflict on the regional scale.

Widening the range of international fora that see Israel facing charges and accusations, there are cases brought to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). One is filed by South Africa, that has accused Israel of “conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to genocide, attempted genocide and complicity in genocide”. Another international case, filed even before October 7th, concerns the legal consequences arising from Israel’s policies and practices in Occupied Palestinian Territory.

WEST JERUSALEM – FEBRUARY 07: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) shakes hand with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in West Jerusalem on February 07, 2024. (Photo by GPO / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

One thing is clear: for Israel, there seems to be an inseparable overlap between Hamas and Gaza. The destruction of Gaza seems to be necessary to annihilate Hamas, and the group’s defeat can’t come without the demolition of the enclave. The issue of the hostages has even receded into the background, with growing discontent on the part of civil society. 

But a front of doubts and concerns have begun to compact against Israel. 

It’s doubtful that the risk of jeopardizing carefully nurtured relationships with key players in the Arab ensemble is worth winning the war in Gaza. The possible destruction of long-established diplomatic ties and the alienation from neighbors, attracted through decades of diplomatic engagement, must be weighed against the unshakable resolution to destroy an enemy yet still so elusive. Is scorched earth all around, even against the advice of historic and powerful allies, a strategy worth implementing in order to settle the matter once and for all, and on its own terms? Such an unwavering approach raises questions about the wisdom of potentially undermining both the prospects of a two-state solution, where both Palestine and Israel coexist, and the diplomatic network so tirelessly built, just to address the immediate challenge posed by Hamas in Gaza.

In conclusion, everything seems to come down to a question of balance and priorities: and Netanyahu’s government has made it clear that this conflict is an existential matter. The former besieged is now the besieger, and it doesn’t matter if, at the end of the day, you find yourself surrounded once again. 

Talks, negotiations, hostages, and the cautious handling of foreign relations: everything seems to fade against the impellent necessity to go all in. At all costs.

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When The Besieged Becomes…

by Beatrice Ala time to read: 7 min