Analysis | Iran’s escalation with Israel shifts focus away from Gaza

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After the retaliation, comes the retaliation. Israeli officials Monday said they would respond to the astonishing assault carried out two days prior by Iran that saw hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles and drones launched from Iranian territory toward targets in the Jewish state. The Iranian barrage was successfully fended off by Israeli air defenses, backed by the United States and a number of the regional partners and allies. Nearly all of the Iranian launches were intercepted before they reached Israel. No one was killed. One young girl was hospitalized after suffering severe shrapnel injuries, her family said.

For Tehran, the attack was a response to an Israeli operation that killed seven senior Iranian officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at an Iranian compound in Damascus, Syria. For Israel, the Iranian response demands its own reprisal. Gen. Herzi Halevi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said Monday that “the launch of so many missiles and drones to Israeli territory will be answered with a retaliation.”

What that would look like was unclear at the time of writing, though a new Israeli attack seemed in the cards. Iran and Israel have been locked for years in a tacit shadow war, punctuated by airstrikes, assassinations and acts of sabotage. But the current round of escalation has sharpened the prospect of open war between the two Middle East powers — a volatile explosion that would likely lead to spillover violence across the region.

Iran has signaled that it does not want to engage in a full-blown war, either on its accord or through key proxies like Lebanese Shiite faction Hezbollah. The regime in Tehran seemed to telegraph its retaliatory strike, which was rebuffed by the combined efforts of Israel, the United States, Britain and Arab states like Jordan, and was left claiming, at best, a symbolic victory. Hard-right members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government called for a forceful response, while other Israeli allies, including President Biden, urged restraint.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron on April 15 urged Israel not to escalate conflict with Iran because “the attack was a failure.” (Video: BBC via Reuters)

The back-and-forth drama has offered Netanyahu something of a diversion from the more immediate crisis at hand. The right-wing prime minister and his war cabinet have faced mounting international criticism for their management of the war in Gaza, which has led to the deaths of more than 33,000 Palestinians and a humanitarian catastrophe in the besieged territory. But the international response to the Iranian attack offered a reminder to Israelis of both the long-standing support they have in the West, as well as among their Arab neighbors in the region — such as the monarchies of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that are similarly distrustful of Tehran’s ambitions and agenda.

For Palestinians, the escalation is a reminder of a status quo that existed before the Oct. 7 terrorist strike carried out by militant group Hamas, which triggered the current conflict. That deeper reality saw the political aspirations of millions of Palestinians undermined by an Israeli occupation regime that has no interest in giving them statehood, suppressed by their own dysfunctional leadership, and largely ignored by international diplomats, including U.S. and Arab officials more focused on the possibilities that could come with better integrating Israel into the region.

There were reports of fresh Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians in both Gaza and the West Bank over the weekend. “The world overwhelmingly supports Israel, turning a blind eye to Gaza’s plight,” said 59-year-old Moreedd al-Assar, a resident of Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, to my colleagues. “We hold no significance, and the world won’t allow harm to its favored child, Israel.”

Iran, in its statements surrounding its strike on Israel, made no demands for a cease-fire in Gaza and linked their decision to the Israeli attack on their IRGC officers — rather than the suffering of Palestinians whose cause Tehran claims to champion. “After the Iranian attack, it looks like the war [in Gaza] has returned to the starting point, Israel versus Hamas,” wrote Jack Khoury in Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “As such, more than six months after the battle started, there are still 133 Israeli and non-Israeli hostages praying to be set free, while Gaza remains destroyed and bleeding, without any horizon or vision for the day after.”

The focus Monday was on the need for Israel to show restraint. Iran appeared to have carefully calibrated its attack on Israel in such a way that Western governments all rushed to counsel Israel against significant retribution.

“The attack was a failure,” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said repeatedly in a BBC television interview Monday morning, describing it as a “double defeat” for Tehran in both military and geopolitical terms. “The right thing to do is not to escalate,” he said, when asked how Israel should respond. “We are urging them as friends to think with head as well as heart, to be smart as well as tough.”

“It’s about convincing against a response that escalates,” French President Emmanuel Macron urged. “Isolate Iran, succeed in persuading the countries of the region that Iran is a threat, build up sanctions, strengthen pressures against nuclear activity,” he said. “Then we can find a path to peace for the region.”

The shift in aperture away from Gaza may or may not last. “There are two scenarios: one is that American decision-makers realize that Netanyahu and his war cabinet are pulling NATO into a regional war with Iran, which is not in the interests of the U.S. or EU, and double down with massive pressure on Netanyahu to force a ceasefire in Gaza,” Fadi Quran, a member of the Al-Shabaka Palestinian policy network, told Politico.

“The second scenario is that Netanyahu’s gamble with a regional war succeeds and Western leaders are cornered into allowing Israel to continue using starvation as a tactic in Gaza, attack [the southern Gazan city of] Rafah and pull the region closer to the abyss,” he added.

correction

An earlier version of this article said incorrectly that Iran’s attack on Israel inflicted no casualties. At least one person, a young girl from a Bedouin town in the south, was injured, as The Washington Post reported. The article has been corrected.

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