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Arms embargo best and possibly last chance to stop the Gaza war

As momentum builds toward a regional war and IDF discipline is showing signs of collapse, it's obvious that prolongation equals escalation. 

April 06 2024, 14.04pm
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Six months ago this weekend. Hamas opened up its unparalleled attack on Israeli military bases and civilian communities; six months ago next week, Israel scrambled its panicked, brutal campaign in Gaza, which has grown only more chaotic and lethal since. Almost 35,000 Palestinian and 1,500 Israeli dead later, the West appears to be slowly, tortuously swerving towards the position it could and should have taken days or weeks into the war: imposing a ceasefire using Israel’s overwhelming dependence on Western arms. 

It’s hard to see the war end any other way. 

A straightforward military resolution - i.e. an uncontested victory by one party -  appears as remote as it was when the war began. Hamas, obviously, cannot actually hope to defeat Israel militarily, despite the shock and temporary awe of its brief, Pyrrhic triumph on October 7th. Israel, by all accounts, has merely been nibbling around the edges of the Hamas fortification system, and is yet to penetrate the innermost system of tunnels where the Hamas leadership and many hostages are ensconced; or indeed to eliminate a Hamas leader of household notoriety. And as for civilian casualties, both sides must have understood by now that pressuring militaries through attacks on civilians doesn’t work. It never has. It didn’t work for Hamas on October 7th; and it hasn’t worked for Israel in Gaza since. At worst, military leaderships prove themselves indifferent to civilian losses; at best, their compatriots’ suffering convinces them that the only way to save any of them at all is to fight on. 

Neither does there seem to be much hope for the ceasefire negotiations - especially as breakthroughs have come and gone, only to be squandered. Both Hamas and Israeli professional negotiating teams have made considerable progress toward each other under Qatari and Egyptian mediation. But it is plain to see the Israeli prime minister himself is playing for time - in some cases offering no response to the latest counteroffer for up to a week, a week in which fighting in the Strip continues unabated. A charitable explanation of Netanyahu’s conduct might be that he is desperate to undo the catastrophe that unfolded on his watch. A less charitable - and vastly more popular one - is that he is either trying to drag out the war for as long as possible to allow for his own political survival; or he is trying to provoke a wider regional war into which America will have no choice but to step in. 

Even if we discount this apocalyptic gambit as too self-destructive even for Netanyahu, prolongation, in itself, equals escalation. Tit-for-tat is never stable; to maintain the momentum, each side must continuously up the ante. In the best-case scenario, both sides end up exhausted and ready to talk. In the worst, one side slips up and overdoes it, and unleashes a whole new spiral of conflict far beyond where either party intended to go.  As of the time of writing, it remains to see whether the assassination of a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander in an Iranian consulate in Damascus the other week was such a moment; Israelis are hunkering down for an unprecedented retaliation, even as Iran is mixing promises of vengeance with signalling it won’t give Israel a pretext to go into a direct, all-out war. But if it’s not this time, it’ll be another, whether by accident or by design. 

Prolongation also holds another, more insidious danger. Israel’s economy and army are simply not made for prolonged warfare. And while economically, this means Israel’s previously robust liberal economy is beginning to implode - with credit ratings slipping and forecasts going from bad to worst - militarily, this means the IDF’s discipline is showing symptoms of collapse.

Both the leaks and the official investigation of how the killing of the seven World Central Kitchen employees came about, suggest that the field commanders are ignoring or outright disobeying General Staff orders. The General Staff is hardly Geneva Convention compliant in its own right - consider the reported outsourcing of target listing to a slap-up AI. But the hardening of the mood and slacking of discipline among field commanders, stuck in a loop of winning battle after battle and yet obviously failing to win the war, has harrowing implications - for any Gaza civilian who might cross their path first and foremost, but for the future and stability of Israel and the region, also. 

Egypt and Qatar are reportedly ramping up pressure on Hamas to go the extra mile toward the Israeli positions. But whether or not Netanyahu is negotiating in good faith, it's obvious leverage must be applied to Israel too. A widespread consensus is building that the emergency lever of an arms embargo - at the very least, on offensive arms - must be pulled. In America, this is now the position of Democrats running the gamut from the Squad of progressive congresswomen to the staunchly pro-Israel Nancy Pelosi. In the UK - where the engine of the drone that killed the three British ex-servicemen securing the aid convoy was made - reports of official legal advice effectively suggesting the same course of action are widespread. We may well see the advice published soon, but even these reports, rightly, have the Civil Service's biggest union considering legal action to relief its members from any involvement in arms exports to Israel - for fear of being personally implicated in war crimes. 

Traditionally, a progressive publication like The Lead would conclude with calling on Labour to do something or say something. But the truth of the matter is that Labour is the opposition party. What it says or does on Gaza may well have implications at the ballot box, and there is a time and place for that conversation - indeed, there is no avoiding it. But Labour’s influence on what’s happening in Gaza is nil. The UK is far from the most important arms provider to Israel; but a clear stance here could well help the US to follow suit.  The Conservative government should quit dallying and commit to an offensive arms embargo unless an immediate ceasefire is declared. As for Labour, we can only hope that it won’t, by calculation or inertia, end up the right of Conservatives. If there was any time in this war for a wall-to-wall consensus in Whitehall and in the Commons, it’s right now. 
 

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