Mouin Rabbani: The shifting geopolitical sands that can either save Gaza — or doom it to total annihilation

We spoke to the Middle East analyst about how Houthis’ takeover of the Red Sea and the IDF’s shocking hostage shootings may reshape Israel’s war in Gaza.
Cover Image for Mouin Rabbani: The shifting geopolitical sands that can either save Gaza — or doom it to total annihilation
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As Israel nears its eighth week of pounding the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian death toll pushes past 20,000, some of Israel’s staunchest allies have finally begun to call upon it to consider civilian lives and infrastructure. 

Traditional Western allies including France and Canada voted for a ceasefire in December at a symbolic vote at the U.N. General Assembly, joining 151 other countries, many of whom had formerly abstained or voted no. Even U.S President Biden remarked earlier this week that he wants Israel to “not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful” to protect civilians.

While such pressure may seem to suggest a break in these nations’ stances from previous Israeli campaigns in Gaza, the financial aid and massive military arsenal delivered to Israel’s doorstep tells another story.

“Change is not going to come from these governments having a sudden moral awakening on Christmas Eve. That’s not how the world works,” Mouin Rabbani, Jadaliyya magazine co-editor and a leading commenter on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict, says in an interview with Analyst News. “Change will come when these governments feel that their interests are being sufficiently threatened, that they need to change their policies in order to ensure those interests.”

That’s finally starting to happen. After IDF soldiers shot and killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza who were holding a white flag, Western governments are beginning to place more emphasis on negotiation.

Perhaps even more importantly, Rabbani explains, other players in the region are beginning to stir and shift the political winds. The Houthis, Yemen’s powerful rebel group, have begun orchestrating attacks on Israeli-linked vessels on the Red Sea to pressure Israel to end its siege on Gaza. Facing the blockage of a key global shipping lane, the United States has called on Arab states in the region to join a counterattack on the Houthis.

Analyst News spoke to Rabbani about what this all means for Gaza, Israel and the region at large. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As the U.S. launches a multinational counteroffensive against the Yemeni Houthis to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea, how effective do you think the Houthi strategy is?

What the Yemenis are doing is of massive significance. It has basically transformed an Israeli-Palestinian crisis, that developed into a regional crisis, into what is now a genuinely international crisis. And here’s why. 

Yemen sits astride the Bab al-Mandab. The Bab al-Mandab is a maritime choke point about 25 kilometers wide, through which any ship that wants to go from the Indian Ocean via the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea and the Suez Canal on the Mediterranean, needs to pass through. In other words, if you close Bab al-Mandab, you’ve closed the Suez Canal. As we saw a few years ago with the Ever Given incident, where a container ship for reasons entirely unrelated to political tensions or armed conflict ran aground, we learned that approximately 10% to 15% of global trade and 8 million barrels of oil a day pass through the Suez Canal. If you close Bab al-Mandab, you’ve basically forced in excess of 10% of global trade to reroute from taking this tried-and-true shipping lane; you now have to go around the Cape of Good Hope of South Africa, up the West African coast and then into the North Atlantic.

What the Yemenis are doing is of massive significance. It has basically transformed an Israeli-Palestinian crisis, that developed into a regional crisis, into what is now a genuinely international crisis.

The Yemenis have been escalating. They initially stated they would attack any Israeli ship, or any ship that has a relationship of ownership with the Israelis, that was seeking to traverse the Bab al-Mandab. Any ship going to or coming from Israel would also be considered a target. They said they will maintain this policy for as long as Israel maintains its siege and aggression against the Gaza Strip. 

If you’re in charge of Lloyd’s of London or another one of these large insurance companies, or if you’re Maersk or one of these massive shipping companies that control most of container transportation, you’re not going to wait to see whether the Yemenis will mistake one of your ships for an Israeli ship. So insurance rates for these ships skyrocketed, and global shipping operates on very tight margins. The largest shipping companies announced, one after the other, that they were no longer using this waterway. They said they would start diverting their ships around South Africa into the North Atlantic.

Effectively what the Yemenis have done by making these threats is shut down the Suez Canal. They have completely knocked global supply chains off balance, which will now take months to recover. In other words, they have transformed Gaza into a genuine international crisis. Already we’re seeing the price of gas at the pump rise and similar developments. Yemen does not have to sink a single ship to achieve its objectives. In fact, they’ve already achieved their objectives. Yes, they have managed to seize one ship and damage a few others, but this is not a classic naval battle where you have to sink the enemy fleet to achieve your objective.

How do you think Arab states will respond to these calls for a coalition against the Yemenis?

The United States this week announced Operation Prosperity Guardian — note the name. It’s a naval task force that is supposed to keep Bab al-Mandab open. I think they will only be able to do so by engaging with Yemen militarily at some point. 

This is a country that — over eight years of very intensive warfare launched by two of the strongest militaries in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, using advanced American weaponry — not only failed to defeat the Houthis; the Houthis emerged significantly strengthened from that conflict. The Yemeni people, of course, suffered horribly. But my point is that you hear some American commentators say, ‘Yeah, well, the Saudis don’t really know how to fly their planes.’ In fact, not only do the Saudis know quite well how to fly their planes, but they were also flying their planes toward targets identified for them by American intelligence.

There is, in fact, fairly little that the Americans can do to Yemen that the Saudis and the Emiratis haven’t already done. 

The reason that the Saudis and the Emiratis and others basically delegated the Bahrainis is to participate in this coalition — bearing in mind that Bahrain is effectively a colony occupied by the U.S. Fifth Fleet — is because during the Yemen war, the Houthis managed to repeatedly for the first time in their history, attack and target locations within Saudi Arabia and within the United Arab Emirates. What we have had in the past year or two is a peace process of sorts between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in Yemen. And if Saudi Arabia were to participate in this coalition of the willing, that would all go out the window. If armed hostilities were to ensue, the Houthis would not only respond by doing their best to keep Bab al-Mandab closed and by once again targeting Saudi Arabia. Given that Saudi Arabia’s main motivation in this peace process is to stop those attacks, that explains why they haven’t joined the coalition.

This isn’t the first time there’s been a bombardment of Gaza. How likely is it that this time will escalate into an all-out war in the Middle East? 

It depends what you mean by all-out war. We’ve been talking about the possibility of armed hostilities in the Red Sea between this coalition and the Yemenis, who seemed determined to keep Bab al-Mandab closed until Israel lifts the siege of Gaza. So what you now have is a coalition that’s prepared to go to war with Yemen so that Israel can maintain its siege and aggression against the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians may be viewed as lives of equal value by the international community, but as far as the position of governments in the West, the general attitude is that Palestinians are irrelevant human scum.

This is not Yemen trying to extort global shipping for monetary gain. The Yemenis have been absolutely clear that the only reason they’re doing this is to motivate the international community to end Israel’s siege and aggression against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. So the United States and its European allies and the maritime superpower of the Seychelles, along with the colony of Bahrain, basically had a choice. They could either ensure that Israel ceases its aggression on the Gaza Strip, in which case things in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab would revert to what they were on Oct. 6, or they could prioritize the continuation of genocide and be prepared to go to war against Yemen to ensure that that could continue. And that’s what they have chosen. 

More broadly, for more than two months, we’ve had escalating hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, between the Israeli military and Hezbollah movement. We’ve had attacks by Iraqi militias aligned with Iran on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq. And all these things could potentially erupt into a much broader regional conflict virtually at any moment. So while it’s fair to say that none of these parties are particularly interested in such an eruption, that becomes more and more likely by the day, the longer that Israel’s onslaught against the Gaza Strip continues.

Many have also suggested that Israel’s underlying aim may be access to oil and gas, or to control a major shipping lane by building an alternative to the Suez Canal. How much weight do you give to these theories?

Not much. I remember in the 1960s and 1970s, people were always trying to find some explanation for U.S. involvement in Vietnam that could be explained in terms of these neat categories of resources and how Vietnam could play a role in U.S.-led global capitalism. In fact, it had nothing to do with resources. 

Israel’s current policy towards the Gaza Strip is consistent with, and an extension of, Israeli policy towards the Gaza Strip since the 1950s — before anyone knew there were any resources in the Gaza Strip, off the Gaza coast, or for that matter in the entire eastern Mediterranean basin. So these theories that it’s really about oil and gas and shipping lanes and so on — I don’t think those are issues that Israeli strategists are paying much attention to since Oct. 7. If they are, I think we’re really talking about secondary, tertiary or less important issues. 

Israel does have very substantial gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. It is already denying Palestinians access to the gas off their own territorial waters, and it really has no need to seize control. In terms of the southern waterway, it’s been in the news for decades. I see no particular reason to believe that it’s going to be implemented anytime soon.

There’s been a frenzy of coverage and outcry about the IDF killing three Israeli hostages who were shirtless and waving a white flag. How do you think this will affect the calculus around this war?

I think its main impact is going to be domestically within Israel. The Israeli government and military leadership has consistently presented its military campaign as essential to Israel’s ability to retrieve its captives alive. This incident shows that not only is Israel unable to retrieve its captives alive, except through a process of negotiation with the Palestinians — but that Israel is killing captives who are, for reasons that remain unclear, free of their captors.

We’ve seen a lot of statements by Israeli leaders that the soldiers who killed these captives — in what amounts to a summary execution — were violating standing regulations and open fire instructions. In fact, they were acting in a way entirely consistent with the rules of engagement, which is that Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip have authorization to shoot anything that moves. That’s why these three were killed. 

On the one hand, this is going to increase public and political pressure on the Israeli government to negotiate once again with Hamas for a prisoner exchange, and to attach a greater priority to a prisoner exchange than it has. Thus far, the retrieval of captives has been a secondary objective of Israel. Its primary objective has been the destruction of the Gaza Strip, and dealing a heavy blow to Hamas and other armed groups.

Secondly, Palestinians may be viewed as lives of equal value by the international community, but as far as the position of governments in the West, the general attitude is that Palestinians are irrelevant human scum. This will make Western governments much more sensitive to the need for an — at least temporary — truce and negotiations. That’s in fact what we’ve been seeing now with these meetings between the Americans, the Israelis and the Qataris in Poland and so on.

There’s been talk of the so-called Hannibal Directive coming into play on Oct. 7, and Israelis who survived the massacre at Kibbutz Be’eri have reported that Israeli forces shelled their own civilians’ houses – sparking speculation that the IDF has once again authorized lethal force to prevent Israelis from being taken hostage. Do you think the Hannibal Directive played a role in the killing of these three Israeli hostages? 

The Hannibal Directive authorizes the Israeli military to kill Israeli military personnel or Israelis more generally, where there is a legitimate fear that these Israelis will be captured alive and used as leverage to force Israel into an exchange of captives. And we’ve seen the Hannibal Directive applied several times, quite prominently in Gaza City and Rafah during Israel’s 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip. And then on Oct. 7, it appears that Israeli combat helicopters fired on groups of people that they assumed also included Israeli citizens that were being taken to the Gaza Strip as captives. 

Regarding the other incident in Kibbutz Be’eri, it’s unclear to me whether the Hannibal Directive applied there. What we saw was Israeli tanks shooting at Israeli homes and an Israeli population center. And because there were armed Palestinian militants in those buildings, I think what happened here is that Israel basically applied the laws of war it always applies, which is just to shoot indiscriminately — to target whatever is in front of them to make no distinction between civilians and combatants, in terms of achieving its military objectives. In this case, they happen to be shooting at Israeli homes within Israeli territory. 

I think [the recent hostage killing] was more of a reflection of the standard Israeli military combat doctrine. I don’t think the Israeli military was acting on the basis that they needed to prevent the Israelis who were being held by Palestinians from being moved to the Gaza Strip. Rather, they were trying to reconquer territory and defeat Hamas groups in that population center.

We do know that hundreds of Israeli civilians lost their lives on Oct. 7. We do know that at least some of them died as a result of Israeli combat operations. But I don’t think we’re in any position to make a judgment that most, or even many of them, died because of Israeli actions rather than Palestinian actions. Those are issues that still require a thorough and independent investigation.

Can the Israeli state defeat Hamas through this Gaza onslaught, as it claims it is setting out to do? 

I don’t think anyone takes Israel’s stated objective of eradicating Hamas as a movement seriously. I would go so far as to say the Israeli leaders making those statements don’t take them seriously, either. They may have been under that illusion on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, but I think they’re long past that point.

Hamas is not a geographic movement that’s limited to the Gaza Strip. It’s a national movement that exists wherever there are significant Palestinian communities. So even if Israel manages to eradicate every last vestige in the Gaza Strip, it still won’t have achieved that goal, because Hamas exists in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Jordan and elsewhere. 

Israel has been seeking to wipe out much smaller, much weaker, much less organized, armed formations in the West Bank for several years now without success. There is little reason to believe that Hamas can succeed in the Gaza Strip where it has failed in the West Bank. 

Hamas is a movement, not just a militia. So even eliminating its military capabilities is not going to eliminate a movement that also has a political and social presence. I do think that Israel would very much like to eradicate Hamas, at least in the Gaza Strip. Failing that, it would like to eradicate its military capabilities in the Gaza Strip, or at least deal a mortal or significant blow. 

Hamas is a movement, not just a militia. So even eliminating its military capabilities is not going to eliminate a movement that also has a political and social presence.

But an equal, if not more important war objective for Israel, is to fundamentally change the challenge that the Gaza Strip has been posing to Israel since 1948. That challenge is that Israel has never been comfortable with the presence of a population on its borders, more than three quarters of which are refugees or are descendants of refugees who were ethnically cleansed in 1948. In many cases, they live within walking distance of their former homes.

Israel has since the early 1950s put out a whole slew of proposals to achieve what it calls thinning out the population of the Gaza Strip, which includes moving many of them to either the Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Iraq, Paraguay and so on. Since the 1970s, and its peace treaty with Egypt, it has on multiple occasions tried to persuade Egypt to take over responsibility for the Gaza Strip. Egypt has systematically rejected such proposals. 

What Israel saw on Oct. 7 was what it viewed as a golden opportunity to get rid of Gaza’s population by basically expelling them to the desert, to the Sinai Peninsula. There was such a proposal that was enthusiastically embraced by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken; on his first trip to the region, he sought to market it to the Arab states under the mistaken assumption that pro-Western Arab governments will take an attitude of ‘How can we help you help our Israeli friends?’ To his shock and surprise — which reflects I think that when it comes to the Middle East, Blinken has repeatedly demonstrated himself to be a clueless airhead — the proposal was strenuously rejected by even the most pro-Western Arab governments, by Egypt and Jordan in particular. 

So I think what Israel is now seeking to achieve is to make the Gaza Strip unfit for human habitation. If you can’t have forced displacement, you have displacement because (a) either conditions become unbearable and people will stop at nothing to leave, or (b) if they stay, they will essentially die.

We’ve begun to see some Western governments calling for a ceasefire. Biden has also said that Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” is losing support around the world — yet he is continuing to sign off on billions in unconditional aid to Israel. Is the tide shifting within Western governments, or is it just about optics?

We need to distinguish between public opinion in the West and the position of governments in the West. It’s true that there are Western governments who are expressing growing misgivings about being complicit partners in Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — I’m thinking of Ireland, Belgium and Spain. Many of these governments voted recently for the U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. Well, words are cheap when you don’t have to do anything.

But many of these other European governments have joined the United States in ensuring that Israel can continue its mass killings in the Gaza Strip, without international trade paying a price. They are occasionally making some noises, but they are providing Israel with all the goods and services it needs. They’re not imposing any consequences on Israel for its actions. And they’re doing their level best to persecute pro-Palestinian or anti-war activism within their own borders. 

Yes, Biden made some off-the-cuff remarks, but you need to look at what U.S. policy is doing, not at what it’s saying. And it’s very clear that the United States has taken a decision to give Israel unqualified, unlimited military, political and diplomatic support for this war — which the U.S. identifies with to a degree that I’ve never really seen it identify with the war of a foreign ally. 

The U.S. and Europe do have vital interests in the Middle East, and when they feel that those interests are in the balance, it is then that they will begin to adjust their policies. In 1973, for example, you had the oil boycott against the U.S. and the Netherlands. And then within a few years you all of a sudden you had the European Union endorsing the Palestinian right to self-determination. If the Yemenis succeed in shutting down trade through the Suez Canal for a prolonged period, then you may see some governments deciding that maybe it’s time that Israel discontinue its genocide. 

Haniya Shah is a staff writer at Analyst News.