02/20/2024, 19.59
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From Gaza to Tehran, bin Salman, from 'prince of war' to man of 'stability'

by Dario Salvi

The international community's focus is now on Rafah, while Israel gets ready for a ground assault. For Jordanian scholar Amer Al Sabaileh, the Palestinian cause has given way to global jihad. Hamas is politically divided while Shia groups are beholden to Iran. Saudis could play the role of mediators, transcending the Abraham Accords.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Against a background of US weakness, with Iran stoking tensions in Yemen and the Red Sea via groups like the Houthis, many trouble spots are filled with violence and war, yet, so far at least, “no one has sought to turn them into a regional or global conflict,” said Amer Al Sabaileh, a Jordanian university professor and geopolitical analyst, speaking to AsiaNews

For the expert on the Middle East, international security, and peace processes in crisis areas, at a time when the Palestinian cause has lost much of its significance in the Islamic world, replaced by global jihad, the only real hope for Gaza (and the West Bank) is Saudi Arabia, the only power that has the authority and interest to work for peace for the sake of "stability".

“Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince as a man of war, while now (waiting to accede to the throne) he wants to become the king of peace and economic development, which is why he is interested in settling conflicts.”

This “change of ideology" occurred for the sale of stability, but also reflects a certain “maturity in terms of mindset and leadership".

Israel and the second Nakba

With respect to the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the scholar believes that “we are witnessing a plan by Israel to gradually change the demography of Gaza", where the mass movement “from the north to Khan Younis first, and now to Rafah” has become a de facto fait accompli.

The attention of the international community is now focused on the border area with Egypt since Israel announced plans for a ground operation if its hostages are not released by Ramadan, the month of Islamic fasting and prayer that begins on 10 March.

“This means that they are pushing masses [of people] across the border” creating a humanitarian situation that the UN and international bodies have described as catastrophic.

"The Israelis," he adds, "have always played the time card. The more time passes, the more practical the solution to the problem becomes" and the only alternative is to "find a way to coexist" with the status quo.

From this point of view, the progressive shift of the war, and of the population of Gaza, to the south is a way to "put pressure on Egypt's borders" and "the international community will be called upon to manage the problem.”

The battle of Rafah starts a "new phase" and "this is also happening in the West Bank: creating a hostile and negative atmosphere to force many to leave, in what I call ‘'voluntary transfer’.”

‘There is also the question of Palestinian refugees and funding cuts to UNRWA[*], which is felt the most in Lebanon, but with a humanitarian crisis as great as the one underway,” priorities and the resources of world governments are bound “to change.”

The Israeli government, Al Sabaileh points out, has launched the war in Gaza "to reassure the country about the elimination of Hamas, but the real objective is demographic" and is also linked “to the settlement policy” in the West Bank. “They want to create a new situation" with a massive exodus of Palestinians that would represent, for many, the much-feared second Nakba.

From Palestinian cause to global jihad

As an expert, Al Sabaileh has carried out numerous strategic studies into different areas of war and terrorism, from North Africa to the Middle East.

He is the general manager of Triageduepuntozero, Institute for Research on Geopolitical Risks, and heads the Centro Studi - Security Languages - Council for Counter Terrorism Studies.

“Attacks by Jewish settlers are a sign of a religious and confessional component in the war. On the other hand, for many today, Hamas is the only group capable of representing the Palestinian world, and it is clearly Islamic in orientation. This is also the case in Iraq, where militias are Shia,” and in many cases, they are even stronger “than the regular army."

In the Middle East, secular groups or movements no longer dominate like in the 1970s, starting with Fatah; there is a clear "religious connotation, a doctrine that emerges from the slogans."

In many cases, we find Iran, with its Shia religious identity, “sponsoring many militias"; there are also Sunni groups but "none secular in nature".

Over the decades, Al Sabaileh points out, the concept of jihad has also evolved, moving "from the liberation of Palestine to a global struggle" that runs from Gaza to Afghanistan, and the “liberation of Palestine today is part of a more general framework”.

Hamas, he adds, seems to "play with the concept of recognition of a state," but at the political level, "it does not exist, because it is influenced" by the higher principle of "global jihad."

"The split within Hamas, its inability to make real political decisions, or find a shared line on hostages," he explains, "is a sign of its lack of representativeness."

"At present, there are several trouble spots, from the Gaza Strip to the Red Sea with Houthi attacks, but so far the actors involved have avoided setting off a single, big fire”. The former are beholden to Iran and Hezbollah with no independent military capacity without the latter’s support.

No one really wants "a global confrontation", but it is clear that "an increasingly aggressive and hostile escalation" risks leading to a situation that can “get out of control”.

Riyadh and the Abraham Accords

Amid the prevailing uncertainty, with the ground attack on Rafah a few days away, and a clear refusal, reiterated recently by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to a two-state solution, "the only hope today is Riyadh,” according to the Jordanian scholar.

The kingdom is one of the few players seeking stability. And Iran, “while it does not really want peace, it cannot afford a crisis with the Saudis.”

In recent years, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan has focused on stability, economic development beyond oil, developing the entertainment industry, tourism, and renewable energy as part of his Vision 2030 plan.

He has done the same with the Abraham Accords, which enabled Israel to normalise relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab and Muslim countries; however, while they "still have value, they are more of a marketing" strategy than a real geopolitical turning point.

The plan was backed by former US President Donald Trump to legitimise relations with the UAE "and build a temple in Abu Dhabi, but Jews have deep historical ties with Saudi Arabia and do not need ‘accords’ to establish relations.”

"It would be enough to speak of an ideal pilgrimage of Abraham from Mecca to Jerusalem to give value and historical roots to relations between the two countries," according to a project that is "less idealistic but more concrete" than Trump's.

Today, Washington is more likely to talk about "regional peace" as the final goal rather than the Abraham Accords with Riyadh, but this requires "concessions to the Palestinians”.

At the same time, “one can't ask Israel] to go back to the 1967 borders; we have to rethink an agreement, knowing that something will have to be recognised for them.”

From this perspective, Saudi Arabi is the most credible mediator, above all because of the “weakness” of the current US administration that is coming to the end of its mandate with presidential elections just around the corner.

“With all these fronts open, any concessions are more likely to be made [by all the players involved] to the next occupant of the White House while, for the next few weeks, the prospect of escalation is more likely than diplomacy.”


[*] United Nations Rescue and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

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