As Israel expands its offensive in Rafah, the escalation will once again test regional and international diplomacy. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the perilous multiple fault lines the war in Gaza is creating

The fall out and list of countries and political entities impacted, grows by the day. Israel, America, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and so the list goes on. 

With every moment that passes, political and diplomatic relations are being endangered across the Middle East and beyond, almost as fast as the lives of those countless Palestinians bearing the brunt of the war in Gaza. 

It’s not just the obvious strain on relations between these countries and entities we’re talking about either, but the pressure on their respective internal relations too, that are becoming a factor in the fallout from this ongoing conflict.

To give but a few examples, let’s begin with the obvious spat between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his US president Joe Biden. Just these past days the Israeli leader declared that his country will “stand alone,” after Biden warned that the US would not supply weapons for a potential invasion of the Gazan city of Rafah. 

But drill down further into Netanyahu and Biden’s respective domestic positions and it’s clear that both leaders are also facing a crisis of relations on their own doorsteps. For in both cases, citizens in Israel and the US are frustrated and angry about the conduct of their respective leaders over Gaza and are taking their protests on to the streets. 

Then there are relations too between Israel and its regional neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, which are strained over Israeli military actions in Gaza, especially the escalating ground offensive in Rafah. This in turn also has domestic ramifications for both Cairo and Amman, where the governments in the two capitals are coming under increasing internal pressure to act in response. 

The Herald: Palestinians living in different parts of Rafah, where Israeli attacks are intense, packed their tents with the belongings they could take with them and migrated to Deir al-Balah city, Gaza


Put to the test

Which then takes us on to relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia where only a few months ago the talk was of an Israeli-Saudi normalisation deal, but today that too finds itself up in the air. Only last week US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration would not sign a defence agreement with Saudi Arabia if the kingdom and Israel did not agree to normalise relations, insisting “you can’t disentangle one piece from the others”.

Which ultimately brings me to the Palestinians. For beyond the pressure points between regional neighbours and international allies, relationships between the key Palestinian political players whose role will determine the future of both Gaza and the West Bank are also being put to the test like never before. 

Not only is this happening inside Hamas itself, but also between the Islamist movement and its rival Fatah Party that largely controls the Palestinian Authority (PA).

In a nutshell, every which way you look right now, there are cracks and fissures opening up across the region as a result of events unfolding in Gaza. 

Together they present a ‘perfect storm’ that collectively creates a wider contagion of strained relations the dangers of which are obvious. What’s more, any effort to stop that contagion will require a colossal political and diplomatic effort and serious questions surround whether that in itself is even possible.

Though the world’s attention understandably remains focused on the fighting and humanitarian catastrophe on the ground in Gaza, it’s worth glancing sideways for a moment at some of these other fault lines that are not only shaping the outcome of the Gaza conflict but the future post war geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

Leaving aside the obvious falling out between Washington and Jerusalem about which much has already been said, let’s consider more specifically the ‘Arab’  dimension for a moment.

Egypt is a good place to start, given that for months now Cairo has repeatedly warned Israel that plans to impose security control over the Philadelphi Route, the nine-mile corridor that runs all along the Egypt-Gaza border, will constitute a “serious threat” to bilateral ties. 

For some time now security analysts and observers have warned about what they see as Israel’s widening rift with its western neighbour and key security partner. Among those analysts is Dr Mira Tzoreff, a senior lecturer at the Department of Middle East and African History and researcher at the Moshe Dayan Centre at Tel Aviv University. 

“The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has withstood nearly four and a half decades of countless regional wars and tensions, but never before has there been talk of it being at risk,” Tzoreff warned in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

“If Israel persists on pushing Egypt into a corner, it will eventually backfire,” Tzoreff  added, acknowledging Cairo’s concerns about securing the Gaza-Sinai border. In recent days those Egyptian concerns have only deepened as the country’s foreign minister condemned the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) incursion into Rafah and taking control of the Rafah crossing as a “dangerous escalation.”

“This move threatens the cease fire efforts and endangers the lives of millions of Palestinians who depend on the passage of humanitarian aid and on a safe way out for wounded and sick people requiring treatment,” the ministry said. 

The Herald: Israeli army main battle tanks and other military vehicles are positioned in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip

Genuine fear

While Cairo had been notified of Israel’s plan to enter Rafah, its restrained diplomatic response disguises what in fact is said to be real anger over Israel’s moves and a genuine fear that it signals another step towards pushing possibly hundreds of thousands of Gazans to cross the border into Egypt in search of sanctuary. 

So concerned is Cairo that according to one recent report, Egyptian military intelligence is said to have held meetings with Sinai tribes over the past weeks to discuss their potential role in the event of a full Israeli invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza. 

According to the UK- based news website Middle East Eye (MEE), present at the meetings were senior members of Bedouin tribes and officers from the Egyptian Secret Service apparatus in the military intelligence (known internally as Group 55), and others from the Second Field Army. 

The main topic of these meetings was the possibility of the influx of a large number of residents of Gaza due to the Israeli military operation in Rafah, which now hosts about 1.5 million displaced Palestinians. According to MEE, Egyptian intelligence officers said they estimated a Palestinian influx of between 50,000 and 250,000 people towards Sinai if Israel carries out a full ground operation in Rafah.

At the meeting says MEE, the Egyptian officials are said to have emphasised the necessity of assisting the armed forces and security agencies in “monitoring any infiltration of Palestinians” towards the villages and centres of North Sinai should this displacement occur.

Already the potential creation of a paramilitary entity working in tandem with the Egyptian army has caused alarm among some commentators in Cairo who have compared it to the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan that have been the cause of some serious problems there. 

The moves are yet another example of the emerging fault lines that have arisen from the war in Gaza and brought into sharp focus the security concerns on the Egypt-Israel border. 

Just recently Egypt also proposed that the Palestinian Authority (PA) be allowed  to run the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing, a suggestion that needless to say brought a negative response from Israel which is opposed to granting the PA any foothold in Gaza.

But if relations between Israel and Egypt are one fault line that the Gaza war has exposed, so too has it done so with Israel’s other neighbour Jordan. Ever since Hamas launched its attack on Israel on October 7 last year it had an immediate impact on the Jordanian street and the country’s national security.

The Herald: King Abdullah II of Jordan meets with Italian President Sergio Mattarell 


Bombing intensifies

Protests in the Hashemite Kingdom where one in five people, including Queen Rania are of Palestinian descent, have ebbed and flowed as Israel’s campaign in Gaza has intensified.

While Jordan has pushed for a ceasefire and publicised its aid distribution efforts in the besieged enclave, that has done little to appease Jordanian protesters who have rallied outside the US and Israeli embassies. Among their demands are ending relations with Israel and the United States. 

Jordan’s significant role in fending off the recent Iranian missile attack on Israel by shooting down some of the drones and projectiles and opening its airspace to Israel was a step too far in cosying up to Netanyahu’s government in the eyes of some Jordanians. Some accounts on social media even went as far as to label Jordan’s King Abdullah “a traitor” for his country’s role in shooting down Iran’s drones

Since then Amman has increased it calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and this coupled with popular sentiment in the country leave few in doubt that it will have tangible repercussions for any future Jordan-Israel relationship.

Which brings us to relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s two most important Middle East allies. For some time the Biden administration has been trying to forge a deal between the two under which Saudi Arabia would agree to formally recognise and establish diplomatic relations with Israel. 

For its part Israel meanwhile would be expected to take meaningful steps toward the recognition of a Palestinian state, and the US would grant security guarantees to Saudi Arabia. 

All this by way of negotiation had been ongoing long before October 7, but everything that’s happened since then in Gaza has only made the politics of such a deal so much more difficult. 

Right now for everything to get back on track, the war in Gaza would have to end, the case for Palestinian statehood be revisited and two key US allies end decades of bitter rivalry. Few see little chance of that right now.

“The sun, the moon, and the stars have to align pretty close together in record time, in order to make this happen,” was how Aaron David Miller  the veteran Middle East analyst and peace negotiator now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wryly summed up the chances in an interview with the American news website Vox.

Unfortunately, said Miller, “in my experience, Arab-Israeli negotiations work at two speeds: slow and slower.”

Then there is that others set of negotiations ongoing right now against the backdrop of the Gaza war, the recent talks between the two Palestinian factions,  Hamas and Fatah, the latter largely controlling the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

Representatives from both groups recently met in China for talks on potential reconciliation. While both groups have competed for years, Israel’s war in Gaza has led them to sit down again around the negotiating table. But here again few doubt the discussions in Beijing will produce much. 

Israel’s onslaught in Gaza has only deepened support for Hamas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority - controlled by Fatah — has administered cities and towns for decades. 

Governing Gaza

While some including the US and Egypt, have suggested that the PA could help govern a post-war Gaza, that would most likely require approval from Hamas, and that kind of power-sharing would require more compromise than currently seems possible given that both groups remain miles apart on many issues.

This weekend as Israeli tanks and troops in Gaza seal off Rafah from the south and complete the encirclement of what’s been dubbed the “red zone,” the Israeli war cabinet has also authorised an expansion of operations in the southern city. Such moves will almost certainly only further deepen many of those fault lines already mentioned. 

Even before the latest war in Gaza erupted, the Middle East was headed in a troubling and dangerous direction and right now as the coastal enclave continues to burn, the war’s fallout is almost as much diplomatic as it is humanitarian. 

With every day that Israel intensifies and expands its military operation, the Arab world and those among its Western allies, will find themselves under ever increasing pressure and have their work cut out containing this spiralling of strained and fractured relations.