The carnage in the Gaza Strip has been horrendous: more than 1,900 dead, mainly civilians; its sole power plant destroyed (and so electricity and water denied and a sewage disaster looming); 30,000 to 40,000 homes and buildings damaged or destroyed; hundreds of thousands of residents put to flight with nowhere to go; and numerous U.N. schools or facilities housing some of those refugees hit by Israeli firepower. And then there was the evident targeting by the Israelis of the Gazan economy itself: 175 major factories taken out, according to the New York Times, in a place that already had an estimated unemployment rate of 47%.
The last weeks represent the latest episode in a grim, unbalanced tale of the destructive urges of both the Israeli government and Hamas, in a situation in which the most fundamental thing has been the desire to punish civilians. Worse yet, indiscriminate assaults on civilian populations create the basis for more of the same — fiercer support in Israel for governments committed to ever worse actions and ever more recruits for Hamas or successor organizations potentially far worse and more fundamentalist), and of course more children traumatized and primed for future acts of terror and revenge.
Think of it as the Middle Eastern equivalent of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which means it hardly even qualifies as a prediction to say that Israel’s violent and punishing acts against the civilian population of Gaza will settle nothing whatsoever. In fact, for the Israelis, as Sandy Tolan suggests today, the Gazan War of 2014 may prove a defeat, both in the arena of global opinion (U.S. polls show that young Americans are ever more sympathetic to the Palestinians and disapproving of Israeli actions) and in relation to Hamas itself. History indicates that air strikes and other attacks meant to break the “will” of a populace, and so of a movement’s hold on it, generally only create more support.
These have been the days of the whirlwind in Gaza and in Israel, but don’t stop there. If you want a hair-raising experience, put these events in a larger regional context.
Following 9/11, the Bush administration and its neocon supporters dubbed the area that stretched from North Africa to Central Asia “the Greater Middle East” and referred to that vast expanse as “the arc of instability.” At the time, despite their largely Muslim populations, the nations of that sprawling region had relatively little in common; nor, on the whole, was it particularly unstable, even if the roiling Israeli-Palestinian situation already sat at its heart.
Ruled largely by strongmen and autocrats, those nations remained in a grim post-Cold War state of stasis. Three American interventions — in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) — blew holes through the region, sparking bitter inter-ethnic and religious conflict, as well as an Arab Spring (largely suppressed by now), while transforming most of the Greater Middle East into a genuine arc of instability. Today, what’s happening there qualifies as the perfect maelstrom, as yet more states and groups, insurgent, extremist, or otherwise, are drawn into its maw of destruction.
To start on the eastern reaches of the Greater Middle East, Pakistan is now a destabilized democracy with a fierce set of fundamentalist insurgencies operating within and from its territory; Afghanistan is an almost 13-year nation-building disaster where the Taliban is resurgent and, in the latest “insider attack” at its top military academy, an Afghan soldier considered an American “ally” managed to kill a U.S. major general sent to the country to help “stand up” its security forces. Iraq is a tripartite disaster area in which another American-trained and -equipped army stood down rather than up and in which an extreme al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State (IS) is at the moment ascendant. It has routed Iraqi and Syrian forces, and most recently, the supposedly fierce Kurdish pesh merga militia in northern Iraq, while endangering the Kurdish capital and possibly seizing the country’s largest dam. Turkish and Syrian Kurdish insurgents are being drawn into the fight in Iraq, as once again is the U.S.
Syria itself is no longer a country at all, but a warring set of extremist outfits facing what’s left of the patrimony (and military) of the al-Assad family. In Lebanon last week, regular army units found themselves battling IS extremists and their captured American tanks for the control of a border town. In Egypt, the military is back in power atop a disintegrating economy. In Libya, the chaos following the U.S./NATO intervention that led to the fall of autocrat Muammar Gaddafi never ended. Recently, factional militias fighting in Tripoli, the capital, managed to destroy its international airport, while diplomatic missions, including the U.S. one, were withdrawn in haste, and now the Egyptians are threatening an intervention of their own. Meanwhile, reverberations from the chaos in Libya have been spreading across North Africa and heading south. Only Iran (eternally under threat from the U.S. and Israel), Saudi Arabia (which helped bankroll the rise of the IS), and the Gulf States seem to have remained — thus far — relatively aloof from the chaos.
In sum, the vast region the Bush people so blithely called the arc of instability seems to be heading for utter chaos or a mega-conflict, while the predicted “cakewalk” of American forces into Iraq managed, in barely a moment in historical time, to essentially obliterate the regional borders set up by the European colonial powers after World War I. In other words, a world is being unified in turmoil and extremism, as thousands die and millions are uprooted from their homes, and all of this now surrounds the volatile, still destabilizing center that is the Palestinian/Israeli nightmare. There, as Sandy Tolan, a TomDispatch regular and the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, points out, both Tel Aviv and Washington have, in recent years, ignored every chance to take a less violent path and so encouraged the arrival of the maelstrom.