What the Israel-Palestine Conflict Means for China-US Competition

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What the Israel-Palestine Conflict Means for China-US Competition

The war between Israel and Hamas is upending new diplomatic trajectories in the Middle East.

What the Israel-Palestine Conflict Means for China-US Competition

Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed building after Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Hatem Ali

The new round of the Israel-Palestine conflict, in terms of both intensity and scope, is unprecedented since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In the coming period of time, there is a risk of further escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which will have a multifaceted impact on the long-term settlement of the issue, as well as affecting neighboring countries, regional countries, and the United States’ strategy in the Middle East. 

For China, the new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict brings both opportunities and risks.

Latest Round of Conflict between Israel and Palestine

The current conflict is characterized by many aspects, the most notable of which has been the suddenness of the escalation. In recent years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially the conflict between Israel and armed organizations such as Hamas in Gaza, has been the result of an escalation of the civil conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. However, the current conflict was different. It came almost without warning, bringing a major shock to Israel and the international community. 

Within an hour of the outbreak of the conflict, Hamas fired 5,000 rockets into Israel, far more than the total number seen in recent years, and Palestinian militants infiltrated into southern and central Israel to launch raids, resulting in a large number of casualties in Israel (at current count, over 900 dead and 2,700 wounded). With Israel’s counter-offensive ramping up, it is bound to cause even more Palestinian casualties in Gaza. 

Another aspect setting this episode apart is that Hamas showed strong determination to launch deadly attacks against Israel. Hamas dispatched almost all of its weapons, equipment, and military personnel in the attacks. Even though it knows that the coming large-scale Israeli counter-attacks and retaliation are likely to weaken the organization’s influence, it is still fighting to the death, demonstrating a great deal of determination. 

Finally, Hamas and the group Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza have shown strong cooperation. After 2018, the relationship between Hamas and the PIJ has been very delicate, with Jihad intending to challenge Hamas’ dominance in Gaza. But in the current military operation, Hamas and the PIJ launched simultaneous attacks, showing strong coordination and tacit understanding of the operation.

The new round of Israel-Palestine conflict in the coming weeks will be characterized by escalating intensity, surging casualties, and difficulty in mediation. 

First, the intensity of the new round of Israel-Palestine conflict will further increase in the future. Israel has launched a counter-offensive aimed at clearing out the Palestinian militants who have infiltrated the south, while Israel has announced that it will vigorously bombard the Gaza Strip, so the resistance of Palestinian militants may be even more fierce in the future. Israel’s attack will inevitably be accompanied by more powerful bombings and strikes.

A new round of Israel-Palestine conflict will inevitably lead to greater human casualties. On the one hand, the current Israeli death toll is approaching 1,000, and the number of injuries has exceeded 2,000, which is the highest number in any conflict since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. With Israel’s gradual purge of Palestinian militants infiltrating into southern Israel, it is likely that more Israeli dead will be found, and the number of casualties counted by Israel may continue to rise. 

On the other hand, with Israel’s massive counter-offensive, especially its air strikes on densely populated Gaza, the number of Palestinian casualties in Gaza is bound to increase rapidly and may exceed 10,000 people. 

Finally, a new round of Israel-Palestine conflict will make it difficult to achieve a ceasefire in the short term. For Israel, after suffering such large casualties, the government and the army are subjected to huge domestic pressure. The Israeli government and the army need to launch a counter-offensive to deal a heavy blow to Hamas and the PIJ, in order to salvage domestic public opinion. 

In that context, the mediation initiative from Egypt – the traditional coordinator between Israel and Hamas in Gaza – has been rejected outright by Israel. It will be difficult to realize a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas before public opinion in Israel believes the militant group has been satisfactorily “punished.” 

Possible Directions of Further Conflict

On the international level, there is a possible risk of escalation. On the one hand, there is a geographical risk of a north-south conflict. After the outbreak of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the armed forces of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon declared their support for Palestinian armed factions. There were some isolated exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel. 

At the same time, in southern Syria, there were exchanges of fire between Iran and Israel. The Shia armed factions in southern Syria, which are supported by Iran, may also show solidarity with Hamas and the PIJ and clash with Israel. There is also the possibility of conflict between the Iranian-backed Shia armed factions in southern Syria and Israel in support of Hamas and the PIJ.

On the other hand, there is a regional risk that the Israeli-Iranian conflict could widen. The possibility of a large-scale conflict between Iranian militia groups – like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Fatima Brigades, and other Shiite forces that have close ties with Iran – and Israel cannot be ruled out. 

The key to the proliferation of future conflicts lies in whether a new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict will break out in the West Bank. In Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank, new armed groups emerged after 2021 which are not affiliated with the mainstream Palestinian faction Fatah or Hamas, but are more independent. Their attitude toward Israel, especially the Jewish settlers, has become stronger, as Jewish settlers have become more radicalized. If in the future the Palestinian population in the West Bank, especially the armed elements, inspired by the conflict in Gaza and Israel, launches large-scale attacks on Israel and Jewish settlements, it will inevitably increase the intensity and scope of the conflict and stimulate armed groups in Lebanon and Syria to launch attacks on Israel.

Impact for the U.S. and China

This round of Israel-Palestine conflict will have a large impact on the future regional and international situation. First, the prestige of the Israeli Netanyahu government has been hit. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government failed to pre-empt the attacks, severely denting its reputation among the Israeli public. Netanyahu’s political reputation as “Mr. Security” will lose its appeal in Israel.

Second, the relationship between the United States and Israel has been mended. Before the outbreak of the conflict, the Biden administration in the United States and Israel’s Netanyahu government had cold relations. Netanyahu was not offered a visit to the White House while he was in the United States for the recent United Nations General Assembly. 

But after the outbreak of the conflict, Biden immediately reached out to Netanyahu to express support, and sent a fleet to Israel. In the future, the United States is bound to increase the material assistance to Israel. Even after the conflict, the U.S. is likely to work with Israel to strengthen security and defense cooperation. 

Third, the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which the United States has been pushing for, will be difficult to reach in the short term. The United States has been pushing Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations since 2018, part of a larger strategy to promote the normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel, and thereby change the geopolitical pattern of the Middle East, isolate Iran and check and balance China. But this round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict will inevitably put the normalization of Saudi Arabia-Israeli relations on ice. It is difficult to make a breakthrough in the short term.

Fourth, the United States-backed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) will be temporarily obstructed. At the G-20 summit in New Delhi, the United States, pulling together India, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries, launched IMEC as an alternative transit route linking India with Europe. Observers had already questioned whether Israel and Saudi Arabia were willing to work together so publicly on the corridor. Now, with the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel being challenged, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor plan is bound to face new obstacles in its future implementation.

For China, this Israel-Palestine conflict has both positive and negative impacts. On the one hand, in the short term there will be a negative impact on the relationship between China and Israel. After the outbreak of the conflict, Israel hoped to get China’s comfort and sympathy, but China’s position, in Israel’s view, lacked sympathetic gestures. At the same time, there have been a wide number of postings on Chinese social media expressing support for Hamas; some of these have been widely translated by the Israeli domestic media, souring Israel’s public opinion on China. This may affect Israel’s policy and attitude toward China in the future.

On the other hand, the current round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict has broken the efforts of the United States to draw Arab countries together, which could be to China’s benefit. The new round of conflict has exposed the rift between Arab countries and the West on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The West stands by Israel, while the Arab countries sympathize with Palestine. The attitude and practice of the United States to fully support Israel is bound to hurt relations with Arab countries in the short term.