Palestinians face humanitarian crisis as millions become displaced
Palestinians are trying to leave the Gaza Strip as the United States and Egypt work to open the Rafah border crossing.
WASHINGTON – With Israel on the verge of launching a ground war against Hamas, fears are rising that the latest conflict could engulf the Middle East.
It’s something President Joe Biden has been warning against – but preparing for.
The U.S. is ramping up its firepower in the Middle East. A last-minute presidential visit to Israel is under way before the first tanks roll into Gaza. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held marathon negotiations in Tel Aviv that were interrupted by the sound of air raid sirens, prompting a dramatic dash to a bunker.
Biden has publicly warned terrorist groups and other nations hostile to Israel not to interfere and expand the confrontation with Hamas, a militant group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Biden even singled out Iran by name last week, saying he “made it clear to the Iranians: Be careful.”
Yet despite Biden’s admonition, there are signs that groups in the Middle East are bracing for a broader war.
In Iran, the primary backer of Hamas, leaders warned Monday that an expanded war is increasingly becoming unavoidable.
“The time for political solutions is running out and the possibility of expanding the scope of the war on other fronts is approaching the stage that cannot be avoided,” Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
To the north, Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah said it has started destroying surveillance cameras on several Israeli Army posts along the Israel-Lebanon border. Hezbollah’s actions come amid concerns it could join the war between Israel and Hamas.
And in a major setback for Biden’s Middle East visit, the Jordanian government announced it canceled a summit previously scheduled Wednesday in Amman, Jordan in which Biden was to meet with King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The cancellation came after Israel and Palestinians blamed each other Tuesday for an explosion that killed hundreds at a Gaza City hospital. The White House cited three days of mourning announced by Abbas following the hospital blast for postponing the summit.
“The president sent his deepest condolences for the innocent lives lost in the hospital explosion in Gaza, and wished a speedy recovery to the wounded,” a White House official said. “He looks forward to consulting in person with these leaders soon, and agreed to remain regularly and directly engaged with each of them over the coming days.”
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John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, told reporters Monday evening the U.S. is watching closely for signs that other countries or groups are looking to widen the conflict.
“We don’t want to see any other actor, and that includes Iran, jumping in here and escalating this conflict,” Kirby said. “We haven’t seen any indication that that’s necessarily in the offing right now, but we are watching it very, very closely.”
In Washington, Biden canceled a trip to Colorado on Monday to promote his economic agenda and remained at the White House, where he huddled with his national security advisers and intelligence officials and placed calls to the leaders of Germany, Egypt and Iraq.
Biden will meet with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, a move seen as another show of solidarity with a longtime ally – and a possible warning to others looking to escalate the conflict.
“Sure, the administration wants to avoid a broader war in the Middle East, but its interests are not merely avoiding a broader war in the Middle East,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
The administration has a strong interest in ensuring that Israeli leadership keeps its eye on the ball and is thinking through the end game and what actions are necessary to achieve that goal, Alterman said.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for the State Department and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the administration’s actions also serve as a deterrent to others who may be looking to expand the conflict.
“It’s intended to send an unmistakable signal to Iran and Hezbollah that if they widen the war, there’s the real possibility of U.S. engagement, and neither Hezbollah nor Iran wants to court the possibility of massive American airstrikes,” Miller said.
The Middle East is “right on the precipice” of a larger conflict, said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Clashes on a limited scale have already broken out between Hezbollah and Israel on the Lebanese-Israel border. There are fears Israel’s threatened ground assault in the Gaza Strip could prompt Hezbollah to launch a full-scale attack on Israel from Lebanon.
“The danger is very real, and Hezbollah is far stronger than Hamas,” Sachs said. “So, the possibility of the war becoming far greater and much more damaging not only to Israel but also to Lebanon is acute.”
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The Biden administration has already stepped up its support to Israel in the week and a half since the conflict began, when Hamas staged an attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 Israeli civilians and soldiers. At least 30 Americans have been killed, and 13 others are missing. Hamas also is holding at least 199 hostages.
Israel responded to the attack by hitting the Gaza Strip with a barrage of airstrikes that the Palestinian Health Ministry says has killed more than 2,700 Palestinians. An Israeli ground invasion into Gaza is expected soon.
The Pentagon continues to bolster its firepower in the Middle East with a second aircraft carrier strike group steaming to the region.
The Pentagon’s intent is to prevent adversaries like Iran and Hezbollah, its proxy force in Lebanon, from launching a major attack against Israel, according to U.S. officials.
The USS Dwight Eisenhower and its escort warships will join the Pentagon’s newest, largest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, in the eastern Mediterranean. The ships and aircraft provide intelligence gathering and the ability to hit targets with missiles and bombs.
The Air Force has held fighter jets and pilots in the Middle East that had been scheduled to be replaced, boosting the number of warplanes to the region. The Pentagon also is working to supply Israel with interceptors for its Iron Dome missile-defense system, precision-guided weapons and artillery ammunition.
The message sent by the Pentagon has likely been received by Iran, said Mark Quantock, the former head of intelligence for U.S. Central Command and a retired Army two-star general.
“Iran/Hezbollah won’t want to poke the bear any harder,” Quantock said.
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The Pentagon regularly adds warships to the region, especially when Iran acts provocatively. Marines aboard amphibious assault vessels were sent to the region over the summer when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intercepted commercial shipping.
This time is different, Quantock said. Hamas killed American citizens, holds others hostage and inflicted “unspeakable” atrocities on unarmed Israeli citizens, Quantock said.
“The U.S. is also not in the mood to be trifled with,” Quantock said. “Iran/Hezbollah would be wise to sit this one out. Time will tell.”
Sachs said he believes Biden will respond with airstrikes from the carriers if Hezbollah counters with a significant attack on Israel. The targets would most likely be Hezbollah or other Iran-backed militias depending on their involvement, he said, not Iran itself.
“I take him at his word. I think the U.S. would use naval firepower,” Sachs said. “I don’t think there will be Americans on the ground.”
Reach Michael Collins on X, formerly Twitter, @mcollinsNEWS, Garrison @joeygarrison and Vanden Brook @tvandenbrook.
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