As Israeli troops effectively cut the Gaza Strip in two at the weekend, striking several hundred targets every day and cutting off communications, the Royal Jordanian Air Force was negotiating with both Israel and the United States to fly a C-130 transport plane across the enclave dropping aid.
Images released by Jordan’s military showed US-made GPS-guided parachutes being used to ensure medical and other supplies accurately reached their target, a Jordanian-run field hospital reportedly swamped by casualties.
But they were also clearly intended to have a political message, to act as an expression of Jordanian and wider Arab anger and determination.
Jordan's King Abdullah has warned the conflict risks pushing the entire region to "the brink of the abyss", demanding a humanitarian ceasefire and solution to the conflict without forcing Palestinians out of Gaza into neighbouring nations.
Jordan and Israel might have managed to cooperate over the weekend flight, but otherwise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government appears a long way from halting the offensive, now digging deep into tunnels used by Hamas.
Israel says strikes have been precise and included measures to minimise civilian fatalities, but Gaza health authorities say the death toll there is now more than 10,500, 40% of them children.
Saudi Arabia says ending the conflict will be a major focus of an emergency weekend Arab and Islamic summit in Riyadh, a meeting that will be attended by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. It follows weeks of shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The meeting will likely seek to pressure the United States to restrain Israel further, although the effectiveness of such calls may be limited in the short term. The meeting will also showcase the effectiveness or otherwise of long-running US efforts to normalise relations between Gulf Arab states and Israel, together with a parallel rival Chinese effort to do likewise between the same nations and Iran.
But for now at least, most governments in the region appear to be looking to strike a balance between intensified popular regional fury against Israel and avoiding further conflict.
The most likely scenario appears to be that fighting will continue, perhaps for weeks or months. On Tuesday, Netanyahu described Israeli forces as operating in areas of Gaza City Hamas "never thought they would", while Israeli officials talked of removing the group’s ability to lead the enclave and suggested Hamas's Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, was "isolated" in a bunker.
Whether killing Sinwar will be enough to assuage the Netanyahu government’s highly public thirst for vengeance for the 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, killed on Oct. 7 remains unclear. Some supporters of his government would clearly like a return to outright occupation, or at the very least what Netanyahu calls an “indefinite” role for Israel in securing Gaza. But few in the wider region, Washington or Europe view that as a sustainable long-term endgame.
This week, the United Arab Emirates announced it intended to open its own field hospital in Gaza. Along with further airdrops, that would give regional nations a foothold in the fight – and also any post-war settlement – while avoiding more direct involvement.
AVOIDING MASS DISPLACEMENT
Who else might govern Gaza if Hamas is removed remains unclear. The US appears to favour the Palestinian Authority which already administers the West Bank and briefly ran Gaza before Hamas seized the strip in 2007. But it remains broadly unpopular with Palestinians themselves, as is Hamas.
A fully or partially internationally administered solution might be an option, although who might be prepared to offer troops or lead the effort is similarly unclear.
For now, the nations meeting in Riyadh have one immediate objective – to deter Israel from attempting to drive large numbers of Palestinians from Gaza into the Egyptian-controlled Sinai. Such a move, they fear, might prove permanent, potentially setting the scene for evicting Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan.
Jordanian officials have publicly warned they would consider such a move an act of war. Egyptian counterparts have been less blunt, while regional media is abuzz with rumours that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is under pressure from both Israel and the West to open Egypt’s borders to a large number from Gaza, with financial incentives and IMF support potentially used to sweeten such an option.
Such a forced population movement has long been favoured by right-wing Israeli voices but would be hugely unpopular in the region, inevitably compared to the permanent mass displacement of Palestinians in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or "catastrophe".
US President Joe Biden has spoken to Sisi several times since the conflict started, with the Egyptian leader warning any efforts to push large numbers of Palestinians into Egypt would be rejected by the Egyptian state and population and would lead to Egyptian territory being used as a springboard for attacks on Israel.
For now, however, the US focus appears to be to avoid immediate and serious escalation, particularly by Iranian proxy groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
The arrival of the submarine USS Florida, capable of launching more than 100 cruise missiles, further beefs up an already overwhelming US military package of two aircraft carriers and multiple other combat aircraft including A-10 tank busters, enough to dominate any conflict if it chose.
Over the last decade, successive US administrations and Israel have quietly built up relations with almost all Gulf Arab nations, particularly those that have sought common ground with both Washington and the Jewish state when it comes to managing Iran. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formalised relations with Israel with the 2020 Abraham Accords, which Saudi officials had also been expected to sign imminently before the Oct. 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel.
The emergence of a firmly anti-Iranian bloc, however, has been dented by the parallel Chinese effort to engage Gulf states with Iran, particularly Saudi Arabia, which along with the UAE is now seen as keen to find a way out of its long-running proxy war in Yemen with Iran.
The government in Tehran has its own domestic crises and appears to have very limited appetite for wider confrontation. While Beijing’s influence with Tehran is likely limited, China is almost certainly also pushing for restraint – while retreating oil prices in recent weeks suggest markets are becoming less concerned about an immediate wider war.
Last week, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned that avoiding such a war depended on stopping the Israeli assault on Gaza. But the actual activities of the Iran-backed group along the Israeli border with southern Lebanon appear to have been kept deliberately localised, avoiding the scale of cross-border violence seen during the most recent larger conflict there in 2006.
Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria have stepped up attacks on US forces, particularly with drones, while Houthi militia in Yemen appear to have launched missiles towards Israel, including some shot down by a US destroyer in the Red Sea.
As with Hezbollah, however, those actions appear to have been set at a level just short of significantly escalating the conflict – and well short of that which might prompt Washington to hit out at Iran directly.
Whether or not Iran had advance warning of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 is unclear – but if it didn't, Iran’s leaders may yet prove unwilling to drag the region into a much wider war to help Hamas weather Israel's military onslaught.
Ongoing hostage negotiations with Israel brokered by Qatar alongside others could even allow a few Hamas elements to cut a deal with authorities in Israel, potentially allowing them to flee into exile or perhaps even play a future role in Gaza.
This war will still yield more bloodshed, but all players will already be looking to shape things to their advantage when it is over.
[The opinions expressed here are those of the author, Peter Apps, a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting from southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defence issues. He has been a columnist since 2016. He is also the founder of a think-tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and, since 2016, has been a Labour Party activist and British Army reservist.]