The Israel-Hamas War and Implications for Great Power Competition

By Mustafa Gul, alumnus of The Fletcher School

The Middle East has returned to the global spotlight after a period of relative quiet. The devastating terrorist attack by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7, 2023, followed by Israel’s military operation in Gaza, has raised significant concerns about the future of the region. During a national address, U.S. President Joe Biden drew a connection between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s actions in Gaza, stating, “We are at an inflection point in history.” Globally, over 4,200 demonstration events have underscored the profound cultural and societal impact of the conflict. Major powers around the world have responded to the Israel-Hamas war in different ways, reflecting their unique concerns and interests in the ongoing crisis.

International Responses: the United States and the European Union

The United States and the EU were quick to condemn Hamas’ attack and emphasized their unwavering support for Israel’s right to self-defense. Although leading EU officials’ initial remarks that showed categorical support for Israel faced scrutiny and internal debate, the United States has presented a united and bipartisan front. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that U.S. support for Israel will be “unending” in its war against Hamas. 

Immediately after Hamas’ attack, the United States deployed its largest and most modern aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, and its Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean. Shortly after that, the United States announced that it was deploying another aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf. Biden stated, “No one should exploit this situation to target Israel,” a clear message aimed at Iran and its allies in the region. Most recently, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that an Ohio-class submarine has arrived in its area of responsibility, potentially equipped with nuclear weapons.

The U.S. response highlights the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security in the Middle East. In his national address, Biden emphasized that even though the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war may appear distant, providing support to both Ukraine and Israel is “vital” to U.S. security. He suggested that history taught Americans that “when terrorists and dictators are not held accountable for their actions, they tend to persist,” leading to “increasing costs and threats to both America and the world.”

Nonetheless, U.S. policy faces challenges due to regional concerns about Israel’s actions in Gaza, including from longstanding American allies and partners in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Türkiye. Unlike the situation in Ukraine, where there is united support by its European allies against Russia’s invasion, the United States lacks unequivocal backing from its allies and partners in the Middle East regarding its support for Israel.

Additionally, the United States has reason to be concerned about the global economic repercussions of a broader conflict in the Middle East, potentially involving Iran. The possible involvement of Hezbollah from Lebanon in the Israel-Hamas war could significantly escalate the conflict, almost certainly putting Israel, Iran, and the United States on a collision course. That is because Hezbollah holds strategic significance for Iran, serving as a deterrent against Israel should the regime in Iran come under an existential threat. Between 20% and 30% of the world’s oil and gas supplies pass through the Strait of Hormuz, Iran’s backdoor, and a disruption of this flow resulting from a larger regional war could have a remarkable ripple effect on energy prices, a core driver of inflation. While the Biden administration is gearing up for one of the most heated presidential elections in 2024, it is unlikely to want to complicate its prospects by grappling with inflation.

Moreover, Hamas’ initial attack and subsequent strikes by Iran’s proxies on U.S. military installations in the region have raised doubts about the preparedness of the U.S. military for a wider conflict in the Middle East. In fact, reports have suggested that one of the reasons Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay the widely anticipated ground invasion of Gaza was to bolster U.S. military presence in the region through additional deployments. Since the beginning of Israel’s military operation in Gaza,  the U.S. military bases and installations in Syria and Iraq have come under attack by Iran-linked militias at least 40 times. While these attacks have not claimed any American lives yet, they caused injuries to 46 U.S. soldiers.

The United States confronts a challenging dilemma as it seeks to maintain its commitment to Israel’s security while preventing the escalation of conflict in the region. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has reiterated on several occasions that it is not excluding the possibility of a conflict with Iran. When questioned about the readiness to engage in multiple theaters of war, Biden responded, “We’re the United States of America for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history–not in the world, in the history of the world. We can take care of both [the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war] and still maintain our overall international defense.”

The EU and the United Kingdom align closely with the United States in terms of their strategic concerns and interests. Much like Biden, the leaders of the UK, Germany, France, and Italy have visited Israel and reaffirmed their dedication to Israel’s security. Nevertheless, the growing humanitarian impact of Israel’s military operation in Gaza on the Palestinian population has led Western leaders to increasingly emphasize the necessity for a humanitarian corridor and abiding by the laws of war. However, the West has not gone as far as formally calling for a complete ceasefire so far. Following the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tokyo, the foreign ministers of G7 countries reiterated their support for “Israel’s right to defend itself, in accordance with international law.”

China and Russia

Two other major powers, China and Russia, did not specifically condemn Hamas following the October 7 attack. Instead, the two countries have asked both Hamas and Israel to show restraint.

While there are contradicting analyses on whether Russia benefits from the Israel-Hamas war, the position of the Russian government so far suggests that Russia does not prefer a wider conflict in the Middle East. Russia maintains a delicate balance in Syria, between cooperating with Iran and maintaining good relations with Israel. There are currently thousands of Hezbollah fighters and numerous Iranian military facilities and installations in Syria. If the Israel-Hamas war extends into the region, Syria is highly likely to become a major theater of conflict. This scenario could lead to the opening of new fronts for Russia, potentially disrupting the delicate balance it has maintained in the region between its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its constructive relationship with Israel.

Furthermore, Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia and its naval facility in Tartus, both located in Syria, serve as Russia’s sole military footprint in the Middle East. The Russian government not only uses these bases to ensure the security of the Assad regime, its longstanding ally, but also utilizes them as a launching pad for its military engagements in the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa. Therefore, those bases bear crucial strategic value to Russia. However, the Russian government is not ready to defend those assets at all costs, as it remains largely focused on the war in Ukraine.

In response to the deployment of U.S. aircraft carriers to the region, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian fighter jets armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles would conduct permanent patrols over the Black Sea. Notably, Moscow hosted a Hamas delegation on October 26, marking Hamas’ first high-profile international visit since launching the October 7 attack. This visit underscores Russia’s commitment to holding influence in the Middle East and positioning itself as an alternative mediator in the conflict. Russia’s actions regarding the Israel-Hamas war suggest a desire to secure a significant role in the conflict due to its strategic interests in Syria and across the region.

As for China, while the Chinese government might want to assume a mediator role in the conflict and expand its diplomatic influence in the Middle East, that is an unlikely scenario. There is seemingly no current mechanism through which China can create significant diplomatic or economic leverage and exert influence over Israel and Palestine. While there has been widespread criticism of the lack of evenhandedness by the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States remains the most influential actor in the dispute, with the most effective carrots and sticks at its disposal.

That being said, China has significant economic interests in the Middle East. The Chinese government is already contending with the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, both of which have caused a global economic slowdown, placing strain on the financial obligations of many of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners. Among these partners, the Persian Gulf states, which are an integral part of the BRI, account for one-third of Chinese loans. They are arguably the only group of countries among China’s BRI partners that remain financially secure and capable of fulfilling their commitments to China. Consequently, the prospect of a wider regional war presents significant economic risks for China. The Persian Gulf states also play a key role as energy exporters to China, which makes it more likely for the Chinese government to lean diplomatically toward its Arab partners, even though the portrayal of its neutrality in the conflict may be appealing.

India and the Global South

Another significant divide in the Israel-Hamas war exists between the West and the Global South. China and Russia’s reluctance to condemn Hamas outright, along with their open sympathy for the Palestinian cause, aligns with the stance of several influential actors from the Global South that have historically opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. In this context, India finds itself in a challenging position. India has a historical track record of supporting the Palestinian cause, and India normalized its relations with Israel in the early 1990s, only after the Oslo peace process was underway. Nonetheless, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed unwavering support for Israel following the October 7 attack by Hammas, in contrast to the positions taken by many other countries in the Global South. Notably, under the banner of the Global South, India was critical of the West for pressuring the international community to support Ukraine unequivocally.

India’s tilt toward Israel appears to highlight the growing influence of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the country under Modi’s leadership. The Indian government has increasingly opted for a securitized approach in addressing its political opposition and restive minorities, primarily Indian Muslims. Its strategy involved engaging in consultations with Israeli security experts and acquiring Israeli computer hardware and software designed for counterterrorism and related security missions. Indeed, Israel is India’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia.

Furthermore, the Indian government is likely experiencing disappointment, as the Israel-Hamas war has demonstrated that India’s Arabian-Mediterranean Corridor to Europe, a plan announced with high hopes and expectations during the 2023 G20 New Delhi summit, will now face a delay with an uncertain timeline.


The Israel-Hamas war highlights significant differences among major international powers in terms of their interests and their interpretation of the global order. Economically, a wider regional war involving Iran would undoubtedly have substantial global costs. The cultural aspects of the conflict, which carry significant global implications, also need to be further assessed.

It appears that we are indeed at an inflection point in history, emphasizing the profound significance of the decisions made by each major power. The global challenges presented by the Russia-Ukraine war have been further compounded by another war in a region characterized by an intricate web of regional commitments and vested interests among great powers.

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