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April 14, 2024


Experts came together to discuss the political ramifications of events in the Middle East.

In response to heightening conflicts in the Middle East, the Office of Interdisciplinary Initiatives hosted a Johns Hopkins Briefing on developments in Gaza on Wednesday, Oct. 11. The briefing brought together Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) James B. Steinberg, Aronson Associate Professor Adria Lawrence, Aronson Assistant Professor Sarah Parkinson and Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs Hal Brands. The speakers discussed policy and humanitarian responses in the region. 

Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Initiatives Lainie Rutkow moderated the event. In an email to The News-Letter, Rutkow expressed the goal of the briefing.

“We use these briefings as an opportunity to bring together faculty from throughout the university to share their expertise in a public-facing format,” she wrote.

Rutkow opened the conversation by asking the experts what they thought recent events in Gaza would mean for U.S. foreign policy. In their responses, all of the experts recognized the horrors of violence and the lives lost. 

Steinberg observed that the U.S. response of offering support to Israel and increasing American military presence took from the United States’ past action during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. However, global events challenge the Biden administration’s reconciliation strategy in the region.

“This is a really deep challenge for the United States and the Biden administration, because the Biden administration strategy has been to try to build a more stable Middle East, which would then allow it to focus on what it sees as the key challenges of our time — the challenges from Russia and China,” he said.

Brands agreed with Steinberg’s analysis, adding that simultaneous challenges in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia place immense strain on American statecraft and the U.S. defense industrial base — the companies and facilities involved in the production of American military equipment.

Although U.S. support for Ukraine looks different from its support for Israel, Brands expressed worry that the defense industrial base will not be able to meet the combined long-term demands of increased international involvement. 

“This crisis just highlights the gap between the commitment the United States has to countries like Ukraine and what it can actually do in terms of producing capabilities,” Brands said.

On the topic of why the attacks happened, Lawrence stated that the conditions for violence were present long before the attacks occurred. According to Lawrence, the two-state solution that established the basis for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine was ineffective, given the power difference between the states. Palestine has few allies and little bargaining power compared to the bilateral agreements Israel has with Arab countries like Morocco and the UAE. Lawrence believes this difference is a source of the violent attacks in Israel.

“With the Palestinian cause bottoming out, Hamas sees the opportunity to call attention to itself and its cause using the most brutal tactics targeting ordinary people and sending a message that the Palestinians are still here and cannot be ignored,” she said.

Lawerence went on to say that Israel’s current activities in Gaza have garnered strong reactions and fears for Palestinians from Arab countries with bilateral agreements with Israel.

Parkinson spoke on how the power difference between Israel and Palestine lends each country different responsibilities under international law. Israel, as an occupying state, has the responsibility of ensuring the basic needs of populations under its control. She also explained the responsibilities Palestine has as an occupied state.

“Under international law, occupied and colonized populations have the right to resist. That resistance is also subject to humanitarian law,” she said. “Under international law, all combatants, whether state or non-state actors, are required to protect civilian life. Collective punishment is illegal.” 

Parkinson stressed that violence would lead to new and diverse forms of resistance among occupied populations. The current stance of the U.S. may invite more conflict, alienate Arab communities and embolden extreme violence on both sides. 

Lawrence expressed some optimism for the safety of the hostages taken by Hamas, maintaining that they only provide leverage for as long as they remain unharmed. Parkinson added that Hamas deliberately filmed the instant killing of some hostages in order to spread terror in Israel. There has been a precedent for hostage exchanges between Israel and other actors in the region. 

When asked about the role of the U.S. at present, Steinberg said that the United States’ main short-term consideration is the safety of U.S. citizens in the region. In the long term, the U.S. would seek ways to engage countries in the region with a common interest to stop violence from spilling into their territories.

“Part of what the United States can do is to both demonstrate its resolve to respond firmly to terrorist attacks but also to try to mobilize the range of connections that it has in the region,” he said.

To round off the briefing, Steinberg and Brands expressed their skepticism regarding claims of Iran’s involvement in the Gaza conflicts. Steinberg noted that the Biden administration is more willing to expose intelligence information as a foreign policy to reduce the risk of further conflict escalation. 

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