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Iran crisis risks easing pressure on Israel over Gaza, diplomats warn

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European and Arab leaders and diplomats have warned that Iran’s attack on Israel risks relieving pressure that had been building on Israel to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza and ease the humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, on Thursday said: “We should not lose focus on what is happening in Gaza. In Gaza, the humanitarian catastrophe continues. The humanitarian support has increased very little.”

Before Iran’s unprecedented strike last Saturday, in which it fired more than 300 missiles and drones, Israel’s conduct of its offensive in Gaza — and accusations it was restricting the delivery of aid to the besieged strip — had left the Jewish state increasingly isolated.

After an Israeli strike on a humanitarian convoy killed seven aid workers in late March, US President Joe Biden had threatened to make US support for Israel conditional on how Benjamin Netanyahu’s government addressed his concerns about civilian casualties and the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Palestinian children fill containers with drinking water. The UN has warned the Gaza Strip is close to famine © Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa

US officials had become increasingly outspoken in warning against a major Israeli ground operation in Rafah, the southern Gazan town which Israel regards as Hamas’s last stronghold, but which is also sheltering more than 1mn Palestinians who have fled fighting elsewhere in the enclave.

But when Iran launched its strike on Israel last weekend, the US led a group of countries, including the UK, France and Jordan, that helped to shoot down the barrage. Biden also reiterated Washington’s “ironclad” support for Israel, easing pressure on Netanyahu, the prime minister who has become a lightning rod for criticism at home and abroad.

“I don’t know if it was the Israelis’ intention from the beginning, but at least they are using [the Iranian strike] very cleverly,” said one Arab diplomat. “Three weeks ago the statements by world leaders about Israel carried criticism and red lines. Now there is a shift in the narrative.”

Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, was more explicit. “Netanyahu wants to draw attention away from Gaza and focus on his confrontation with Iran,” he said in a press conference with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock in Berlin on Tuesday.

Israeli officials admit they have seen an opportunity. Earlier this week, foreign minister Israel Katz launched what he said was a “diplomatic offensive” to push for new sanctions on Iran, and for its Revolutionary Guards to be declared a terrorist group.

The US and UK on Thursday unveiled fresh sanctions on Iran, including targeting individuals and companies involved in drone production.

Israel has refrained from an immediate retaliation against Iran and has yet to begin its offensive in Rafah even though Netanyahu claimed earlier this month a date had been set.

One official said the vagueness was intentional, and meant to allow talks with the US about Israel’s plans for Iran and Rafah to play out.

“Everything is linked to everything,” the official said. “Israel is enjoying a lot of legitimacy at the moment, that is clear.”

Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, said: ‘[Benjamin] Netanyahu wants to draw attention away from Gaza and focus on his confrontation with Iran’ © Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

However, some western officials said Iran’s strike had not been such a turning point in US thinking on further Israeli operations in Gaza.

One western diplomat said: “Even before Iran exchanges, the US had been entering into conversations with the Israelis about how to do Rafah, rather than whether to do Rafah, how to do Rafah differently in order to protect civilians. I think they are still in that space.”

Israel launched its assault on Gaza in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. But the humanitarian toll has been devastating. Israel’s offensive has killed more than 33,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, displaced 1.7mn of Gaza’s 2.3mn population and reduced the enclave to rubble. The UN has warned it is close to famine.

US officials said the possibility of conditioning military assistance had not been taken off the table since Iran’s strike. But they said that if it were to happen, it would not affect military capacities such as missiles and air defence systems that Israel would need to defend itself in a conflict with Iran.

They said the Biden administration still thought a ground offensive in Rafah would be a mistake. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other officials were due to hold remote discussions with senior Israel officials on an operation in the city later on Thursday.

Meanwhile, European countries, led by France, are hoping their tough line against Tehran will win them leverage over Israel, and increase the chance of them being able to persuade Netanyahu to de-escalate the military situation both in Gaza and towards the Islamic republic.

Other officials argued Israel’s military needs in any conflict with Iran, as well as looming cases in international courts over its conduct in Gaza, meant it could not afford to ignore international concerns over the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian enclave.

“It would be overly pessimistic to say the Iran-Israeli tensions have completely lifted the pressure and therefore Israel is ignoring the demands of the west,” the western diplomat said.

“The Israelis need the west right now, both in terms of helping defend themselves against Iran, but also the legal challenges coming Israel’s way.”

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