Inside Armenia’s geopolitical shift to the West

Omar Hamed Beato is a visual journalist based in the Middle East covering conflict, climate change, migration, and social issues. You can find him on Instagram and follow his work here.

Protesters march across Yerevan the night before the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on the 23rd of April. Manifestations like this are often used by political parties to foster nationalism. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Protesters march across Yerevan the night before the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on the 23rd of April. Manifestations like this are often used by political parties to foster nationalism. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

As the sun sets over Yerevan –Armenia’s capital– on the verge of the 109th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, thousands of people flock to Republic Square to remember past and current struggles with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan. This genocide, often referred to as the first of the 20th century, claimed the lives of as many as 1.2 million Orthodox Armenians in the Anatolian peninsula during World War I. Over one hundred years later, the wounds of war and mass displacement remain wide open in the minds of the Armenian people. Continuous wars with neighboring Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and recent years have only exacerbated militaristic and nationalist sentiments within Armenian society. The territory,  known by locals as Artsakh, is a self-proclaimed republic within the borders of internationally recognized Azerbaijan. A mix of anger, sadness, and worry can be felt in the ambient – it’s been only seven months since the latest chapter in the war came to a close. Nagorno-Karabakh was completely taken over by Azeri forces prompting almost its entire population of 120,000 to flee to Armenia.

“In the second decade of the 21st century, the Armenian nation has been subjected to genocide once again,” said a speaker at a political rally in Yerevan the day before the commemoration of the genocide on April 24th –a cry that attracted the attention of attendees. “Genocide is the policy of the Turkish state [referring to Turkey and Azerbaijan], the enemy wants to destroy us. One part of Armenia [from Karabakh] was displaced from its homeland of thousands of years.”

Every year, Turkish and Azerbaijani flags are publicly burned in Republic Square, Yerevan. This is the portrayal of a society that is deeply hurt and humiliated after decades of conflict. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Every year, Turkish and Azerbaijani flags are publicly burned in Republic Square, Yerevan. This is the portrayal of a society that is deeply hurt and humiliated after decades of conflict. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yet, despite all the nationalistic sentiment, not everyone at the manifestation agrees on a way forward for Armenia.  Mariam, a young Armenian woman who took part in the event, whose real name is being withheld due to the sensitive nature of the topic in the country, sees it as simple rhetoric rather than a realistic possibility. “I think this gathering is quite populist,” she says while crowds prepare to march across the city. “Don’t get me wrong, I would like Armenia to retake Nagorno-Karabakh to allow everyone to go back home but I don’t think it is possible, Azerbaijan has more power,” Mariam says before the interview gets abruptly interrupted by other people overhearing it from the crowd.

Many in Armenia have lost loved ones to the different wars between these two neighbors since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a collapse that reignited the dispute over the territory that remained relatively calm when Armenia and Azerbaijan were coexisting within the Soviet umbrella. For a while, Russia, as Armenia’s historical security guarantor and main economic partner, prevented Azerbaijan from escalating the conflict into a full-out war.

During the 2020 war –when Azerbaijan conquered adjacent territories of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenia took in the 1990s– Russia played an important role in brokering a peace deal between both states. However, things changed in February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Unable to divert resources from the war effort, Russia was in no position to defend Karabakh from any incoming Azeri invasion. This was put to a test when Azerbaijan began the 10-month-long blockade of Artsakh in December 2022, rationing medicine, food, and fuel, practically isolating this territory from the rest of the world.

Russia’s inaction to the blockade triggered the belief in Baku that there would be no Russian intervention if it decided to go ahead with a complete takeover. Almost a year later, in September 2023, Azeri troops began to hit Karabakh with artillery and drone strikes making Armenians lay down arms within the first 24 hours of the incursion. The mass exodus of the population to Armenia began in September 2023, and on January 1st 2024 Azerbaijan forced the dissolution of the self-proclaimed republic.
 

Coping with a humanitarian crisis on its own

Despite a strong post-pandemic economic recovery, Armenia is still, by many means, a developing economy. According to a 2022 World Food Program report, about one-fourth of Armenians suffers from food insecurity and one in three lives below the poverty line of USD 115 per month.

Hence, since the fall of Karabakh, refugees have been struggling to start anew. The government has promised benefits to the newcomers: a one-off payment of $250 to every adult and a monthly allowance of $125, or about 65 per cent of the minimum wage in Armenia, to cover rent and other basic needs. Yet many refugees complain the much-anticipated money is stuck in bureaucratic backlog. Due to the global focus on the crises in Palestine and Ukraine, only 47 per cent of the $97 million pledged by the United Nations for the emergency phase of the crisis has been raised.

This has affected refugees like Andranik, 47, and his family. Like most displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, they are living in a small village on the outskirts of Yerevan. He is living with his wife, mother, and three other children –all of whom complain about the lack of aid coming from the government since they arrived in Armenia.

Andranik in front of his house in Yerevan. During the 2020 war –which also claimed the lives of his nephew and younger brother– he was hit by Azeri bullets three times, which has hampered his mobility and consequently, hurt his prospects of finding employment. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Andranik in front of his house in Yerevan. During the 2020 war –which also claimed the lives of his nephew and younger brother– he was hit by Azeri bullets three times, which has hampered his mobility and consequently, hurt his prospects of finding employment. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

He claims to only be receiving a $50 stipend for his disability –for some reason, he stopped receiving the $125 monthly allowance in February –which is insufficient for a large family like his to survive in Yerevan. “Our economic situation is very bad,” he explains. “We are not expecting any support from the government… [our only hope] is going back to Artsakh one day.”

Due to their economic situation, his family can barely afford any food or essential medicine for his aging mother. They rely on food donations to support their subsistence. “My friends support our family; time to time bring some wood, some food etc. My old friends from Armenia who served in [the military] in Artsakh supported us many times,” Andranik laments while speaking in front of his family. “I am cultivating the land of this rental house to support ourselves [with] some food. We grow some greens, onions, and potatoes. We [are also] keeping some chickens and turkeys as well.”

Andrianik’s mother, Nina, 86, shedding tears when talking about her home in Artsakh. Due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, she has been forcibly displaced four times in her life, having to start from zero on every occasion. Humanitarian workers comment refugees haven’t received proper psychological support since they were displaced to Armenia. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Andranik’s mother, Nina, 86, shedding tears when talking about her home in Artsakh. Due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, she has been forcibly displaced four times in her life, having to start from zero on every occasion. Humanitarian workers comment refugees haven’t received proper psychological support since they were displaced to Armenia. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Difficult living conditions and lack of job opportunities across rural areas in Armenia have prompted about three out of four refugees to settle in Yerevan and adjacent provinces.

“The situation for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians is really bad” says Benyamin Poghosyan, a senior research fellow at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia –an independent Armenian think tank. “They lack housing and many of them have no jobs. What the government is paying is barely enough to rent an apartment, especially in Yerevan.”

Beyond the Armenians displaced from Artsakh, the country has seen a significant influx of Russians opposing the regime since the war in Ukraine broke out. These recent arrivals en masse mean that the Armenian labor market is struggling to absorb all these new workers –especially as the country has historically been characterized by high unemployment amongst the most vulnerable.  A December 2023 report by the International Monetary Fund estimates these influxes to account for a 3.5 per cent increase in the labor force relative to 2021. Figures show a grim outlook for Karabakh Armenians –it will take until at least 2028 for them to be fully integrated into the job market.

Adella, 65, and her son Radik, 41, are examples of this. Once considered well-off in Karabakh, now they find themselves living in a warehouse in the town of Masis, some 30 minutes away by car from Yerevan. Since they moved here, they have struggled to find jobs – they are only able to generate some extra income when they sporadically sell on the streets some shipments of perfume sent by their relatives living in the UK and Russia.

“I would like to find a job, any kind of job. I will do heavy jobs if necessary,” explains Radik. “[Unfortunately], there are no jobs here.”

Lack of jobs and aid means mother and son live in an unhygienic house with no running water or electricity. “There’s no furniture inside the house –they just gave me a blanket. It’s just cold at night. [We have a] heater but it is not powerful enough,” says Adella as she gazes at Mount Ararat in the background. Due to inadequate infrastructure at home, Adella and Radik have to visit their relative’s house two to three times a week to shower.

Life on pause. Adella video calling one of her relatives living in Russia inside the warehouse where she lives. Due to her age, she is struggling to find work as employers prefer younger workers. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Life on pause. Adella video calling one of her relatives living in Russia inside the warehouse where she lives. Due to her age, she is struggling to find work as employers prefer younger workers. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

To address the housing issue, the government initiated a program aimed at assisting Karabakh refugees in securing permanent housing. However, this initiative has encountered opposition within the refugee community. The government offers up to $13,000 for families to construct or purchase homes in sparsely populated areas, where employment opportunities are scarce, and $5,000 in areas near Yerevan. Benyamin argues that “this scheme only allows Nagorno-Karabakh refugees to buy old Soviet-era houses on the borders of Armenia,” where they do not want to live.

Anna, 45, together with another family from Artsakh, currently rents a house for $390 a month in the surrounding areas of Yerevan. She works at a tobacco factory six days a week, while her husband, Artur, 59, works in the land. They express concern that the government is failing to acknowledge the refugees’ apprehensions about living near Azerbaijan. “We are not prepared to endure another displacement disaster,” Anna laments, humorously remarking that the pledged funds would only enable them to afford “half a house.”

Portrait of Ararat, Anna’s relative who died during the 2020 war against Azerbaijan. Most families from Artsakh and Armenia have relatives who have died fighting in the last few years. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Portrait of Ararat, Anna’s relative who died during the 2020 war against Azerbaijan. Most families from Artsakh and Armenia have relatives who have died fighting in the last few years. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Greta, Anna’s 80-year-old mother-in-law, adamantly rejects the idea of purchasing a house in Armenia. Her thoughts are fixated on returning to her home in Artsakh –where she lived her entire life until September 2023. “I would love to return if the Azeris were not present. I long to visit the graves of my son and husband, and to see my house and everything again”, Greta emotionally expresses, wiping away tears. “During the day, I am in Armenia, but at night, my heart is in Artsakh.”

Greta next to the window in her rental house. Due to the inability to afford rent individually, many families have joined together, residing in crowded accommodations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Greta next to the window in her rental house. Due to the inability to afford rent individually, many families have joined together, residing in crowded accommodations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.
 

Is the West the answer to Armenia’s woes?

Unable to handle the humanitarian crisis on its own and with its security constantly under threat of further Azerbaijani attacks, Armenia has –in recent months– begun diversifying its alliances’ portfolio by mainly decoupling from Russia and looking to Western partners for economic aid and security assistance.

Since the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, repeated meetings have been taking place –in Yerevan and Western capitals alike– between Armenian officials and their Western counterparts looking to establish new economic partnerships. This culminated in a meeting between Ursula Von Der Leyen, Josep Borrell, Anthony Blinken, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, in Brussels on April 5th leading to a $293 million aid package from the EU over the next four years and another further  $65 million coming from the US.

“This shows that the European Union and Armenia are increasingly aligned in values and interests,” commented Von der Leyen during the press conference that followed the meeting. “The humanitarian situation of refugees in Armenia remains a priority…we’re ready to do more to support the long-term integration of refugees.”

In a recent meeting between US and Armenian officials in Yerevan on June 11th, the US reiterated its commitment to support ongoing efforts to accommodate refugees. “The United States acknowledges the ongoing economic and social challenges Armenia faces in supporting displaced persons and refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and intends to continue to assist the Government of Armenia’s efforts in this regard,” reads  the press release. “The United States praised Armenia’s efforts to shelter displaced persons and refugees, and Armenia offered appreciation for the more than $21 million in humanitarian assistance the United States has provided to support displaced persons and refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh since September 2020.”

To avoid repeating history and the events of the last years and decades, Armenia is not only seeking new economic partnerships and aid, it’s also modernizing its defense capabilities. For instance, since 2020, Armenia has purchased artillery, radar, and missile systems from India and last November, France began supplying precision rifles, radars, and armored vehicles to the Armenian armed forces. “For Armenia, enhancing military capabilities is the least it can do because they can’t trust Russia anymore,” says Marylia Hushcha, a southern Caucasus and eastern Europe researcher at International Institute for Peace, a Vienna-based NGO promoting peaceful conflict resolution across the world.

Praying for a better tomorrow. Armenian youth has embraced Western values more than any other generation in the country. Despite the desire to pivot West, many feel uncertain about how, and if, this will be achieved. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Praying for a better tomorrow. Armenian youth has embraced Western values more than any other generation in the country. Despite the desire to pivot West, many feel uncertain about how, and if, this will be achieved. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

“There is this fear in Armenia that Azerbaijan may attack again in the future, especially in the south,” she continues, referring to the dispute over the Zangezur corridor, a narrow strip of land connecting Azerbaijan proper to its western region of Nakhchivan and Turkey alongside the Armenian-Iranian border.

“The decision of the Soviet government to separate West Zangezur, our historical land, from Azerbaijan and hand it over to Armenia led to the geographical separation of the Turkic world,” posted Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, on X (formerly known as Twitter). “We will implement the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not,” he threatened back in 2021.

The geographical location of Armenia has made finding security all the more difficult. To the East and West, it is surrounded by adversaries Azerbaijan and Turkey. To the south, it borders Iran –which despite its historically strong ties with Armenia is increasingly cooperating with Azerbaijan on a variety of infrastructure projects like the recently inaugurated Qiz Qalasi dam. “Armenia has no allies in the region whereas Azerbaijan feels secure because it has its own military power but also it has the support of Turkey,” adds Marylia via video call. “Armenia has had a military alliance with Russia which isn’t working and Azerbaijan has an alliance with Turkey that is working”. An example of this close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey, Turkish-made drones supplied to the Azeri armed forces played a major role in the 2020 war and the subsequent takeover of territories surrounding Artsakh, as did the provision of arms by Israel.

“You need two armies with similar power not to start a war. By acquiring more weapons from the West, Armenia is, to some extent, trying to counter Azerbaijan’s military advantage on the battlefield and enhance its security,” Marylia tells the Center for International Policy.
 

Armenia’s Russia problem

While Armenia has been taking concrete steps to decouple from Russia, the high degree of interconnectedness between them means there is still a long way ahead before the vision of the Armenian government becomes reality.

While former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia –all of which are now candidates to join the EU– took concrete steps in the 2010s to get closer to the West, Armenia’s government at the time decided to strengthen its cooperation with Russia. In 2013, Armenia announced it would join the Eurasian Customs Union, a free trade zone comprised of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia. To this day, Armenia is officially still part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance akin to NATO formed of ex-Soviet states –although the government claims their membership is now on pause.

Graffiti showing resentment towards Russia. it reads "no water can wash the blood off putin's hands"

Graffiti showing resentment towards Russia. Many in Armenia blame Russia for leaving them vulnerable against Azerbaijan. Negative feelings against Russia will likely last for decades if not generations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Historically, Russia has been the biggest arms exporter in the region –to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Given Armenia’s lack of indigenous military Industry, in the 2010s, 94 per cent of all the weapon imports came from Russia. This has served Moscow’s purpose of enhancing profits for its military industry and destabilizing the region. Achieving a quick modernization of its armed forces with Western equipment seems unlikely after decades of investments in Russian-manufactured gear. “The EU is not a military power and the US is unlikely to fill the gap to substitute Russia as a major weapons exporter to Armenia, especially as both are focused on Ukraine and Gaza,” Marylia comments.

Furthermore, Armenia’s former imperial power maintains control over all energy infrastructure in the country, along with key transportation systems like railways, where it continues to maintain approximately 3,000 soldiers until at least 2044. “Russia’s presence in Armenia is very strong”, explains Marylia. “Armenia is trying to reach out and connect with the West but practically it is very difficult –quite impossible I would say. It is unlikely Russia would not intervene if Armenia goes against Russian interests.”

According to Benyamin, the feasibility of this shift depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. “If Russia doesn’t lose the war, it will have more resources to look into other neighborhoods like the South Caucasus. Russia will say ‘ok guys, games are over and you were dreaming or making some steps against Russia. I am back and you will do whatever I want’. [This will happen] regardless of who is Prime Minister in Armenia.”
 

The road towards peace

The Armenian government has been signaling that it is ready to make concessions to Azerbaijan in order to reach a permanent settlement to the conflict. There have been no indications from PM Nikol Pashinyan and his environment suggesting any military action against Azerbaijan.

On the contrary, in January, the Armenian government launched the so-called ‘Crossroads for Peace’ initiative with the intention of enhancing “diplomatic initiatives, dialogue, and cultural exchange” in the South Caucasus. In an article by Armenia’s President Vahagn Khachaturyan published in the World Economic Forum, he wrote “Armenia is committed to turning the aftermath of the crisis into an opportunity for building lasting peace and promoting regional cooperation.”

“There is a belief in the Armenian government that Armenia cannot develop without normal relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. [They think] Armenia should pay whatever price to get this normalization,” adds Benyamin. Hence, in April, the Armenian government gave up four villages to Azerbaijan in the Tavush region, located in Armenian’s north, villages it had conquered from Azerbaijan during war in the 1990s.

Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan. Many families visit graveyards of soldiers on a weekly basis –mandatory military service in Armenia means many of these fallen soldiers were 20 years old or younger –a painful reality still highly present for many. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan. Many families visit graveyards of soldiers on a weekly basis –mandatory military service in Armenia means many of these fallen soldiers were 20 years old or younger –a painful reality still highly present for many. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yet despite the government’s good intentions, it is unlikely it will sail through smooth waters. The transfer of these border villages has sparked widespread protests around the country demanding the government revert this decision. The fall of Karabakh has created a sense of humiliation in Armenian society. It is unlikely that a peace deal –signed on Azerbaijan’s terms– will provide the much anticipated lasting peace to the region.

“At the end of the day, one day there will be a new government which may want to take some of the losses back. This [one-sided deal] will be the recipe for the next Armenia-Azerbaijan war,” says Benyamin.

Center for International Policy contacted the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan and Armenia requesting comments on their respective views on the peace process. However, no responses have been received by the time of publication.

Armenia is in a weaker position than Azerbaijan militarily and politically speaking. Arguably, it needs the peace treaty more than Azerbaijan. Marylia believes the Armenian government is caught between a rock and a hard place as its approach to peace faces “resistance from the public and Azerbaijan is not the easiest negotiating partner.”

The shift to the West may try to provide the Armenian people with some economic relief and a renewed sense of security. However, it will take many decades until peace can be achieved, not only between governments but between societies, allowing cultural communication, trade, shared infrastructure, etc. “The EU [and the US] don’t have enough leverage over Azerbaijan to make it more accommodating with Armenia,” she adds. The West’s ambition is “to act as a mediator but their attempts have not worked.”

The Democratization of Foreign Policy in India’s Election

Mahika Khosla is a researcher based in Washington D.C. focusing on South Asian geopolitics and human security.

In April, just before the beginning of the world’s largest and longest national election, a campaign video released by India’s incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally halted Russia’s war in Ukraine to allow for the evacuation of Indian students. Later, in a campaign rally, PM Modi said, “Today the world is witnessing how much India’s reputation and status have grown in just ten years…Modi has not done it, you have done it. Your vote has done it.” Most recently, PM Modi said in a TV interview that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped bombing Gaza during the month of Ramadan on India’s advice.

Anecdotally, India’s rise on the world stage has become part of daily public and private discourse like never before. This highlights two significant patterns within the context of India’s ongoing general election, slated to end on June 4, 2024. First, debates on foreign policy under the BJP government have moved out of the drawing rooms of New Delhi elites to the streets. By domesticizing and even democratizing the consumption of foreign policy, the Modi government has metaphorically placed it on the ballot for the 2024 election. And second, this foreign policy rhetoric has created misguided and hubristic notions of India’s global standing within the Indian public that may not entirely align with global perceptions of the same. In a likely Modi third term, this dissonance could result in a more assertive and adventuristic foreign policy approach that is domestically backed, with both regional and international implications.
 

Foreign (Policy) and Domestic (Politics): Blurring the Lines

It is commonly understood in Indian political science scholarship that foreign policy has historically been contained to the realm of elite issues, discussed and decided upon within academic, policy, and military circles. With exceptions where Indian interests are directly affected, such as vis-à-vis Pakistan or China, public discourse around foreign policy has been sparse. As Devesh Kapur finds, it has been reserved for the upper classes in urban centers with access to international travel, culture, and technology. Foreign policy has also actively steered clear of partisan politics, as the ‘national interest’ has most often surpassed party lines. Therefore, on the demand side of the equation, the masses or the aam aadmi, have historically been unconcerned with foreign policy and more focused on tangible domestic issues of unemployment, development, and the economy. This trend is not distinct from other democracies – in the United States too, the importance of foreign policy issues in public opinion polls tends to be low during peacetime. For instance, prior to the ongoing genocide in Gaza, just five percent of American adults expressed interest in U.S. involvement overseas.

This trend is further reiterated when examining the production of electoral rhetoric in India over the years. Past Indian Prime Ministers have rarely used their foreign policy successes as electoral currency, with exceptions being during crises and threats to national security. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a staunch internationalist, anti-colonial leader, and founder of the eminent Non-Aligned Movement rarely mentioned foreign policy in his electoral strategy across three elections, despite its strategic importance under his administration. His successor Indira Gandhi’s use of foreign policy in elections did not extend beyond expected tributes to her achievements in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Later Prime Ministers like Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and Manmohan Singh, despite initiating significant initiatives like the Look East Policy and the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Deal, privileged domestic economic issues and did not integrate foreign policy into their election strategies. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s only other Prime Minister from the incumbent ruling party, presents an exception. India’s 1998 nuclear tests which occurred under his leadership were emphasized in his election campaigns. However, this too was presented more through the lens of technological nationalism and national security rather than as a unique foreign policy achievement with global implications.

​​Prime Minister Modi’s election in 2014 marked a distinct shift in the role of foreign policy in electoral discourse. Beginning early in his incumbency, he made a spectacle of high-level visits and bilateral and multilateral meetings, while regularly engaging with his voter base on issues of foreign policy significance. He is known for his significant focus on enhancing India’s regional and global role and has utilized the digital age to engage in novel forms of ‘public’ or ‘twitter diplomacy’. Notably, of the 110 episodes of his radio show ‘Mann ki Baat’, through which he creates a personal line of communication between him and his voter base, 29 percent of the episodes include mentions of foreign policy. These mentions range from benign proclamations of International Day of Yoga being celebrated across France, Australia, and the United States and interviews with foreign presidents, to more hostile assertions about adversaries like Pakistan during times of national crises. Furthermore, foreign policy mentions across the eight seasons of the radio show have gradually increased over time, peaking in 2023 during the year of India’s G20 presidency, and reflecting the increasing importance of foreign policy in the Indian public domain.

Indeed, the months leading up to India’s hosting of the G20 summit in September 2023 demonstrated the most palpable democratization of foreign policy. Bus stands, airports, taxis, public parks, and just about every public surface in cities and even small towns were plastered with advertisements, murals, and graffiti about India’s G20 presidency and its key goals. Surprisingly, the government also invited the public to give inputs on India’s G20 agenda, and information sessions were held to engage students in public universities as well. Marketed as Prime Minister Modi’s personal moment of glory, India’s G20 presidency enabled the BJP and right-wing media to cast him not only as India’s leader, but a world leader who has substantially improved India’s stature on the world stage. The BJP’s 2024 general election manifesto contains more than nine pages dedicated to foreign policy achievements and aims; a substantial increase from six and three pages in the 2019 and 2014 manifestos respectively.

While the BJP alluded briefly to PM Modi’s international outreach in the 2014 elections and relied more heavily on anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the 2019 elections following the Pulwama/Balakot strikes, foreign policy rhetoric in the 2024 elections has a distinct populist flavor. Marked by an emphasis on the quest – and even the achievement – of glorious global stature, the ongoing foreign policy election rhetoric is also imbued with a tinge of Hindu nationalism. Both during the G20 summit and in the ongoing six-week election, India’s global vision is articulated through Sanskrit phrases and Hindu civilizational motifs. The ruling party now refers to ‘India’ by its Hindi term ‘Bharat’, and the media frequently employs terms like ‘vishwaguru’ (world leader) to refer to PM Modi’s personal entanglement with reviving India’s civilizational power. This confirms Johannes Plagemann and Sandra Destradi’s assertion that “populists in power will pursue policies that reflect their mandate across a range of issue areas, including foreign policy.”
 

Factors at Play: Why Now?

There are several possible factors that contribute to increasing public interest in foreign policy. First, the exponential rise of China and its ongoing aggression on India’s northeastern border since 2020 have led to increasing Indian threat perceptions of China. Given the large power differential, India recognizes that partnerships with major powers like the United States are among the best tools to counter Beijing’s influence and strengthen its own capabilities. Foreign policy and diplomacy have therefore become more central to Indian debates on national security, which have naturally always been of public interest. It is no surprise then that India’s incumbent party would seek buy-in from its voter base on enhancing Indian global stature, particularly when it implicates India’s own national security. Simultaneously, the United States is increasingly looking to India as a key strategic partner to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, given India’s large population and fast-growing economy. Expectedly, this urgent geopolitical paradigm shift and India’s subsequent global importance is being felt on the ground.

Second, as India becomes a larger stakeholder in global affairs, it may face pressure to take certain actions in the foreign policy domain that leaders may not be comfortable with. Historical precedent reveals that in such cases, manufacturing domestic opposition from the masses can aid in resisting such pressure, particularly from Western partners. For instance, Indian public opinion seemed to have played a conclusive role in India’s lack of participation in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pressure was mounting from Washington on then-Prime Minister Vajpayee to provide refueling facilities and 20,000 troops on the ground, but his domestic campaigns created public aversion to the same. Vajpayee was able to deny U.S. pressure on these grounds, citing public aversion and the democratic imperative to tend to his electorate. The Indian parliament passed a unanimous resolution on April 7, 2003 which stated, “Reflecting national sentiment, this House (Lok Sabha) deplores the military action by the coalition forces led by the USA against a sovereign Iraq.”

The public display of India’s foreign policy maneuvering today evokes Vajpayee’s strategies. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar often incites public distaste towards Western media, and PM Modi even recently accused foreign powers of interfering in India’s election.​​ While the U.S.-India relationship is at its peak, India’s principle of multi-alignment and its strategic autonomy in foreign affairs remains of paramount importance. Some of New Delhi’s recent actions have been condemned by Western allies, such as the continuation of its relationship with Russia amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine and the alleged attempted assassination of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S. citizen and advocate of the Khalistani separatist movement. By using electoral messaging and the pliant right-wing media as a mouthpiece, the government instills strong domestic sentiment that aligns with its foreign policy priorities, allowing it to fall back on ‘national sentiment’ when pressured by democratic partners.

What is essential to note too is that the foreign policy rhetoric used by the ruling party and the media ecosystem supporting it has labeled India’s rise as a matter of national, religious, and personal pride. The BJP’s foreign policy is distinct in this sense; it imbues its conception and account of statecraft and diplomacy with Hindu nationalism, an ideology with deep cultural and emotional appeal in India’s Hindi heartland. Foreign Minister Jaishankar, for instance, explains Indian foreign policy in his two books using characters and teachings from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, two of the most prominent Hindu mythological texts.

Indeed, what makes public investment in India’s global aspirations more intelligible is the fact that – as with Prime Minister Nehru’s international statesmanship – it has an affective face. PM Modi is presented not just as a Prime Minister but as the sole actor responsible for India’s global rise; as “one part king, one part high priest, and one part Mister Rogers” as Mihir Sharma sardonically writes.

There are also material factors to consider. Today, 52.4 percent of the population has access to the internet compared to 13.5 percent in 2014. Furthermore, India’s young middle class comprises 31 percent of India’s growing population and has been on a steady rise,driving a majority of India’s economic growth. With high economic aspiration, transnational business and foreign investment opportunities, and access to both travel and technology, the middle class is contributing to a more globalized and geopolitically attuned electorate. Furthermore, with 2.5 million Indians emigrating annually and the number of Indians giving up their citizenship increasing exponentially each year, more Indian residents are globally connected to family and business networks abroad. A rapidly growing Indian diaspora may well contribute to a growing concern of foreign affairs domestically.
 

Unclear Consequences

The electoral salience of foreign policy undoubtedly has mixed consequences and has been the subject of much IR theory and debate. Within democratic systems like the United States and India, deeper public concern for foreign policy issues would theoretically result in better mechanisms for democratic accountability on the country’s international role. In India, Vipin Narang and Paul Staniland found that accountability over foreign policy decisions has varied over time according to the type of issue, leading to varied policy consequences. Pakistan-related issues typically receive the most public interest and clearest clarity of responsibility, resulting in higher democratic accountability. China-related and defense acquisition issues receive some public interest and are opaquer, leading to less democratic accountability.

In theory, greater democratic accountability is a positive outcome of increased  foreign policy discussion in election rhetoric. For instance, the government’s emphasis on India being a net security provider in South Asia has manifested in positive examples of leadership, such as India’s support of Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring and its disaster relief assistance to the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal. However, the foreign policy touchpoints in the ongoing election may have further unclear consequences, particularly if their framing is inaccurate. The often exaggerated rhetoric on India’s rising global status risks creating a misguided electorate with distorted and hubristic notions of Indian economic and military capability.

Given the virulence of the BJP and the state-aligned media in propagating this narrative, it is no surprise then that there is a chasm between the Indian voter’s perception of India’s global standing and international perceptions of the same. A poll published by the India Today Group revealed that ranked just below the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the second greatest achievement of PM Modi as seen by 35,000 respondents is the ‘rise of India’s global stature’. Paradoxically, a brand-new study called ‘Modi Mirage’ suggests that a majority of respondents across the UK, US, and Europe view India as less favorable than 10 years ago as a result of PM Modi’s leadership. Similarly, a 2023 Pew Research Center survey conducted prior to India’s hosting of the G20 summit reveals that while seven in ten Indians believe India is becoming more globally influential, only 28 percent of respondents across 19 countries agreed with this claim.

Nationalistic foreign policy discourse has more severe consequences on military and economic perceptions of India, within India. A 2022 survey conducted by CVoter and the Center for Policy Research revealed economic and diplomatic hubris; 33 percent of Indians believe that India holds the most influence in Asia, followed by the United States at a mere 15 percent and China at 14 percent. However, in contrast, India’s relationships with its neighbors, according to expert analysis, are in steady decline, as highlighted in recent diplomatic skirmishes with smaller South Asian states. Meanwhile, China is gaining a greater foothold in its place and Indian denial may not serve its geopolitical and strategic ends.

Most concerningly, a 2022 Stimson Center survey revealed that 72 percent of Indians think that India could defeat China in a war, with more BJP-supporters than not overconfident about India’s military capabilities. This sentiment mirrors political and military rhetoric that downplays the China threat and is evidently shaped by a media that frequently uses nationalism synonymously with undue military strength. However, by most expert accounts, this perception is worryingly inaccurate. China’s defense budget is more than three times greater than that of India’s, while China has significantly more advanced technology and production capacity. Given the blatant capabilities gap and recent Chinese encroachments into Indian territory, this disparity between public perception and reality could lead to public pressure on Indian leaders to escalate without the capabilities to match.

There is precedent for this caution too. Historical record suggests that in 1962, then-Prime Minister Nehru’s decision to go to war with China was significantly impacted by public opinion. Nationalist fervor and miscalculated public notions of Indian military capabilities at the time – propagated by the media and opposition parties – put undue pressure on Nehru to take urgent and assertive action in a war that India decisively lost. Indeed, Nehru himself shaped much of Indian public opinion of the Chinese bogey in the 1950s, but later Chinese aggression led to the Indian public’s hard stance against any concessions to China. As Kapur highlights, “While leadership can shape public opinion, this can backfire and hobble its room for maneuver.”
 

Looking Ahead to Modi 3.0

While much of the foreign policy promises in the BJP’s 2024 election manifesto are benign and related to India’s soft power diplomacy, this may likely be because much of its priorities and postures depend on the outcome of the U.S. general election in November. Beyond Indian foreign policy staples such as ensuring permanent UNSC membership and fighting terrorism, the manifesto commits to expanding Indian civilizational influence globally through cultural centers and bringing home stolen artifacts from abroad. Notably, Pakistan and China are barely mentioned in the document.

Indeed, each election in the last decade of the BJP’s incumbency has exposed a more nationalist voter base. While the domestic implications of this sentiment have been made clear with the treatment of religious minorities, the more obtrusive foreign policy implications are unclear but may be felt both regionally and internationally. Once considered the ‘big brother’ of South Asia, India is now leveraging its growing global status in minor diplomatic rows with neighboring countries. From PM Modi bringing up old tensions with Sri Lanka over Katchatheevu to win Tamil votes to Foreign Minister Jaishankar using India’s relative size and status to challenge the Maldives, there is a growing perception that India is now a ‘big bully’ in the region. Indian overconfidence in the coming term – manufactured for and bolstered by the electorate – risks damaging New Delhi’s relationships with its neighbors.  If India’s foreign policy goals are to de-hyphenate from Pakistan and rise above South Asia to gain a global standing, it needs peace in its neighborhood first. An aggressive foreign policy driven by a nationalist public may achieve just the opposite.

On the international front, heightened public perceptions and expectations of India’s global position are driving a more assertive foreign policy, which might pose challenges for democratic partners navigating these tides. The Pannun assassination allegation is a prominent example where, despite the potential violation of international law and its strain on the burgeoning U.S.-India partnership, Indians anecdotally support possible Indian action abroad and are disgruntled by western criticism of the same. While anti-West rhetoric may play well domestically, it could alienate India’s partners and complicate efforts to cooperate to build its own capabilities.

Looking ahead, while Modi’s popularity will likely only be strengthened by a more nationalist foreign policy, diplomatic partners should pay attention to this shifting public sentiment when navigating their relationships with India over the next five years. Given Washington’s track record of intervention and the weakening of a rules-based international order with the ongoing genocide in Gaza, public criticism of India by the United States will not bode well domestically and will only be weaponized to further strengthen Indian nationalist sentiment. Instead, the United States should use private backchannels to raise the government’s treatment of minorities and by extension, its Hindu nationalist foreign policy approach.

India’s rise should not be on the West’s terms but indeed should be calculated with the interests of important partners in mind. The Indian government should use its domestic support to further balance against superpowers by representing the voice of the Global South. But in the quest for a well-earned seat at the proverbial table, India should be wary that it does not exemplify the same attitudes it condemns its partners for.

Compassionate migration policies are also the right call politically

Catherine Ellis is a freelance journalist based in Colombia who focuses on migration and human rights. She also worked for an NGO assisting Venezuelan migrants near the Colombia-Venezuela border.

More than 7.7 million Venezuelans have left Venezuela over the last decade – a quarter of the population. The vast majority of those who have left, around 84 percent, have settled in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. But difficulties in finding jobs, poor salaries and high costs of living have pushed some to pack their bags and set off once again, this time northwards towards the southern border of the United States. Politicians responding to these arrivals should resist the temptation to invoke overly restrictive measures, not only because they trample on the human rights of Venezuelans in desperate situations, but because compassionate migration policies can reduce the political salience of border arrivals, and benefit the U.S. both economically and morally.

Migration is as old as humanity, but the arrival of migrants to the southern border of the United States has been treated as a political crisis. A large wave of Venezuelan migrants arriving at the southern border over the past three years has fanned the flames – and been treated as a national crisis. In part, this is because the Republican governor of Texas has adopted a policy of shipping migrants further into the interior of the country, explicitly to burden social services in Democratic states far from the border.  As the Migration Policy Institute notes, in fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered Venezuelans 266,000 times in the Mexico-US border, a more than five-fold increase in encounters from 2021. 

President Biden, after saying in 2020 he would restore the U.S.’ ‘historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers,’ has introduced some progressive policies. Yet immigration has become more of a political headache than he envisaged. At a campaign stop in Michigan on April 2nd, former President Donald Trump called migrants ‘animals.’ At a stop in Wisconsin later that day, former Trump called Venezuelans criminals, before promising to unleash a mass deportation programme of undocumented migrants if he wins reelection in November. According to a February 2024 Gallup poll, immigration is the US electorate’s number one concern, with 28 percent of Americans saying it was the issue most important to them, and Biden has been steadily peeling back his open-arms rhetoric.

President Biden has reportedly been mulling various options for temporary border closures to stem high numbers of migrants entering the country, after a bipartisan border deal collapsed in Congress in February. Republicans didn’t think the measures, which included proposals to give the President the power to shut down the border, went far enough.

On May 9, Biden announced new proposals to assess migrants at an initial asylum screening stage, instead of during the interview stage. This would allow some percentage of asylum seekers to be turned away by officers at the border much faster than under current rules, so long as the officers deem the asylum seeker a national security or public safety risk. As Maanvi Singh wrote in The Guardian, “The proposed rule that was released on Thursday would only affect about 2 to 3% of asylum seekers, by the administration’s estimation, based on historical data. It also aims to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.”

While this change might reduce wait times at the border on the margin, it undermines long standing asylum norms, and is also unlikely to satisfy anyone in Washington, including some in the Democratic Party, who want more stringent action, including executive action to fix what they call a ‘broken immigration system.’

 

Waiting outside asylum

Curiously, border encounters have already been dropping this year, mildly appeasing those even within his own party who want stronger deterrence measures. In December 2023, there were 46,919 border encounters of Venezuelans but only 16,492 in March 2024, according to CBP figures. Before border hawks celebrate a slow rate of arrival as the result of punitive policies, it’s important to understand that at least some of the slowed arrival rate is because migrants haven’t stopped trying to get to the US, they’re simply stuck elsewhere.

When migrants do get to the U.S./Mexico border, they are stuck waiting for slow processing at legal entry points. Should the migrants get caught up immigration enforcement in Mexico, they may end up deported south, out of the country. Venezuelans bottlenecked in Mexico are stuck navigating the slow waiting times to secure an appointment via the CBP One app. This initiative, designed to incentivize entry at legal ports of entry along the US-Mexico border rather than crossing the border illegally, needs to process arrivals faster to more compassionately usher asylum seekers and migrants into the legal immigration process. When it works properly, the scheme allows migrants to enter the US while they wait for their immigration cases to be heard. When it does not, it leaves people vulnerable.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, this wait “impermissibly limits the right to seek asylum for many people and compels them to wait in foreseeably dangerous and inhumane conditions in Mexico.” Appointments can sometimes take weeks or months to get. Many Venezuelans, often with few financial resources, often sleep in the streets or rely on overflowing migrant shelters, becoming easy targets for criminal groups. There have been disturbing tales of kidnappings, robberies and sex trafficking by criminal groups using the migration crisis for lucrative financial gains. The Washington Office on Latin America, a group that promotes human rights in the region, has recommended ramping up the number of CBP appointments and ‘urgent walk ups,’ at ports of entry as well as more asylum officers immigration judges.

Beyond issues with processing, current US policy also depends on Mexico to help the crackdown on migration, with disturbing results. Checkpoints and patrols have surged throughout the country, and police are sending migrants on buses heading southwards, or demanding exorbitant bribes for letting them pass. Mexico and the US have also recently agreed on further steps to crackdown on illegal migration, including stricter measures at railways, buses and airports. “The teamwork is paying off,” John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, told the press in April. Migrants now say it’s Mexico, not the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous stretch of jungle spanning the Colombia-Panama border, that they fear most.

 

Through the sky legally

Expanding legal pathways to enter the US could help reduce the risks for Venezuelans considering traversing the Darien and then Mexico. A humanitarian parole program, where Venezuelans – and Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans – are eligible for entry to the US if they find a sponsor and arrive by air, offered hope for many Venezuelans when it was introduced in 2022. By the end of February 2024, 94,000 Venezuelans had arrived in the US through this scheme. But for those with no links to the US, finding sponsors is a challenge.

For those already in the US, ensuring they can be financially independent helps them live more dignified lives. The Temporary Protection Status (TPS) policy, which was offered to some Venezuelans in 2021 and extended to almost half a million in September 2023, enables Venezuelans to support themselves while waiting for their immigration cases to be heard. Although it doesn’t give full residency or citizenship, it enables migrants to be self-sufficient, alleviating the squeeze on overflowing migrant shelters, reducing the financial strain on cities, and helping fill vacancies in sectors such as healthcare and construction.

Extending TPS even further would provide a way for more migrants to become financially independent and contribute to the US economy. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, estimated that the labor force is projected to grow by 5.2 million by 2033, mostly due to higher net migration. Because of this it estimates GDP will grow by about $7 trillion.

TPS has long been criticized by Donald Trump, saying it attracts more migrants. But past experience shows this is not the case. A 2022 study analyzing TPS designated countries of El Salvador and Honduras found it did not lead to increased unauthorized migration and actually reduced pressure on factors driving US-bound migration.

The study’s authors say money sent home in the form of remittances helps stem further migration flows. People receiving the money in Venezuela, or other South American countries where they are settled, can buy food, medicine and other basic necessities, disincentivizing them to leave. The study found remittances sent to TPS designated countries were substantially higher compared with those countries who didn’t have TPS and the scheme reduced both irregular migration, and asylum claims.

Migration is a story of humans uprooted from their lives, gambling that a long journey to somewhere else will be reward them with a more stable future than living in the precarious conditions that have come to mark their daily lives. The majority of Venezuelans aren’t arriving at the border because of ‘the American Dream,’ but due to an economic, political and humanitarian crisis in their home country that has propelled them to leave their homes, and in many cases their families. A compassionate approach to migration will let them arrive in the United States with a warm welcome, rather than razorwire.

Violence Has Already Shaped Mexico’s June 2 Election

Michael W. Chamberlin is a non-resident senior fellow at The Center for International Policy.

Mexico is gearing up for its general elections on June 2, a crucial event where over 20,000 public officials will be elected, spanning from the Senate and the House of Representatives to numerous governorships and municipalities, and even the Presidency of the Republic. Notably, this election marks the first time both leading contenders for the presidency are women. Regardless of which candidate wins, the results of the election have already been shaped by political violence. It will take courage as well as international support for non-violent means to reduce the outsized role of armed agents, be they criminal or military, over the country’s democratic future.

The electoral landscape unfolds against a grim backdrop of violence across many regions of the country. A report by the think tank Data Civica titled “Vote Between Bullets” highlights a staggering 1,833 incidents of threats, murders, armed attacks, disappearances, and kidnappings related to electoral activities between 2018 and April 29, 2024. As of May 10th, there is a toll of 63 persons linked to the electoral process killed, 32 of them candidates, according to Laboratorio Electoral, another Mexican think tank. This violence, orchestrated by organized crime groups, has sadly become a tool to sway election outcomes.

The statistics paint a harrowing picture. The year 2023 witnessed the highest toll of political-criminal violence, with 575 individuals and facilities targeted, closely followed by 2022 with 486 incidents. Since January 2024 alone, the toll includes 22 pre-candidates and candidates murdered, 14 facing threats, 4 suffering armed attacks, 8 enduring assaults, and 10 subjected to kidnappings. Shockingly, over 2,000 candidates—about 10% of the total—have withdrawn from their candidacies due to threats and violence, particularly at the local level.

The infiltration of organized crime into the political fabric of the nation not only jeopardizes freedom of choice at the ballot box but also raises profound concerns about governance, the agendas that will prevail, and the vulnerability of citizens in the face of entrenched corruption and impunity.

It’s no secret that organized crime has burgeoned in Mexico, extending its grasp far beyond drug trafficking to control a myriad of legal and illicit enterprises—from human trafficking to monopolizing markets for staples like chicken, avocado, and lemons—often through extortion. Over the past 15 years, the “war on drugs”, initially backed by the Merida Initiative, has inadvertently handed over vast swathes of territory to criminal groups, with an estimated 30% to 35% of Mexico’s territory under their control by 2021.

Simultaneously, the country has witnessed a surge in militarization, initially aimed at combating drug cartels but gradually expanding to encompass diverse spheres including public security, environmental protection, social policies, health, customs, and infrastructure development.

A damning report titled “The National Inventory of the Militarized” reveals that between 2006 and 2023, civil functions or budgets were transferred to the armed forces on at least 291 occasions, with the Legislative Branch presenting 87 initiatives contributing to militarization, 77% of which surfaced in the last two legislative sessions dominated by the ruling Morena party.

This relentless militarization, stretching across three different administrations, underscores a concerning trend where the influence of the armed forces and organized crime transcends political boundaries, undermining the civil authority of the Republic.

So, what hangs in the balance come election time?

In the immediate future, there’s a looming threat of escalated violence potentially jeopardizing elections across nearly 30% of the country’s territory—a concern highlighted by the opposition coalition. In the long run, there’s a risk of eroding Mexico’s civil and democratic governance. Despite not being direct contenders in the elections, both the armed forces and organized crime wield considerable influence over the outcomes.

The failed anti-drug policies have inadvertently bolstered the political and economic clout of both these entities, with thousands of lives lost or wasted. Official figures from 2006 to 2022 paint a grim picture: 449,329 intentional homicides and 316,816 missing persons, of which 116,300 remain unaccounted for.

The enabling factors behind this surge in lethal power, whether on the military or criminal fronts, stem from the rampant corruption within the political elite, the prevailing culture of impunity shielding wrongdoers, and a dire lack of transparency and accountability across military ranks, political parties, and elected representatives, blurring the borders between state and non-state actors, criminal and governing bodies. Far from firing missiles at Mexico, the battle against organized crime must be waged using the tools of democracy and justice; guns have only fueled further violence.

If the United States aims to champion democracy and freedoms globally, it must actively support the strengthening of civil institutions and checks and balances within Mexico. Failure to do so risks empowering an already formidable transnational monster, fed through corruption by security assistance programs.

The Israeli War on Gaza: Post-War Scenarios

Omar Shaban is CIP’s inaugural Leahy Fellow for Human Rights and Security. He is also the founder of PalThink for Strategic Studies, an independent Gaza-based think tank with no political affiliation.

The attack of October 7th 2023 was a pivotal event at the local and international levels, ushering in a new era in the life of the Palestinian people and relations with  the conflict with the Israeli occupation. For the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel was subjected to a surprise attack by militants belonging to armed organizations, not an organized army, who broke through the border and reached about 14 small towns in southern Israel, inflicting a number of Israeli and foreign civilian and military casualties, and kidnapped and held hostage dozens of civilians, military personnel and non-Israeli foreigners.

The Hamas-Jihadist attack came as a shocking surprise to everyone, Israel, the world, the Palestinian people, and a large part of the leadership and members of Hamas itself and Palestinian society in general, because there were no indications of the possibility of such an event taking place. A few hours after the attack, Israel launched its war on the Gaza Strip in general and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in particular. This war, which is still going on for the 205th day as of this writing, is one in which Israel used all means of killing, destruction, death, and starvation, amounting to genocide, with a case submitted to the International Criminal Court by the State of South Africa.

The Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and the War Cabinet set goals for the war: 1), to free the hostages held in the Gaza Strip, and 2), to eliminate Hamas’ military capabilities, and undermine the regime it runs in the Gaza Strip, and 3) ensure that Gaza will not pose a future threat to Israel’s security.  These objectives, if realized, will necessarily produce radical changes in Gaza’s system of governance, and their effects will be long-lasting. Research and policy analysis centers have been studying the concepts and scenarios of the results of this war and what it will entail in the short, medium, and long term. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has referred to the battle in Gaza as the second war of independence for the State of Israel,  just as the Palestinian Nakba was the first war of independence, and the term “the day after the war on the Gaza Strip” is commonly used by Israeli politicians as a term that refers to transcending the presence of Hamas in the future of the Gaza Strip.

However, the Israeli government, represented by its leaders or the War Cabinet, was unable to present a clear vision for this future, although they expressed some features of it in the context of the military campaign, such as Israeli ministers declaring repeatedly that they do not want UNRWA, the Palestinian National Authority, or Fatah to participate in the future of Gaza. These Israeli goals partially intersected with the US vision of dealing with the war on Gaza, which was represented in the vision of US Secretary of State Blinken: First, defeating Hamas and rejecting a role for it as part of Gaza’s future, second: the US refusal to displace the population of Gaza, and third, the refusal of Israel permanently reoccupying Gaza. Talking about the day after the war became one of the most important results of the convergence of the desire to defeat Hamas. While recognizing that the answer to the question “What comes the day after the war?” carries with it divergent views: the United States wants to see a Palestinian National Authority with radical reforms in the Gaza Strip, while Israel opposes the presence of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and does not want to see unity within the Palestinian political system.

 

The day after the war: Possible scenarios

This paper attempts to anticipate the future by examining possible scenarios for managing the Gaza Strip after the end of the war and analyzing the possibilities and obstacles of each scenario.

Before reviewing these scenarios, it should be noted that the question of the day after the war on Gaza has become an important question to be answered by Israel after the failure of the plan to deport the residents of the Gaza Strip to Egypt. Israel tried to gain Western sympathy in the first days of the war to pass the plan to deport Gaza residents, but this plan failed because of Arab and international rejection, especially from Egypt, which firmly refused to open its territory, in addition to the resistance of the residents of Gaza and their refusal to be deported again. Netanyahu and the Israeli War Cabinet went on to destroy all forms of life in the Gaza Strip by targeting all the basic elements of life, such as water, energy, and sanitation networks, shelling hospitals, schools, churches, and mosques, in addition to turning to rubble all government offices, residential towers and hundreds of thousands of housing units as well as refusing to allow in fuel and rationing food and medical aid, in an attempt to submit life in Gaza to the power of death. Interestingly, it is the US administration that has taken the initiative to develop scenarios to manage the governance of the Gaza Strip after the war.

Blinken’s multiple visits to the region during the first months of the war came within the framework of presenting scenarios for governing the Gaza Strip after the end of the war, as the US administration identifies with Israel’s goal and continues to support by all means its war against the Palestinian people in Gaza. In his meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Jordan, the US Secretary of State put forward the idea of managing the Gaza Strip through a joint Arab force, a proposal that was rejected by the foreign ministers. This prompted him to visit President Mahmoud Abbas and present the proposal to him, which Abbas conditionally accepted the governance and management of the Gaza Strip but only within a political process that leads to a Palestinian state according to international legitimacy resolutions, which Israel certainly rejects. In light of these changes, the Israeli war on Gaza opened the door wide for all possible scenarios for managing the governance of the Gaza Strip, and some of the possible scenarios are as follows:

 

1- Hamas containment scenario

This scenario assumes that the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip will not intentionally or effectively succeed in eliminating Hamas, but the continuous Israeli pressure on Hamas using all means of war, including killing, destruction, starvation, and humiliation, will push it to make fundamental concessions that affect the foundations and principles of the movement. These concessions include recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing violence, and accepting a political-negotiating approach. The movement may then have the opportunity to survive, preserve what remains of its capabilities, participate in governing the Strip, and engage in its reconstruction on new political bases. If Israel succeeds in achieving this, it will have completely domesticated the Palestinian situation.

In a recent statement by the Hamas leadership, Khalil al-Haya said:  Hamas is ready to abandon the military approach and give up weapons if a Palestinian state is approved.

Arguably, this most recent Hamas position represents a radical change from its previous positions.

Getting Hamas to abandon its military program is the strategic goal that Israel is trying to achieve in this war, and if it succeeds, it will have won. This would mean Hamas entering the path of compromise and abandoning the armed struggle, which is the same scenario the PLO had in 1982, after Israel invaded Beirut and PLO forces and its head at the time, Yasser Arafat, left the country. Israel would have succeeded in maintaining the separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank and keeping the Palestinian political divide intact, thus not having to respond to international and regional calls for the need to open a political track for the conflict that ends with a two-state solution. This scenario also guarantees Israel freedom of security and military action in the Gaza Strip, including raids, arrests, and suppression of any Palestinian resistance, without an actual military presence on the ground. This scenario has strong prospects because it is consistent with Israel’s traditional policy toward Hamas since it took control of the Strip in 2007, which is a policy of mowing the grass rather than eliminating it. There has been a change in the stated goal of the Israeli war on Gaza from eliminating Hamas and overthrowing its rule to destroying the group’s military capabilities and preventing it from repeating the October 7th attack. A report published by Al Jazeera lists the opinions of some Israeli experts that Hamas will remain in Gaza the day after the war and that any authority cannot fill the vacuum, and must participate in the civil affairs of Gazans. The realization of this scenario depends on the results of the ongoing battle on the ground, how and when it ends, and whether Hamas will be able to survive and realize some achievements that enable it to possess some power cards.

Influential parties, such as Qatar and Turkey in particular, may contribute to convincing the movement’s leadership abroad to accept this scenario, but this scenario would cause Hamas to lose the support and allegiance of the resistance forces such as Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. This approach will greatly affect the future of Hamas, especially in front of its supporters and in its ideological stance against Israel, and may lead to a partial collapse and a split in the movement, in addition to the major rift that may occur with other resistance factions such as Islamic Jihad, and the axis of resistance (Hezbollah and Iran). This scenario will also find strong opposition from some Arab parties such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which prefer Hamas to disappear from the scene and its integration into the Palestinian political system, as they are at odds with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

2- Interim international, regional and local supervision of the Gaza Strip

This scenario assumes that after the end of the war, and to fill the vacuum that may arise as a result of the collapse of the regime in the Gaza Strip, influential powers (USA, the European Union, Arab countries influential in the Palestinian case, Egypt and Jordan in particular) may be forced to form an Arab and international force with the participation of local representatives from Gaza to manage the Strip. This entity will manage the reconstruction process and supervise sectors such as education and health and may be supported by an external military force to maintain security, such as a UN peacekeeping force.

This scenario is very much on the table, as Arab countries have announced their readiness to send troops to the Gaza Strip to contribute to its security. The realization of this scenario is mainly linked to Israel’s success in achieving all of its goals and effectively eliminating Hamas and weakening it to the point where it cannot resist. The resistance factions have announced their rejection of this proposal. This scenario, even if it is on the table, requires a legitimate cover from the Arab League or the United Nations as well as acceptance by the Palestinian Authority, which may see this scenario as a transgression against it, especially in light of the legitimacy of Palestinian representation in the PLO and questions over the roles the Arab participants wish to play in the Gaza Strip, especially since they may not be eager to engage in the quagmire of the Gaza Strip in the absence of a permanent political solution. Under this scenario, the PA would not be able to extend its control from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. Over time and as the situation evolves, its presence in the West Bank would be eliminated by moving its center to the Gaza Strip, or by replacing it entirely with another authority in the Gaza Strip. The outcome of this path could be the realization of a two-state solution by establishing a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, which could enjoy certain aspects of sovereignty. The price for this would be to keep the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank suspended and separate from that of the Gaza Strip, while keeping hope aflame, in line with a step-by-step policy, that the fate of that area will be dealt with in the future. Of course, land annexation, Judaization, and settlement will continue until Israel ends up swallowing the entire West Bank, including Jerusalem.

 

3- The scenario of returning the authority to the Gaza Strip

This scenario requires Israel to agree to enable the Palestinian National Authority to reorganize itself in the Gaza Strip, including security control over the Strip, which may require recruiting local elements, bringing in forces from the West Bank or diaspora refugee camps, or containing the existing security forces in the Gaza Strip according to new security principles and doctrine. The PA favors this scenario, as it has already prepared itself for it after Prime Minister Mohammed Ishtia resigned and President Abbas appointed Mohammed Mustafa to form a new government, predominantly from experts and technocrats, in response to repeated calls from the European Union and the United States for the reforming of the PA. This scenario requires Palestinians to build genuine Palestinian reconciliation, form a national technocratic government that would be tasked with rebuilding the Gaza Strip under international auspices, curb Israel’s aggressive policies, establish Palestinian elections, and introduce political reforms in the structure of the political system to prevent the escalation of the conflict and unify the Palestinian decision in time of peace and war, paving the way for a political path in the future.

The Israeli government announced earlier that it would not allow a Fatahistan state in the Gaza Strip, as this scenario would force Israel to go through a comprehensive political process that would eventually lead to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, a change in Israel’s attitude toward the PA has become evident with secret meetings held between influential Palestinian security figures and Israel. Given these changes in Israeli attitudes, it is worth considering the price Israel will demand from the PA for allowing it to administer the Gaza Strip after the war, which will be in the context of completing Israel’s mission to eliminate pockets of resistance and prevent them from being armed.

However, if this scenario is the most likely to happen, then the survival of Hamas as an active part of the Palestinian political system depends on three factors. The first factor is the acceptance of Hamas to fully integrate into the structure of the political system, abandon dependence on the resistance axis, and abide by the PLO agreements, without requiring it to explicitly recognize the State of Israel. The second is the extent of the international community’s enthusiasm to accept the presence of Hamas in the Palestinian political system the day after the war. And the third factor is Fatah’s acceptance of Hamas in the political system after its defeat and declining strength, as undoubtedly Fatah views Hamas as a political rival that has repeatedly presented itself as an alternative.

 

4- Scenario of the return of the Israeli civil administration to the Gaza Strip

This scenario assumes that the Israeli military will remain present – permanently or temporarily – in the Gaza Strip the day after the war. This scenario is imposed in specific parts of the Gaza Strip, such as the northern area, Gaza City, and even the center of the Strip, without being applied in the southern area of the Strip, which includes the governorates of Deir al-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah. If so, it will require re-establishing the civil administration in the same fashion the occupation forces used to run the Gaza Strip before withdrawing from it in 1994 under the Oslo Accord. Under this scenario, the occupation forces would provide services to the residents of the Gaza Strip, and the army and Shin Bet would take over the security management of the Gaza Strip. This scenario will also push the Israeli army to strengthen measures it has already put in place, such as what is known as the logistics road linking Israel and Gaza City, which has become like the border of the buffer zone between northern and southern Gaza. This road is equipped with two military posts on the Gaza shore and near Salah al-Din Street, with both posts equipped with air-conditioned rooms and sleeping quarters for soldiers similar to those in the West Bank. In addition, the establishment of the port in an area south of Gaza City indicates that the measures taken are not for the short term but may remain effective in the long term.

This scenario requires the complete elimination of Hamas’s power in the Gaza Strip, especially in Gaza City and northern Gaza. In any case, Israel has considerable experience in civilian administration of PNA areas, and so it will not start from scratch, especially with its tendency in recent years to deploy mobile apps that directly address Palestinian citizens and facilitate communication with them, such as the “Coordinator’s App.” However, the cost of this option is very high for Israel, both in human and financial capital, especially given the deteriorating living conditions of citizens in the Gaza Strip after the war, the cost of reconstruction, and its assumption of full responsibility for providing services to citizens as the occupying power and its need to manage popular resistance and Palestinian and regional rejection of occupation. This option would make Israel the occupier of all Palestinian territories, a return to the pre-Oslo era, and would mean the end of the two-state solution. This scenario was rejected by the United States and Europe, which clearly demanded that Israel not remain in the Gaza Strip and that the PNA return to it. In mid-February 2024, Blinken announced the US rejection of any “new occupation” of Gaza after the end of the war, in response to Netanyahu’s announcement of a plan for after the end of the ongoing war in the Strip.

 

5- Restoring village ties with Israeli military rule

This scenario is based on the formation of a group of Palestinian local administrations made up of family, tribal, and community figures to manage the life affairs of Palestinian citizens in their areas of influence and cooperate with the international community in the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, while the issue of security remains in the hands of the Israeli army. This would be similar to the administrative formations established by Israel in 1978 to manage the Palestinian areas in the West Bank and create an alternative leadership to the PLO that is locally acceptable. It should be noted here that since November 2023, the occupation forces have begun communicating with tribal figures to explore the prospects of managing the Gaza Strip through local collaborators working at this stage to manage the humanitarian aid file. However, the occupation forces did not achieve any breakthrough in this regard as of the time of the writing of this paper, in light of a public refusal to cooperate with the occupation. The Gaza Mukhtars Association announced their refusal to cooperate with the Israeli war government to manage the affairs of the Gaza Strip. Gaza’s tribes and families announced their rejection of the Israeli proposal through an official statement titled: “We refuse to be an alternative to any political system.” Hamas also rejected this scenario, calling Israel’s attempt to communicate with Gaza’s mukhtars and clans “a betrayal that we will not allow.” This scenario is difficult to realize for two reasons; first, Israel will not find acceptable family or local figures in the Gaza Strip with influence and tribal respect that would accept to play this role, as it is a national betrayal, in addition to the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries in the region rejecting it, not to mention that it would fuel popular resistance in the Gaza Strip against it. This scenario has been proven to fail in the past when Israel tried to form village associations in the West Bank as an alternative to the Palestinian leadership.

 

6- Egyptian management of the Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip represents strategic depth for Egypt, which administered the Gaza Strip from 1948 until June 1967, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt may have to play this role to fill any vacuum that may arise as a result of Hamas’s military defeat and the fear that extremist terrorist forces will fill this vacuum, as Egypt has bitter experience in the war against terrorism in Sinai, whose borders are connected to the southern Gaza Strip. Egypt would not necessarily administer the Gaza Strip directly but could do so by expanding the influence of the Egyptian intelligence service in the Gaza Strip, as it is currently doing in eastern Libya, which is controlled by General Khalifa Haftar without an actual Egyptian administration. This means that Egypt may view the border that Israel is trying to impose in the northern Gaza Strip through what is known as Route 749 as the border of its national security area, similar to the Sirte-Jufra line, which Egypt set up in 2020 and declared it to be its area of influence and a red line for its national security.

Although this option is unattractive from the Egyptian point of view at the moment, important factors may push it to consider this scenario in one form or another. These are: (1) Egypt’s national security, (2) the desire to benefit from the gas fields in the Gaza Strip, where Egypt, represented by the Egyptian Gas Holding Company (EGAS), previously signed an agreement with the Palestinian National Authority to develop the Marin Gaza gas field, and (3) Egypt’s desire to manage the reconstruction process and benefit from contracts for large-scale infrastructure rehabilitation operations expected to be launched after the war on Gaza. On the Palestinian side in particular, Hamas may view Egypt’s management of the Gaza Strip as a way to preserve itself from completely disappearing as a result of the occupation of the Gaza Strip. However, this scenario would not be welcomed by the Palestinian Authority, which considers the Gaza Strip an essential part of the territory of the Palestinian state, giving it the exclusive right to govern the Strip.

 

A perspective on what Gazans aspire to the day after the war

In reviewing the various scenarios for the situation in the Gaza Strip the day after the end of the war, it is important to take into account what the Gazans themselves, the first and foremost stakeholders in this context, aspire and expect. After the end of the war, civilians in the Gaza Strip look for a future of peace and prosperity. The wars and escalations of the past 17 years have cast a bloody shadow on the daily lives of the population, and the people of Gaza are steadfast in their desire to end the cycle of violence and build a bright future for the next generations. The Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip are demanding an end to the war and a Palestinian leadership capable of bringing peace and stability to civilians, promoting reconstruction, and implementing development projects that restore the health system, food security, job opportunities, and freedom of travel, demands they have been making since the imposition of the blockade on the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

The humanitarian crises in the Gaza Strip are threatening the lives of hundreds of civilians, in addition to the scourge of the war, which has destroyed the economic life and future of thousands of young people. People in the Gaza Strip aspire to restore the democracy they have been deprived of since 2007 by holding parliamentary, presidential, and university council elections. On the tenth anniversary of the division in 2017, PalThink published an open letter signed by 52 NGOs calling on the Palestinian government to hold local government elections in the Gaza Strip.

This would lead to a phase of stability and development with a unified and youthful Palestinian political system, working with all available means to achieve political and development goals and build a better future for all. This was emphasized in the research paper published by MIFTAH in 2021, which included the following: civil society organizations affirm their position that local elections must be held in accordance with the requirements of the law, and believe that there is still time for the government, political forces and parties to stop the first phase and not to fragment the elections and hold them on one day and in all governorates.

Gazans also aspire to begin the process of rebuilding what was destroyed by the multiple wars, which caused a significant deterioration in all economic and social indicators.  The citizens of the Gaza Strip realize that the years of siege and multiple wars have not achieved any political goal for the Palestinian people, but rather have been a huge burden on them and an obstacle to the realization of the Palestinian national project. It is worth mentioning here that the preparations for the legislative elections that were scheduled for May 2021 witnessed the submission of 36 electoral lists to participate in the elections, 26 of which were formed by young people who are not known and are not from the traditional Palestinian political system. The residents of the Gaza Strip are part of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and since the division and the suspension of the nascent democratic process, they have not stopped demanding an end to this division and the holding of elections.

The citizens of the Gaza Strip believe that the best and only scenario for them is to be under an elected Palestinian national leadership that represents them and works to achieve their goals and aspirations.

 

Conclusion

It may be easy to start a war, but it is not easy to end it, and it is even more difficult to decide the day after. This is true of Israel’s seven-month war on the Gaza Strip. At the beginning of the war, the objectives were clear, as announced by the Israeli War Cabinet, but as time passes these objectives seem less clear and unfulfilled. Hamas has not been completely defeated, the hostages have not been freed, and the population of Gaza has not been abandoned. The ambiguity of how to end the war and decide the next day stems from the fact that most proposals are “wishful thinking” and are out of touch with reality. The October 7th offensive was indeed a pivotal event that can be said to mark a new historical era in the life of the Palestinian people, an era that is currently being termed “the day after the war on Gaza.” This term has become synonymous with the unknown future of Gaza, not only from the Palestinian perspective but also from the Israeli and regional perspectives, as positions within the Israeli government, as well as within the War Cabinet, diverged towards the future of Gaza. This means that discussing the issue of the day after the war on Gaza may take us  to think about the future of the current Israeli government, whose possible fall would represent the fall of the Israeli extreme right-wing forces and the fall of Israeli proposals to displace the population of the Gaza Strip. It may also represent the fall of normalization proposals between some Arab countries and Israel without resolving the Palestinian issue. It can be said with confidence that the war on Gaza has not only destroyed the Gaza Strip but also dispelled political ideas and extremist proposals that some in Israel and the region thought were achievable.

Therefore, we must go to the most realistic scenario, one that is most consistent with the principles of international law and legitimacy. It is a scenario that is based on ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and enabling the Palestinians to restore unity and decide on the form of the political system they want and the way to achieve it freely and without external interference. The war on the Gaza Strip, with all the killing and destruction it has caused, must provide a historic opportunity to start a new path towards a landmark settlement that ends the century-old conflict and achieves stability and peace in the Middle East.

This story originally appeared at Arab Reform Initiative on April 30, 2024.

New Insensitive Munitions may pose lingering toxic threat

Hanna Homestead is the Director of the Climate and Militarism Program at the Center for International Policy.

In February, the Washington Post reported the story of Hind Rajab, a six year old Palestinian child who spent the last three hours of her life trapped in a car with seven dead members of her family, pleading for help. The family was following evacuation orders from the Israeli military when their car was targeted. An ambulance was then dispatched to rescue Hind with permission from Israeli authorities. Despite being clearly marked as a medical transport vehicle, radioing its location, and following the approved route provided by the Israeli military, the paramedics came under heavy fire. Further investigation by the Post found the destruction of the ambulance was “consistent with the use of a round fired by Israeli tanks, according to six munitions experts.” The fragment of a US-made 120mm tank-fired round was reportedly found near the charred vehicle, which had a visible foot-wide hole consistent with the exit of a tank projectile.

Given nearly two weeks had elapsed before it was safe to investigate the scene, experts could not definitively verify the fragment was directly involved in the strike. However, satellite imagery proved that Israeli tanks capable of firing 120mm rounds were in the area when the attack on the ambulance occurred. In December, the Biden Administration bypassed Congress – a highly controversial move – to approve the transfer of nearly 14,000 anti-tank 120mm MPAT rounds to Israel despite evidence of ongoing, indiscriminate, and systematic targeting of civilians.

The transfer of US-made explosive weapons, including 120mm MPAT rounds, 155mm artillery shells, and Mark-84 unguided bombs are playing a central role in the Israeli government’s genocidal efforts to “make Gaza uninhabitable,” resulting in Hind’s death as well as more than 30,000 civilians over the last six months. Even spent, the remains of the round poses a toxic risk. Explosive weapons contain chemicals and heavy metals that contaminate water and soil for generations, fueling displacement and food and economic insecurity that threatens regional and geopolitical stability. Both the detonation and production of explosive weapons contribute to severe and long-lasting-environmental contamination, resulting in direct deaths and civilian harm that continues long after the explosions occur. Recent Pentagon efforts to make munitions “safer” for military personnel not only downplay, but threaten to exacerbate these widespread toxic legacies.

Munitions, made in America

Within the US, the production of explosive weapons has resulted in massive amounts of pollution and ecological destruction. There are currently more than 40,000 military sites across US states and territories that are contaminated with toxic military waste and legacy explosives, creating significant and cascading public health challenges. The DoD has already spent more than $40 billion attempting to clean them up, and recent estimates by the Government Accountability Office found the DoD faces at least $91 billion in future environmental liability costs. Historically-marginalized populations are particularly at risk of harm from toxic contamination. Superfund sites are more likely to exist in low-income areas, and are correlated with lower life expectancy in the surrounding communities.

The US is currently in the process of ramping up explosive munitions production to continue arms transfers and to replenish depleted domestic weapons stockpiles after significant amounts of defense equipment were transferred to Ukraine and Israel over the last two years. Not only are production rates increasing significantly, but the DoD is transitioning from producing larger-caliber munitions containing legacy energetic materials (explosives, nominally TNT and RDX) to those made with “insensitive” high explosives (IHE), also referred to as insensitive munitions (IM). Insensitive munitions are designed to be less reactive to stimuli and therefore safer to transport and store, an understandable goal when stockpiling explosives. This function is perceived to be both necessary and advantageous by the DoD and members of Congress interested in producing a larger war reserve to avoid future stockpile depletion.

In December 2023, defense giant BAE Systems was awarded a DoD contract worth $8.8 billion to produce the insensitive high explosive IMX-101 to be used as a “safe and effective” replacement for TNT in new artillery rounds. IMX-101 is the main explosive fill used in new 155mm M795 projectile production – currently one of the most highly sought-after munitions – replacing the legacy 155mm M107 projectile. While the development of IMX-101 has been in the pipeline for decades, the increased demand for ammunition from Ukraine and Israel, as well as competition to modernize vis a vis China, has spurred Congress to “expedite” testing and oversight to hasten the production of weapons made with IHE.

While offering functional advantages, the full impact of insensitive munitions on human and ecological health is not yet known, and what data is available raises concerns. Experts infer that some of the chemical compositions of IHE are likely to differ considerably from legacy explosives in their properties, and “therefore, also in their effect and behavior in the environment.” Yet, the DoD maintains there is limited information in the literature regarding human toxicity and adverse health effects due to exposure to insensitive explosives, including IMX-101. It is also unclear how environmental assessments and data on IHE that do exist are evaluated or incorporated into ongoing IM manufacturing, training, and operational planning. While IM weapons have been described as a way the military can “have [its] cake and eat it, too,” a closer look at the development of the 155mm M795 projectile made with IMX-101 raises a number of concerns.

IMX-101 appeared on the scene in 2010, after being named one of “The 50 Best Inventions of 2010” by TIME Magazine for its promise to replace TNT as a “less dangerous explosive.” Early testing of IMX-101 weapons was fast-tracked from what’s typically a five-year test period to two, and did not include comprehensive assessments of the ecological toxicology of the compound or its residues resulting from its production or operational use. Qualification testing of 155mm projectiles made with IMX-101 generally focused on the weapon’s performance, showcasing how IM projectiles can withstand various catalysts while maintaining lethality when deployed as intended. The results were published along with DoD assurances that “IMX-101 and its ingredients were found to be less toxic than RDX and the IMX-101 detonation products were calculated to be benign.” However, research conducted at the DoD’s Picatinny Arsenal used to certify the low-risk profile of IMX-101 shells has since been retracted due to inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the data. The original DoD 2009 study (no longer publicly available) indicated over 99.99% of all energetic material was destroyed during detonation, signifying the munition did not pose a contamination risk.

Eight years later, subsequent field experiments funded by the DoD Environmental Restoration Program demonstrated that in fact, over 30% of some energetic compounds remain after detonation – meaning the IM shell poses a significantly higher risk of environmental contamination than originally reported. Further DoD research has shown IM munitions deposit more residues than legacy explosives. These residues can persist in the environment for long periods of time following detonation, as research has indicated “the half-life of munition particles was estimated to range between 66 and 228 years for IMX-101.” A revised 2019 toxicology assessment of IMX-101 released by the US Army Public Health Center also points to a number of primary adverse health and reproductive effects on animal and plant life following exposure to IMX-101 compounds and recommends further testing, noting the DoD’s lack of comprehensive and long-term studies on IMX’s human and ecological toxicity. Numerous researchers have since published findings on the toxic effects of IMX-101 and its degraded residues – including their potential to have greater contamination risks than TNT or RDX.

Additionally, while research shows the “dud” rates for IM munitions do not differ significantly from legacy explosives, the DoD’s Defense Systems Analysis Center has indicated the disposal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) made with IHE, like IMX-101, may require up to 400% more explosives than legacy munitions given their “insensitive” characteristic. This carries significant implications for post-conflict remediation of unexploded ordnance and pollution of military testing sites. UXO must be removed and detonated, otherwise they degrade and leak poison indefinitely, irreversibly contaminating soil and groundwater.

The challenge of UXO removal is of particular concern in Gaza due Israel’s excessive bombing in urban settings, where munitions experts say there is a higher rate of failed detonation. The use of IMX-101 munitions, including the thousands of 155mm M795 projectiles the US is currently supplying to Israel, has the potential to significantly increase the cost of environmental remediation which is already expected to require tens of billions of dollars and take many years to complete. Environmental justice, including the remediation of ecological damage caused by Israel’s heavy bombardment and ongoing siege, will be critical to the safe return of displaced Palestinians to Gaza and to lasting regional peace.

Despite mounting evidence of the need for greater oversight over insensitive munitions modernization, Congress has continued to loosen the reins. The FY 2024 NDAA passed in December established a new Joint Energetics Transition Office within the DoD to “expedite testing, evaluation, and acquisition” of “new” energetic materials. Military personnel in charge of procurement report they have “a lot of freedom to maneuver now” due to the new programs Congress has authorized.

Aftermathematics

The expedited approval and production of new insensitive munitions without adequate understanding, transparency, or planning in regard to their toxicity or long-term contamination risks comes as research is revealing the extensive impact of legacy RDX and TNT contamination on human health and the environment. For decades, the DoD fought against environmental oversight, claiming “environmental cleanups would come at the expense of the safety of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

According to ProPublica reporting, when the US went to war in Iraq in 2003, top Pentagon officials led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attempted to shield the DoD from nearly all environmental oversight measures to preserve “readiness.” Though these efforts failed, throughout the following years the Pentagon sought to undermine accountability for pollution caused by weapons production, including funding and publishing studies downplaying the health and ecological risks of producing legacy explosives. Today’s focus on weapon’s modernization at the expense of adequate environmental testing sounds eerily familiar. In addition to expediting IMX-101 production, the FY2024 NDAA included authorization for the Pentagon to test warheads and propellants using the insensitive energetic material CL20, despite a 2007 DoD study indicating CL-20 residues likely pose a significant toxic ecological risk.

Efforts to clean up contamination caused by legacy weapon’s production and testing are currently underway within the United States, thanks to the persistent organizing of frontline communities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced an additional $1 billion in new Superfund program funding, which includes military sites. Other types of military-related pollution such as radiation exposure due to nuclear weapons development and testing and PFAS contamination are also being recognized as serious public health concerns. Veterans who were exposed to toxic substances from burn pits, which include UXO disposal, are finally being provided with health benefits after decades of denied claims. While much more still needs to be done domestically, there are currently no legal requirements to address toxic legacies of war abroad caused by US weapons that are deployed directly by US troops or transferred abroad. Americans rarely have insights into the devastating and destabilizing long-term effects these weapons have on foreign populations.

The DoD procurement decisions being made today will have long-term, global impacts. Congress must realistically assess the risks of IM procurement and deployment in order to make an accurate judgment on if the marginal tactical advantages outweigh the human, moral, geopolitical, and financial costs of ecological destruction. Further, Congress should take proactive steps to ensure the comprehensive health effects are accurately assessed and publicly disclosed. The production of IM munitions must not continue the destructive history of legacy explosive contaminants – which will impact affected communities in the US and internationally for decades, and potentially permanently. Congressional oversight is especially important now as the Supreme Court is likely to overturn Chevron deference this year, limiting the EPA’s ability to regulate and mitigate pollution harms.

The US also has a terrible track record in regard to remediating environmental war contamination.

Given that available data show that insensitive munitions may be more difficult, expensive, and environmentally harmful to dispose of (potentially requiring 400% more explosives to detonate), Congress should ensure this information is incorporated and budgeted for in post-conflict remediation planning. Considering the US Army’s poor history with UXO disposal via burn pits in the past, Congress should ensure that the Pentagon plans for IMX UXOs before deployment and adopts principles for assisting victims of toxic remnants of war into their operating policies. This matters immediately, from the first responders making perilous rescue runs the moment the guns are silenced. And it matters long term, as bomb disposal crews clean up and people return to make a life out of the rubble.

For too long, the true human and ecological costs of war have been excluded from foreign policy discourse. Weapons are ultimately made for one purpose: to kill. “Insensitive” munitions are no different; their use inevitably contributes to the destruction of each other’s children, our communities, and the biodiversity of our earth on which all life depends. The toxic ecological effects of these weapons must not be regarded as externalities or secondary to their battlefield functionality; environmental contamination negatively impacts conditions for long-term peace and global security and should be included in a realistic accounting of the costs of war. Ultimately, the best way to avoid these horrors – from mass death to environmental degradation to unexploded ordnance – is for policymakers to abide by and uphold human rights, and commit to resolving political disputes through diplomatic means.

To defeat oligarchy, Ukraine needs strong labor protections. The US can help.

Vladyslav Starodubtsev is a Ukrainian social-democratic, human rights, and social activist and historian of Central and Eastern Europe and Ukrainian left-wing movements.

Every Ukrainian government since independence in 1991 has shared the goal of implementing austerity. In pursuit of an economy organized by neo-Thatcherite principles, each successive government has sought to limit the social and labor rights of Ukrainians. From the Russian invasion in 2014, this has meant prioritizing the oligarchy’s sectoral interests and anti-social business practices over promoting social cohesion and national unity.

Ukrainian labor was already under attack before the 2022 invasion. A 2020 report by the US State Department on the state of human rights, including labor rights in Ukraine, mentioned acts of violence against trade unionists as well as pressure against workers who were acting against corruption in their workplace. In addition, State reported discrimination in the workplace; lack of worker safety and undermining the safety regulations; dangerous work conditions; and delays in payment of wages (essentially a “theft” of wages).

Still, only since Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine has the full extent of the consequences of such policies become clear. One can see overworked nurses toiling in hospitals that lack capacities and equipment, facing a huge number of wounded while understaffed and underpaid, for often no more than 130-150 dollars a month – well below the $175 monthly minimum wage (and earning at most a maximum of 300 dollars/month). Construction workers labor without proper safety standards, working under constant threat of rocket and drone strikes. At the same time, the government has implemented tax cuts for businesses, and further benefited employers at the expense of workers by easing the process of firing an employee. All of this came at the moment when stability for most people became non-existent.

Ukraine’s labor standards were already worsening before February 2022, but instead of easing the burdens on workers and capital equally in the face of the war, labor standards have instead been actively degraded by new laws.

Capital Gains

In March 2022 the least balanced labor law in Ukraine since independence, Law 2136, came into effect. It allowed employers to fire workers without the consent of trade unions and during sick leave. It became possible to increase the work week to 60 hours, and the inviolability of the right to pay was abolished. Employers were able to dismiss employees due to disagreements regarding the continuation of work under new working conditions without waiting for 2 months.The biggest imbalance was caused by the procedure for suspending employment contracts, which employers abused, putting employees on the edge of survival with impunity

Law 2136 also canceled holidays during wartime. This could be justified under some circumstances, but in effect, labor bore the brunt of the hardships, while employers were largely unaffected. Before the full-scale invasion, if work could not continue due to objective factors, workers were able to receive compensation while finding a new job, allowing them to find a better job without compromising their dignity by immediately accepting worse employment.

Under the new law, employers could stop employment contracts without firing an employee and without paying them. This meant that people could no longer register as unemployed while finding work and therefore could not get unemployment benefits. This has not always worked out to the employers’ benefit, though it often does. Since Law 2136’s introduction, in some cases courts sided with employees if an employer did not specify a reason for stopping work.

Law 2136 also introduced the possibility of moving workers onto 1-hour working days, with proportional lowering of wages. If employees disagree, they could be fired without any compensation. Employers were only required to provide 2 days of notice before implementing such decisions, thus depriving them of the possibility to save money or find alternative employment.

With Law 2136, Ukraine enabled employers to avoid paying maternity leave, compensation for pregnant workers, and other benefits.

In July 2022, the Law on Simplifying the Regulation of Labor Relations (Law 2434) was adopted. It introduced parts of the Civil Codex into the labor Codex, providing further opportunities to undermine the labor Codex by allowing looser contracts between employees and employers. The main “innovation” of this law was the introduction of the possibility of firing workers easily.

In August 2022, the Ukrainian government introduced Law 2421, one of the worst-regulated laws on zero-hour contracts in the world. Precarious work, which elsewhere increasingly trends towards greater regulation, is instead becoming even more precarious in Ukraine. Law 2421 establishes zero-hour contracts without any additional security for workers agreeing to such a precarious arrangement. Employers can enter into collective labor agreements with no obligation to provide employees with work, but can offer it as they need. Payment is made only for completed work. After receiving an offer from an employer, an employee must accept it within the terms established by the contract and start work; in case of refusal, they may face disciplinary action. If the duration of work is less than 32 hours per month, the monthly salary is paid for 32 working hours. In effect, the law practically cancels the requirements for a minimum wage.

The new law introduces the possibility of calling an employee at any time and forcing disciplinary action if an employee doesn’t respond. It introduces the possibility of paying less than a minimum wage for work, as well as the possibility of overtime work without compensation. This law undermines the right to private life and poses severe threats to the mental health and well-being of employees.

In its latest statement, the second biggest trade union of Ukraine directly calls the new labor Codex (planned to be accepted in 2024) that the government is now working on, “enslavement.” The statement reads; “Enslavement of employees is foreseen, and employers are given the right to apply overtime hours almost without restrictions (at their discretion).”

Labor Struggles

Even after this attack on labor rights, Ukrainian labor security formally could be seen as at least comparatively average. But in reality, this could not be further from the truth, as the law has power to protect workers only when it is enforced. Undermining workers’ rights illegally is now an incredibly widespread and normalized practice, one aided by the government’s introduction of a moratorium on labor inspections.

The International Labor Organization has concluded, drawing on the examples of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, that any moratorium on labor inspections “would substantially undermine the inherent functioning of the labor inspection system” and that to adhere to the norms of labor regulations, “the Government [should] take prompt measures to ensure that labor inspectors are empowered to make visits to workplaces liable to inspection without previous notice and to undertake labor inspections as often and as thoroughly as is necessary to ensure the effective application of the legal provisions.” 

In 2023 labor inspections were reintroduced under the pressure of the EU, but with severe limitations that effectively undermine inspections.

These new labor standards were not in any way communicated with the population, and did not receive adequate debate or discussion before adoption. Most people are not well educated on labor law, and the country lacks a strong pool of labor lawyers who can educate and empower workers to find weaknesses in the law and defend their rights.

While it has become somewhat difficult to criticize Ukraine’s government during wartime, the same criticisms have long been made by Ukrainian trade unions, preceding the war: the country is in dire need of a good system of inspections and labor security to enforce standards of labor law.

Furthermore, there has been a constant effort to nationalize trade union property, pursuing the legal argument that trade union property in the USSR was the property of the state and thus, after more than 30 years of independence, it should be inherited by the Ukrainian state, which is viewed as the successor to the Ukrainian SSR, not by trade unions. This argument is used as both an instrument of intimidation to achieve trade union loyalty and as a tool to undermine trade unions’ means for realizing their role in civil society.

In 2022, the government introduced a number of reforms that severely and disproportionately weakened Ukrainian labor rights. Meanwhile, capital has seen its privileges expand, damaging the social contract between workers and businesses by fully siding with business. Tripartism between the state, capital, and labor is practically no more.

None of these reforms helped the economy. They also weakened the human potential, well-being, and physical and mental state of employees, as well as artificially creating highly precarious conditions.

The lack of jobs and extremely low, and usually not-enforceable, minimum wage, which sometimes was ignored outright – even some state enterprises have jobs with less than the $175 monthly minimum wage, with some employees earning only $150 – worsens the situation on the labor market, since fewer qualified workers want to work in Ukraine at a time when the Ukrainian labor market faces serious shortages.

New labor laws have weakened trade unions, thus limiting the voice of civil society and weakening social dialogue between different social groups. This lack of communication also has an economic effect, since cooperation between labor and capital is weak, as is motivation. This lowers productivity and flexibility.

A huge number of workers are working in the shadows. Tax police ignore the problem, and the government tries to normalize this state of affairs. These anti-labor reforms also strengthen the shadow sector, as official employment no longer provides sufficient guarantees. Meanwhile, the government does little to force business out of “the shadow economy.”

Mobilization efforts are hampered by inequality and the refusal of the government to make capital to pay their fair, equal share, together with labor. New labor laws, while rhetorically trying to “move away” from the Soviet legacy, have retained the mindset towards labor inherited from the USSR: a denial of the value and dignity of employees.

Solidarity and the US

How can the US help Ukrainians to limit the harms of oligarchy and regressive reforms, while providing social security for workers ?

In light of such reforms, which are made only for pursuing very narrow sectoral interests instead of the common good, one should understand Ukrainian society and group interests as diverse and complex. We still, unfortunately, retain the strong influence of the old Soviet elite, which became the Ukrainian oligarchy, and we suffer from Thatcherite-like reforms that created a new group of powerful and unchecked influences on politics and the economy. At the same time, Ukraine has a robust civil society, the largest part of which is made up of trade-unions. There are a great number of problems that need to be tackled to ensure basic fairness and justice, which is even more important in the context of full-scale war. Society should feel connected, united, strong, and not undermined and divided by social, political and economic conditions.

Biden’s foreign policy towards Ukraine can be understood in a number of ways. Despite modest beginnings, there have been steady improvements. I expect that this tendency will continue if Biden wins another term. This is the case especially with labor rights, where we hope to see the US taking a greater role in protecting Ukrainian labor.

In 2022, the American Federation of Teachers sent a letter to Secretary Blinken, asking him to look into the Ukrainians government’s actions to undermine the Ukrainian trade union movement and limit worker’s rights. The letter states: “Overall, these new laws, if signed by President Zelensky, will eliminate most collective bargaining rights, reduce worker protections, and allow the state to confiscate property owned by unions and currently used to shelter war refugees.”

The letter was made after a call for solidarity by Ukrainian trade unions against attacks on workers’ rights when they couldn’t be defended, as people were fully concentrated on winning the war.

The AFL-CIO also provided strong backing for Ukrainian trade unions and made sure that Ukrainian trade union voices were heard. It raised awareness in the US government and motivated the adoption of policies to act on Ukrainian society’s demands.

In 2023, Julie Su, the US acting Secretary of Labor, organized a meeting with Ukrainian medical workers to highlight the issues that they are facing, during which Ukrainians discussed the horrible labor conditions in the country.

Some US grants came with conditions that targeted the strengthening of labor, and USAID actively finances trade union events and organizations focused on the promotion of labor rights, such as Labor Initiatives.

The US constantly provides support for the Ukrainian government’s social spending. To make sure that this money would be spent beneficially to the majority of Ukrainians, the US set limitations to the categories on which money could be spent. This is despite the Ukrainian government’s Ministry of Social Policies (which also deals with labor related questions) policy to introduce as many social cuts as possible. This policy was described explicitly: “destroy all social.” The mentioned motivation was to promote the “self-sufficiency” of internally displaced people and others facing extreme pressure so they wouldn’t “get used” to government help. This plan was extensively criticized by Ukrainian social policy researchers.

Active sabotage by some officials and downplaying of the role of the trade unions undermines the majority of Ukrainian society, which in turn produces corruption, unchecked power, lack of stability, and poverty for the majority of Ukrainians. The question of winning the war thus becomes a question of organizing an equal share of responsibility, feeling of community, and common solidarity, which is incompatible with the pursuit of the sectoral economic interests of a powerful few at the cost of the rest of Ukrainian society.

What should be done?

While US policymakers have made efforts to help Ukrainian labor, these efforts are often undermined. For example, medical workers had praised a US grant of $1.25 billion for wages to state-employed workers, but voiced concern with real allocations, especially after Ukraine’s cabinet authorized wage cuts for these same workers. This is just one example where US help has been allocated to help labor, but is subsequently misspent by government schemes or solely allocated for higher management, which already enjoys relatively high wages by Ukrainian standards.

To answer that problem, the US needs to change its priority from securing Ukrainian labor through the help of the government to a multiplicity approach that recognizes the conflicting interests of different parts of Ukrainian society. This might mean helping the national government in one regard while helping the trade unions and local government in others, sometimes, even at the expense of national government interests.

I call that approach poly-archic: recognizing different groups, their positions and roles in society, and the goals that they can achieve. In that sense, the Ukrainian government has a strong pro-oligarchic bias but has a talent for organization of military production and guiding construction efforts. It should be supported in achieving those goals, and trade unions and labor should be supported for the goals of fighting poverty, better social cohesion, tripartism and, importantly, for the effort to battle corruption and oligarchic influence in the political sense: limiting possibilities for unchecked government actions, promotion of group interests; and rigorously controlling government actions towards labor.

Diversifying funds and other means of help towards different agents in Ukrainian society could be a great benefit. Such diversification will strengthen democracy and human rights, promote deliberation, stabilize Ukrainian society, make it more resilient, and indirectly strengthen the Ukrainian war effort. All of this while making the Ukrainian government more transparent and effective.

This is important not only in Ukraine but also in the US. It can create dialogue and cooperation between US trade unions and the US government, combining the skills and knowledge of both to provide strong common support for Ukrainian labor.

With that said, Ukrainian labor will need  substantial international support  to help contain trade union inefficiencies and corruption where those exist. This is a cheap investment, from a financial standpoint, that can boost anti-corruption, democratic, and anti-poverty efforts dramatically.

Conditions for financial aid in terms of labor security could also be stronger. Together with empowering trade unions, it could be enough to help Ukrainians pressure their government when it engages in wrongdoings. Minimum demands would need to include a fair minimum wage, security from firing, promoting social-oriented practices of business, and the introduction of pro-active labor inspection.

Implementing new, even modest, measures towards empowering labor and civil society as a whole will improve democracy and political participation, social cohesion and Ukraine’s economic growth. Ukraine’s victory will be that much closer if Ukrainian labor has a strong voice.

How to pitch the International Policy Journal

The work of the International Policy Journal is to imagine better futures and better solutions to the shared challenges of cohabitating the earth with other countries, with other peoples.

Here we hope to foster a lively discourse about the how and the what of better futures. As outlined by our publisher at the Center for International Policy, the work is designed to provoke a needed paradigm shift in thinking about the US role in the world. That perspective must be internationalist. While the base unit of foreign policy remains the nation, we know that the challenges of the world are bigger than any one nation, and that the needs of the people on this planet transcend the constraints of borders and language.

The writers we publish will not always agree, nor would we want them to. We live, broadly, within the failures of consensus foreign policy, with leaders following paths of least resistance until we arrive decades deep into seemingly intractable problems. Plotting a way out of present messes and future problems does not require agreement, at least not at the stage of discourse. Thoughtful grappling with the complexity of global challenges is part of the process of progressive world-making. Instead of adhering to any one prescriptive doctrine, every writer published in these pages commits to take seriously the notion that different actions can lead to better futures. While we seek to provide a platform for these critical conversations, the views of our writers do not necessarily reflect the Center for International Policy’s positions.

Pitching Guide

At present, the Journal accepts pitches and runs stories at two different lengths.

Articles are between 750 and 1,000 words, about as long as an op-ed that might appear in a newspaper or online. Articles make one concise argument well. The journal will regularly publish pieces of this length, designed to be easily digested on a metro commute or in a couple minutes before a meeting starts. The rate for published stories of this length is $400.

Here are a few examples of published articles:

How Defending Ukraine Unearthed a Tool for Green Foreign Policy
Sanctu-Wary: protecting wildlife beyond protected areas
The Global South is fighting for a voice in global tax rules
Durable Peace Isn’t Possible Without Palestine

Features are around 3,000 words long. These pieces are designed to drive the conversation, and are published once or twice a month. These pieces can include reporting and original research, as well as well-argued and supported argumentation. The ideal reader is anyone, but especially those involved with the nuts and bolts of policy implementation or advocacy. The rate for published stories of this length is $1500.

Here are a few examples of published features:

Meet Me In The Backroom: Environmental NGOs & China/U.S. Climate Cooperation
Counter-terror turned the Sahel into a coup-belt. U.S. policy in the region should move on.
Abandoning Disarmament Means Embracing Proliferation

Most successful pitches are a few sentences in length, demonstrating both an understanding of the topic and the ability to describe it concisely.  In your pitch, tell me:

•The one sentence pitch idea
•The problem in foreign policy this solves
•Why it is important
•What you’re suggesting as a change
•How this change is different from what is presently being done about the problem.

Accepted pitches will be subject to editing from CIP staff, including but not limited to the Chief Editor. This is intended as a collaborative process, designed so that the best version of the work can be refined through productive back-and-forth.

A Note On Topics

Topics should cover at least some aspect of foreign policy, and area for interaction between governments or peoples spanning borders. Because stories at the Journal are expected to start from policy as-is, many pitches will invariably want to talk about militaries, especially the US military, as a policy tool. Changing the scope, parameters, funding, and role of militaries is indeed part of foreign policy, and should be in the conversation. Expanding the role of the US military, or the Intelligence Community, or broadly any other part of the national security state, is a position that already has plenty of advocates in Washington, DC, and a pitch to that end will likely find a better home elsewhere.

The goal of the International Policy Journal is to expand who is writing about foreign policy, redefine how we talk about security, shift foreign policy beyond just the actions of governments to each other, include accountability and anti-corruption work, and to identify barriers to peaceful solutions or other options beyond militarism.

Ready to pitch?

Submit a pitch – no more than a couple sentences — to [email protected], with the topic in the subject line. Include expected length of piece. For our Summer Issue, to be published from May through July, pitch here.

In the top half of the image, a hemisphere globe shows the navies of China and the United States shouting at each other across the Pacific Ocean. (Tiny F-35s are pictured on an aircraft carrier). This hemisphere rests on top of a table, and beneath it lots of people can be seen talking, working together, and collaborating on projects like renewable energy, in stark contrast to the tensions above.

AI and Israel’s Dystopian Promise of War without Responsibility

Khaldoun Khelil is an energy and international security scholar with over 20 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and served as the Energy and Security Scholar at the Middle East Institute. He writes on culture, politics, technology, and games.

As Israel has executed its assault on Gaza, it has turned to new technology to facilitate the selection and ostensible legitimization of targets. The net effect is six months of horrors deployed against the people of Gaza. Among these tools facilitating the slaughter of Palestinians is a constellation of Artificial Intelligence programs that seemingly pick targets with little to no human oversight.

In November 2023, a multitude of publications, including the Guardian, +972 Magazine, and Al Jazeera, reported claims from the Israeli military that ramped up use of Artificial Intelligence facilitated its volume of attacks and destruction in Gaza. The program reported in November carries the grandiose name “the Gospel”; another program reported in April 2024 carries the innocuous name Lavender. The primary function of these algorithmic tools is reportedly to pick targets for Israel to blast apart with its US-supplied munitions. A former Israeli intelligence officer, speaking to +972 Magazine, described the Gospel AI as a “mass assassination factory.” The results can be seen in the incredibly high death toll in Gaza with over 33,000 Palestinians killed and at least 75,000 wounded by Israeli fire.

Prior to the use of AI tools, Israel would take up to a year to identify 50 targets in Gaza. Now with the assistance of the Gospel, Israel claims they produce 100 credible targets a day. Israel’s Lavender AI program reportedly marked an astounding 37,000 Palestinians for death as “suspected militants.”

This exponential leap in targeting is one factor explaining the unprecedented civilian death toll in Gaza inflicted by Israeli forces. Additional automated systems reported in +972, including one perversely called “Where’s Daddy?”, were used specifically to track targeted individuals and carry out bombings when they had entered their family’s residences, basically ensuring mass casualty events. In fact, Israel would purposefully use massive 2000-pound ‘dumb’ bombs on these targets if they were believed to be “junior” militants to cut down on the perceived expenses of using a guided munition. The Israelis were more concerned with the cost in bombs than the cost in civilian lives.

Targeting residences means accepting not just families as collateral damage in the strike, but also destroying residences, making them uninhabitable. Previous reporting also showed that Israeli forces termed high-rise residential buildings and critical infrastructure as “power targets” in the assumption that their destruction would demoralize Palestinian civilians.  As Yuvul Abraham reported regarding Gospel AI, “The bombing of power targets, according to intelligence sources who had first-hand experience with its application in Gaza in the past, is mainly intended to harm Palestinian civil society: to ‘create a shock’ that, among other things, will reverberate powerfully and ‘lead civilians to put pressure on Hamas,’ as one source put it.”

As with many other AI systems, Israel’s Gospel and Lavender are seemingly black boxes that spit out irreproducible results drawn from source material of varying reliability. While the same Israeli sources insist that Gospel’s targets are cleared through human hands, that is little comfort considering Gospel produces over 100 targets a day and a human reviewer would have no reliable way to penetrate the system’s black box to ascertain how a target was selected, nor incentive to do so. In Gaza, Israel is relying on AI systems to decide whom to kill, with humans being relegated to “rubber stamps” in the overall process.

The quantity of targets produced by Gospel alone would make any meaningful oversight daunting, but the nature of AI also means that the exact process by which Gospel chooses its targets can never be dissected or reproduced. In the case of Lavender AI, its targeting pronouncements against Palestinians were essentially treated as orders with “no requirement to independently check why the machine made that choice or to examine the raw intelligence data on which it is based.”

One of the few emerging international norms around AI in warfare is the concept of keeping a human at the heart of any decision to take a human life. In short, robots and algorithms should not be making the ultimate decision on whether a living breathing person is annihilated. Israel’s reckless implementation of AI in Gaza is undermining this norm before it has even had the chance to fully establish itself.

Was a target chosen because it best fit current military necessity? Or was it chosen because of a biased input or an unwillingness to uphold civilian protection norms? These questions potentially become unanswerable when Artificial Intelligence is being used so close to the end of a very violent decision tree. Even chat-based AI that has the seemingly straightforward task of parsing out Wikipedia information in conversational paragraphs sometimes “hallucinates,” creating fake facts to flesh out their stories. What assurances are there for commanders, soldiers, policy makers, and humanitarian observers that a targeting AI is not hallucinating the data on which it validates targets?

While fully autonomous fighting platforms are likely still many years off, the reality of AI software that can effectively sift through an avalanche of data to identify threats and opportunities is already here. In the US, the Biden administration has simultaneously released a “Political Declaration on Responsible Military Use of Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy” while allowing the US Army to move forward with Palantir’s Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN). While the declaration is a brief statement that calls upon endorsing nations to have a dialogue about the responsible use of AI, the TITAN project provides over $178 million to Palantir to develop a program that will integrate artificial intelligence with other technology being used by American ground forces. In a jargon-rich press release, TITAN promises to “rapidly process sensor data received from Space, High Altitude, Aerial and Terrestrial layers” and reduce “the sensor-to-shooter timeline.” Judging by the experience of Israel’s AI in target selection, reducing the “sensor-to-shooter” timeline can allow for attacking targets faster, but is absolutely no guarantee of ensuring the target is properly selected, or that the human evaluating target selection is anything more than a rubber stamp.

Israel’s Gospel AI places humans on the wrong end of the targeting process and significantly reduces our ability to judge if a specific bombing or missile strike was justified. We cannot truly peer within the Gospel’s “brain” as it’s a black box, though the datasets used to train AI are likely based on existing targeting data sets, and carry within them additional biases reproduced by machine learning algorithms. By giving these AI systems, such as Gospel and Lavender, the power to choose targets, Israel obscures who should be held to account as civilian deaths mount. Given the many credible accusations of war crimes against the Israeli military, this may be the most compelling feature of AI for them. As an IBM presentation slide succinctly stated in 1979, “A computer can never be held accountable, therefore a computer must never make management decisions.” When the decision to take a human life lies functionally with a computer program, systems like ‘Lavender’ and ‘Gospel’ shift responsibility, and thus accountability, to a machine that can never be meaningfully questioned, judged or punished.

US policymakers would be wise to look at Israel’s AI abetted and indiscriminate onslaught in Gaza as a warning. We may still be a long way off from fully autonomous targeting systems and true Artificial Intelligence making objective choices concerning life or death, but today a more insidious and stark reality already confronts us. The imperfect systems currently labeled as AI cannot be allowed to supplant real living decisionmakers when it comes to matters of life and death, especially when it comes to picking where and how to use some of the world’s deadliest weapons.

In Gaza we see an “indiscriminate” and “over the top” bombing campaign being actively rebranded by Israel as a technological step up, when in actuality there is currently no evidence that their so-called Gospel has produced results qualitatively better than those made by minds of flesh and blood. Instead, Israel’s AI has produced an endless list of targets with a decidedly lower threshold for civilian casualties. Human eyes and intelligence are demoted to rubber stamping a conveyor belt of targets as fast they can be bombed.

It’s a path that the US military and policy makers should not only be wary of treading, but should reject loudly and clearly. In the future we may develop technology worthy of the name Artificial Intelligence, but we are not there yet. Currently the only promise a system such as Gospel AI holds is the power to occlude responsibility, to allow blame to fall on the machine picking the victims instead of the mortals providing the data.

Israel’s Damascus airstrike was a deliberate provocation

Sina Toossi is a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for International Policy

On April 1st, an Israeli airstrike in Damascus dramatically escalated already simmering tensions between Israel and Iran. The operation led to the deaths of seven Iranians, including a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The target, according to Iran, was an official consulate building. However, Israel disputes this claim, which would be a violation of international law. Despite this, many countries and the United Nations have condemned the attacks on grounds that diplomatic facilities were targeted. Notably, even U.S. allies in the region, such as the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, expressed their disapproval.

In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed retribution, declaring that those responsible “will be punished by our brave men,” and that they will “regret this crime.” Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also indicated that Iran had sent an “important message” to the U.S. government, holding it accountable for supporting Israel’s actions. These developments suggest that Iran may be considering a substantial retaliation, which could include renewed actions against American forces in the region.

The Israeli airstrike occurs at a time when Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is grappling with a multitude of internal and external pressures. The war in Gaza has taken a severe toll on Israel’s societal fabric and economy. The military draft has drained the workforce, while the war’s ripple effects have contracted Israel’s GDP by an estimated 20 percent. Additionally, the government, already facing internal strife due to Netanyahu’s legal issues and public discontent, has been further strained by the fallout from failed hostage rescue operations and the loss of numerous hostages due to Israeli bombardments.

Adding to these internal challenges is Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation, exemplified by the UN Security Council’s demand for an immediate halt to military operations in Gaza. This call signifies a notable shift in the Biden administration’s approach, which is increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct.

Against this backdrop, Netanyahu’s decision to green-light the airstrike on Damascus seems to be a calculated act to amplify the hostilities. Such a move sharply contrasts with international appeals for restraint and indicates a deliberate escalation strategy.

Netanyahu seems to be aiming to provoke Iran and intensify the conflict to galvanize domestic and international political support and justify wider military actions, potentially in Rafah and against Hezbollah and Iran. This strategy risks drawing the United States deeper into the conflict, with potentially dire ramifications for regional stability.

The crucial issue now is Iran’s potential reaction.  A review of commentary from prominent Iranian analysts from across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum reveals two prevailing narratives: one perceives Israel’s actions as a deliberate provocation of war that Iran should respond to with restraint, while the other suggests that Israel is capitalizing on Iran’s typically restrained responses and that failing to react proportionately will only invite further escalations. The latter perspective is gaining momentum, with increasing calls for a decisive response to deter future Israeli aggression.

Iran’s potential responses to the Israeli airstrike include a wide range of actions, such as targeting Israeli interests in third countries, reciprocal attacks within Israel’s own borders or the Golan Heights, or escalating cyber warfare attacks. The consequences of Iran’s decision could profoundly affect the Middle East and beyond.

The U.S. response to Netanyahu’s actions is also crucial. President Biden is at a critical juncture where he can exert significant coercive pressure on Netanyahu to prevent an escalation in regional tensions. Despite his hesitations so far, it is more vital than ever that he takes decisive action now. Failure to act could exacerbate the situation, potentially leading to a regional conflict with severe repercussions for U.S. interests and which would inadvertently benefit U.S. great power rivals like Russia and China.

Given the current developments, it is crucial for the U.S. and other global powers to intensify their efforts towards de-escalation. The initial step in this process should involve applying pressure on Netanyahu to cease further military actions. This could be achieved through various means, including halting arms shipments, imposing economic sanctions, or advocating for international legal action against Israel.

The foremost priority in this situation remains securing a ceasefire agreement. Achieving this would require Netanyahu to compromise on what he previously termed as “delusional” demands by Hamas for a hostage exchange and an end to the war. Another vital aspect is preventing escalation along the Lebanon border, especially considering statements from Israeli officials like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant about their intent to increase “firepower” against Hezbollah.

Up until now, Iran has been striving to manage the level of regional violence to avert a full-scale war. Iran and its regional allies have been calibrating their actions to pressure the U.S. and Israel to end the Gaza war. Iran has dissuaded its allied militias in Iraq from firing missiles at American forces in the region, understanding that these are tripwire forces and attacking them would allow for hawks in Washington to push for war.

Nevertheless, Iran holds escalatory dominance, capable of commanding its allies to renew attacks on U.S. forces. The question now is whether the U.S. and Iran can prevent this from escalating into a wider war, which neither side wants but Netanyahu seems bent on for his own political survival. The aftermath of the Damascus strikes will serve as a significant test.