Gaza: One rocket away from another war

By J Brooks Spector 26 November 2012

It appears war in at least one quadrant of the Middle East has been averted  – at least for now. But, can the tenuous, only partially defined truce signed between Hamas and Israel evolve into a broader ceasefire or armistice, let alone a yet more comprehensive and lasting peace treaty? By J BROOKS SPECTOR. 

There were some very tense days when a major Israeli armoured invasion seemed about to be launched in response to rockets launched at the southern half of Israel from within Gaza that killed several and disrupted the lives of many hundreds of thousands. Gaza is a territory about half the size of New York City, with about 1.8 million people living in it. Gaza originally was to have been part of the Arab share of Palestine under the UN partition plan, prior to Israeli independence. Following Israel’s independence fighting, Egypt administered the territory until 1967, when it was occupied by Israel. The Israelis evacuated the territory in 2005 (including particularly tense moments when Israeli police forcibly evicted numbers of Israeli settlers in Gaza), but kept Gaza’s land and sea borders under tight restrictions after leaving the territory.

In the most recent hostilities, the Israelis had carried out an intense aerial bombardment to destroy the rocket launching sites, in response to those Hamas-launched rockets. However, the aerial attacks killed well over 100 people – mostly deaths described by the infelicitous phrase, “collateral damage”. There were six Israeli deaths during the attacks.

In the wake of the truce that was finally hammered out, some observers argue that Israel and its current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, Hamas, and the United States and the Obama administration were the winners – while Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah (and the Palestinian Authority) have lost out in this latest crisis. And until the most recent domestic crisis inside Egypt itself, President Morsi had also gained considerable stature from his exertions on behalf of this ceasefire.

As far as Israel is concerned, the country has obtained an actual agreement that is supposed to end the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel – and without Israel feeling impelled to carry out a ground invasion that would have undoubtedly generated casualties among its troops (as well as many more among the population in Gaza) – and resulting international disapproval. Moreover, having succeeded in gaining his minimum objective of ending the rockets, Netanyahu has helped his electoral chances in the election planned for early in 2013.

By threatening, but not actually carrying out, a major military movement, besides ending the rocket fire aimed at southern Israeli cities and towns, Netanyahu has avoided any serious US disapproval (and, in fact, quite the contrary). Moreover, in killing Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari on the first day of the fighting, Netanyahu’s re-election bid may even have been strengthened in some quarters by this semi-Osama-bin-Laden-style moment. Israel also seems to have scored an American commitment to help stop weapons smuggling into Gaza, presumably from Iran. Moreover, Netanyahu has also apparently managed to re-establish a positive relationship with the US president, despite his having all but campaigned for Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, during the recent US election. 

Within Israel’s domestic political scene, once the truce had been arranged, Netanyahu, defence minister Ehud Barak and Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, all joined together for a joint press conference to embrace the victory and congratulate everybody for getting to one of those yes-style moments. (Not to be outdone, however, after seeing that press conference, Hamas leader Khalid Meshal told reporters in Cairo that the Israeli leaders had looked rather glum and that he read their facial expressions as prima facie evidence they knew they had lost this particular battle.)

Regardless of Meshal’s semiotic moment, the three Israeli leaders said they had achieved their stated objectives of getting rid of Hamas’s stockpile of long-range rockets, even as Meshal countered that despite the force and power imbalance, they were ahead on points – they had been able to fire their rockets right up until the truce took hold – and that this time around they had managed to send off some of those long-range ones able to reach Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The Israeli leaders pre-emptively countered this by explaining how the Iron Dome anti-missile system (US made) has proved its worth, intercepting 400 of 500 rockets fired. Given its success, the system will be expanded countrywide. 

However, not everyone in Israel is completely happy with the truce – and this may yet have a bearing on the upcoming election, even if it holds. That puts pressure on Netanyahu from the even more rightward side of the political spectrum. There have already been demonstrations against the truce, with some insisting the Israel Defense Forces should have been allowed to “finish the job”.  In response to such mutterings, Netanyahu said, “I know that some of our citizens want more military action. And maybe we’ll still need it in the future” but now was the time “to give a ceasefire a chance” as a responsible statesman. 

Embarrassingly for Netanyahu and Lieberman, the country’s mass media eagerly started broadcasting soundbites from their earlier speeches after a previous Israel-Hamas ceasefire in 2009, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. Netanyahu had said then that Israel should have “destroyed the Hamas government” and he had pledged to do something in the election campaign back then. And Lieberman, meanwhile, had promised Israeli voters he wouldn’t serve in a government that negotiated with Hamas – however indirectly. This time around, Shaul Mofaz, chairman of Olmert’s Kadima party, plus a second key parliamentarian were arguing the ground invasion should have gone ahead.

To help head off criticism, Netanyahu has pointed to the backing Israel, and his government, had garnered from the US and other western nations for their decision to forgo the invasion route. As Netanyahu said, “We exercised our military might with political perspicacity”. Moreover, the three Israeli ministers praised Egypt’s president, Morsi, for his active role in achieving the ceasefire – just as did Hamas’s Meshal. The notably hardline figure, Avigdor Lieberman, added “that this augurs well for constructive cooperation in the future with Egypt… to reach stability in the region.” Meanwhile, Meshal praised Morsi for “not selling us out and not pressuring us.” Observers could almost be forgiven for seeing a very tiny moment of optimism in all this.

As for Hamas, while the people of Gaza took the brunt of the casualties, the Islamic militant group that now effectively is Gaza’s government has emerged with some sharply increased credibility and influence. As the fighting, and then the talking, went on, diplomats from Turkey and various Arab nations started showing up with increasing interest in Gaza. Effectively, Hamas had ended up an equal negotiating partner with the US and Israel, despite its having been labelled a terrorist group by both nations until now. As part of the truce, Hamas also gained commitments for somewhat freer movement of both people and goods in and out of the territory and into the Mediterranean Sea. On the military side of things, Hamas demonstrated an ability to send rockets as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, although without much in the way of effective targeting of specific spots. Overall, it emerged with its influence enhanced, especially with Gaza youth. 

Just after the truce came into effect, the Financial Times reporter in Gaza City, Tobias Buck, wrote, “In Gaza, they have been treating the end of the latest bloody clash between Israel and Hamas as a Palestinian victory. Of that they have no doubt. On Wednesday night, thousands celebrated spontaneously in the streets, minutes after the ceasefire announcement. On Thursday, declared a national holiday by the Gaza authorities, there were victory parades and rallies. On Friday, the midday prayers were dominated by declarations of victory, with some preachers drawing a line between the latest conflict and the Prophet Mohammed’s victory over the infidels.” 

Buck added: “The sense of triumph and elation came despite the loss of 162 Palestinian lives, the wounding of more than 1,000 and the destruction of hundreds of buildings. In conventional terms, Hamas’s military achievements were negligible: As in the past, Gaza-based militants fired barrages of rockets and missiles at Israel, but only few reached their intended targets. Six Israelis were killed by Palestinian fire – a relatively low figure given the intensity of the missile fire from Gaza. Yet Hamas leaders and ordinary Gazans alike insist that this conflict felt very different from Israel’s military onslaught four years ago. Not only did Israel this time stop short of a ground invasion, but the rocket squads of Gaza managed to fire missiles at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the commercial and political centres of Israel.”

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority may be the big losers. Abbas’s administration, after all, had lost any real control over Gaza to Hamas half a decade earlier. This time around, he and his group didn’t even have a chair at the negotiations. In contrast to Hamas’s public pushback against Israel, West Bank Palestinians may well begin to lose their patience with the Palestinian Authority regime for its so-far unsuccessful effort to inch forward to a negotiated solution to its many disagreements (small, large and existential) with Israel.

Initially at least, Egypt’s president also seemed to be a big winner from the truce. Morsi and his government successfully weathered the storm in mediating between two bitter enemies in the midst of missile and jet-launched rocket exchanges. In doing this, he managed to corral Hamas, even though neither Israel nor the US speaks with it, into the agreement. Moreover, by coming off as a successful negotiator, he had almost assured Egypt a place in the negotiations over the future of this conflict. That is, until Morsi also managed to incite serious opposition from much of the Egypt’s legal profession, as well as street demonstrations, with his unexpected assumption of what many are charging represent nearly dictatorial emergency powers.

As far as the US is concerned, meanwhile, this sudden upwelling of violence had come along just as the Obama administration was in the throes of giving a visible sign of its intention to “pivot” towards East Asia. This included the president’s unprecedented visit to Myanmar. But, the Mideast uproar made Secretary of State Clinton drop out of the East Asian effort and join in shuttle diplomacy to help cap the Israel-Gaza deal. In the process, however, there is a potential positive – or, rather, two of them. By cooperating with Morsi, the US and Egypt found a way to redirect their strained relationship in a positive manner. Moreover, by joining in an apparently successful Mideast peace programme, albeit a very small, very tentative one that is easily upset, the US managed to reinsert itself in the larger Mideast peace project, after the Obama administration had effectively backed away from the Arab-Israeli conflict for nearly four years.

But the thing of it is, any momentum towards a larger Mideast peace depends on factors beyond the power of Netanyahu, Meshal, Morsi, Abbas or Obama to control. The first of these is the totally intertwined nature of the region’s conflicts, fault-lines and tensions. For example, a struggle between Israel and Hamas is also just one more aspect to the deep tension between Israel and Iran – Hamas’s chief sponsor, armourer and promoter internationally. Concurrently, Hamas can be assumed to have more than an outsider’s interest in the outcome of the internal struggle for power in Syria, given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s close relationship with Iran. Meanwhile, Morsi’s leadership in Egypt is threatened by his grab for further powers inside Egypt with unpredictable effects on the larger Mideast picture.

And Condoleezza Rice sounded the neo-conservative tocsin in what has been labelled the weekend’s “must read” article. Rice argued that while Syria has been virtually ignored as everyone focused on Gaza, Syria’s descent into further chaos would bring further risks to the entire Mideastern applecart, thereby making any steps towards Arab-Israeli rapprochement even harder to achieve.

This past weekend as well, Tom Friedman, observing the dangers to any expansion of the tentative peace moment, wrote: “So, as you can see, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future of Egyptian democracy and the US-Israel-Arab struggle with Iran and Syria are now all intertwined. Smart, courageous leadership today could defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, advance Egyptian democracy and isolate the Iranian, Syrian and Hamas regimes. Weak or reckless leadership will empower all three. This is a big moment.”

And Yonah Bob, writing in the Jerusalem Post over the weekend, added: “Now that the eight-day conflict in Gaza has ended and a cease-fire is in place, how can Israel and the Palestinians avoid another round? Some would say the question itself is naïve and that we are stuck in an eternal war. Others would say we need incremental peace negotiations focused on borders first, and to address the thorniest problems sometime down the road.”

But even beyond the dangerous intertwined nature of Mideast issues, perhaps the biggest uncertainty would be the incalculable impact of one person’s unpredictable behaviour in all this. No one knew in advance that the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz-Ferdinand in 1914 would lead to a European cataclysm that killed tens of millions over four years of warfare. Similarly, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was made inevitable, but surely unpredictable, when one East German Volpos border guard declined to prevent Berliners from moving freely across the Brandenburg Gate crossing point, effectively ending the writ of the Soviet Union across the eastern half of Europe.

But similarly, too, it can all be undone again between Gaza and Israel, and then beyond. Back at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President Kennedy is supposed to have turned to his military advisors and told them to make absolutely certain everyone down the chain of command to the last able seaman knew exactly what was planned in the naval quarantine around Cuba, lest someone who hadn’t gotten the word do something that sparked an uncontrolled military confrontation.

Imagine for a moment a 16-year-old Hamas comrade, eager to exact revenge for the death of family members from Israeli air strikes, and who has access to the launch controls for one of the remaining Hamas missiles. (It is pretty hard to imagine Hamas’s C3 – command, coordination and control – systems are world class; and anger and testosterone is one very powerful behavioural enhancer – just ask any sports coach or small military unit commander.)

If this young man lights up that rocket and it crashes into an apartment block in Ashkelon, killing a dozen or so people getting ready for supper, Netanyahu, or anybody else in charge in Israel at that moment, is going to feel no choice but to retaliate with precision and with massive effect. Or, perhaps put the shoe on the other foot. One nervous tank commander, tired of seeing Arabs moving back and forth in and out of that 500m exclusion zone the Israelis have proclaimed between Gaza and Israel, sends off a warning shot that lands a little too close. Boom. It probably doesn’t matter how it might start, but, if it does once again, we may be off to the races but good this time around, with all dreams of that comprehensive peace literally up in smoke for a long time. Opportunity and danger go hand-in-hand on this one. DM

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Photo: Palestinian fishermen ride in fishing boats at Gaza Seaport in Gaza City November 25, 2012.  REUTERS/Mohammed Salem


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