After several days of Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes, Israel on Wednesday sharply upped the ante by assassinating Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’ military chief in the strip. Jabari had been the movement’s point man in negotiating the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for freeing abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in late 2011. Israelis in the south of the country had been clamoring for action to stop rocket and mortar fire on their towns emanating from the Gaza Strip. “Anyone who thinks that he can harm the daily lives of southern residents and not pay a heavy price for it is mistaken,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
Hamas’ military wing vowed to go to war, warning that Israel had “opened the gates of hell.” Hamas militants are expected to retaliate with a fusillade of rockets in the coming days, possibly using some of the longer-range projectiles believed to be in their arsenal. Israel on Wednesday claimed to have destroyed some sites that contained Iranian-made Fajr missiles, believed to be able to reach major cities in central Israel. Those claims cannot yet be verified.
Is another Gaza War about to take place? The parallels with the 22-day conflict that began in late December 2008 are startling. Then, as now, an Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza started just as the U.S. was heading for a presidential inauguration and Israel was preparing for an election. The short, bloody war was costly for both sides: Hamas suffered hundreds of casualties and considerable infrastructure damage; and the opprobrium for the attack still attaches to the Jewish state. The landscape in late 2012, however, is different. The region has seen dramatic changes over the intervening four years that could make the trajectory of the latest escalation less predictable — not only for Israel and the U.S., but also for the likes of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. The cooperation of those three Muslim countries is key to Western objectives in the other factor to be considered these days: the civil war in Syria.
Why has Netanyahu taken the war to Hamas? According to Israeli media reports, the authorities in Israel know that Hamas had not been directly responsible for most of the rocket fire in recent months and that the Palestinian group’s authority is being challenged by more radical Salafist groups who have infiltrated from Egypt. However, the Israelis charge that Hamas is now tacitly cooperating with these groups and allowing them to stage attacks, cooperating and in some cases firing rockets of their own and openly claiming credit. A brief truce brokered by Egypt on Monday appeared to have collapsed, and prospects for mediation will have been darkened by Wednesday’s strikes. Instead, an escalation on both sides remains the more likely course, at least for some days before either is ready to call a halt.
The fighting comes at a sensitive political juncture for Israel and Hamas that may complicate the task of tamping down the violence. Israel’s voters go to the polls in January. Meanwhile, Hamas is currently engaged in the complex consultative process of choosing a new leader and politburo.
In Israel, Netanyahu has faced a clamor from his right flank to respond more forcefully to projectiles fired from Gaza, and he has made clear that he will stake his reelection effort on his credentials as custodian of Israel’s national security. Haaretz commentator Barak Ravid suggests that the slain Hamas commander Jabari will be the Osama Bin Laden of Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, drawing a parallel with the way in which the al-Qaeda leader’s killing was used by the Obama campaign in the U.S. to demonstrate the President’s steely resolve. Jabari had personified Israel’s humiliation in the Shalit abduction. And the operation in Gaza forces Netanyahu’s challengers to get behind the Prime Minister. The danger, of course, is that Israel doesn’t control Hamas’ response. “Within a few hours, rockets will start flying to Ashkelon, Ashdod, Be’er Sheva and maybe even to new destinations such as Rishon Letzion, Yavne and even Tel Aviv,” wrote Ravid, referring to Israeli towns and cities. “In such a case, Israel is likely to find itself for all intents and purposes in the midst of a war against the Gaza Strip.”
A repeat of the inconclusive 2008 invasion is unlikely to be what the preternaturally cautious Netanyahu has in mind. “The Israelis are not specifying an ambitious end game in terms of clearing out Hamas as [then-Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert did in 2008,” says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead, they’re talking about ‘reestablishing Israel’s deterrence’, which is a vaguely defined goal. You can claim success whenever you choose to.” Even then, precisely because Hamas has a say in the matter, Netanyahu may not necessarily be able to manage the escalation to his own specifications.
Hamas, meanwhile, has had to reconcile the pragmatic needs of governing in Gaza (which it has ruled since a rancorous split with Fatah in 2006) with those of being a resistance movement, and to navigate the regional political shifts of the past two years. The movement’s leadership is being contested by the Cairo-based Abu Musa Marzook and the Gaza-based prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. Marzook is part of the exiled leadership that has moved to reposition the movement as part of the regionally ascendant Islamist mainstream, breaking its alliance of convenience with Iran and taking advantage of the emergence of its parent organization, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, as the ruling party in Cairo. (Turkey and Qatar are more willing to strongly back a more pragmatic Hamas.) Haniyeh reflects the movement’s ethos in Gaza, where the outlook has been somewhat more hardline, and where its military wing has more influence than it does in exile. It also faces a constant challenge on the ground from the more radical Salafists eating into its base. So, while Hamas may have no interest in a sustained and destructive confrontation, it may find it politically challenging to avoid retaliating against Israel.
Preventing a cycle of escalation is that much more difficult today because the politics of the wider Middle East are in flux. Operation Cast Lead in late December 2008 was the beginning of a major rupture in relations with Israel’s longtime strategic ally Turkey. That country’s moderate Islamist government channeled public rage at the Israeli campaign. Hopes of repairing that relationship remain remote if the Gaza confrontation becomes a sustained one.
Nor can Israel rely, this time, on Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak serving as the wall at Hamas’ back in Gaza, tacitly supporting Israel’s efforts to break the grip of a movement aligned with his own Muslim Brotherhood nemesis. Egypt today is governed by leaders from Hamas’ parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is far more responsive to Egyptian public opinion which is innately hostile to Israeli military action in Gaza. Responding to the strikes, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party demanded “swift Arab and international action” to stop the Israeli attacks, warning that Israel to “take into account the changes in the Arab region and especially Egypt,” vowing that the new Egyptian government “will not allow the Palestinians to be subjected to Israeli aggression, as in the past.” Egypt is highly unlikely to respond in any way that contravenes the Camp David agreements, but has called for an economic boycott of Israel and summoned its ambassador back from Tel Aviv. Qatar, a key U.S. ally on Syria, has committed a half-billion dollars in reconstruction aid to Gaza, and is unlikely to take kindly to Israeli President Shimon Peres’ exhortation, in a speech Wednesday, to cut ties with Hamas.
Israel faces turmoil to its north, as well, with the 20-month old Syrian rebellion fomenting new tensions in Lebanon and unraveling Assad’s grip on power. Some Israeli military figures even suggest that Israel may find President Bashar Assad preferable to the insurgency ranged against him. And Jordan, the neighbor that shares the longest border with Israel and the territories it occupies, may be on the brink of a new season of political turmoil as the power base of the pro-Western Israel-friendly regime of King Abdullah appears in danger of serious erosion.
The Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, which serves as Israel’s indispensable security partner in the West Bank despite the moribund state of the peace process, is also teetering: In a desperate bid to restore his political relevance, Abbas has pressed ahead with a plan to seek partial U.N. recognition for Palestinian statehood in the General Assembly later this month — a move Israel’s foreign ministry advocates countering by “toppling” Abbas. But declining standards of living and the PA’s inability to protect Palestinians from the incursion of Israeli settlers threaten to ignite a new wave of confrontation in the West Bank, directed at both the Authority and at Israel.
So the differences in the regional context of today’s Gaza campaign may be more important than the similarities with the last one. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have taken a calculated risk in mounting a new Gaza operation in a far more challenging regional environment. The key question, as Israelis and Gazans brace for more violence, is whether Barak and Netanyahu can end it on their terms and timetable.