Facing Hamas, Israel Rolls the Dice: Will There Be Another Gaza War?

A few parallels exist between Israel's current Gaza operation and the 22-day war that began in December 2008. But the Middle East is a much different place in late 2012, with the risks more complicated and the politics more charged.

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Ali Hassan / Reuters

Palestinians extinguish the fire after an Israeli air strike on a car carrying Hamas's military chief Ahmed Al-Jaabari in Gaza City, Nov. 14, 2012.

Updated

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.

22 comments
PesachAceman
PesachAceman

you are not very well informed     first hamas and their like want to kill Israelis, then Jews, then Christians and then non-bielieving Arabs    So you see it as a local conflict but man   wake up   it is a world wide thing and nothing to do with Jews, Christians or regular Arabs.  Mohammed the ?prophet wants everyone dead.    Hitler was the same and only got started with Jews, Gypsies etc and at the end it cost the lives of over 25 million people.   SO WAKE UP Buddy

mqurashi8
mqurashi8

Natanyahu needs conflict in order to win the next elections. Since his partnership with the right extreme party of his foreign minister, he needs to show that he is tough. It is no different than when Romney pretended to be a Pea Party enthusiast. As far as the the Palestinians are concerned, Israel and to some extent US has never shown concern for their welfare. Israel, by demolishing homes in the West Bank in order to build new illegal settlements, continues its policy of ethnic cleaning without a word of protest from those who have appointed themselves as the guadians of 'human rights'.    

1concerned
1concerned

I find the discussion of all parties missing the main point, survival of Israel.  This conflict is based on one idea, recognizing the existence of Israel by Hamas.  Once that is done, trade can really commence, which would benefit all parities.  Until that time, Israel has to be on the defensive to protect its citizens and borders at all cost.

rohal
rohal

This is nothing more than another opportunistic adventure pushed by Yahoo (Netanyahu) designed to take advantage of the current situation in the Middle East.  The Israeli government is committing further war crimes by killing women and children in the false name of "defense."  Their ultimate goal is to grab more terrirory to eventually annex.

Pre-emption is specifically excluded as legitimate defensive action in the UN Carter.  Israeli propaganda, and their backers in the US including sleazy crooks like Sheldon Adleson, just want to deny the existence of Palestinians and continue the existence of a state which was illegitametly created in 1948, and which has dragged down the perception of the US as an "honest broker" in the eyes of most of the world.

wearewideawake
wearewideawake like.author.displayName 1 Like

More parallels to Operation Cast Lead and USA:

During the 22 days of Israeli assault on Gaza, "Washington provided F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, tactical missiles, and a wide array of munitions, including white phosphorus and DIME. The weapons required for the Israeli assault was decided upon in June 2008, and the transfer of 1,000 bunker-buster GPS-guided Small Diameter Guided Bomb Units 39(GBU-39) were approved by Congress in September. The GBU 39 bombs were delivered to Israel in November (prior to any claims of Hamas cease fire violation!) for use in the initial air raids on Gaza. [1]During the 22 days of attack on Gaza, the UN Security Council, Amnesty International, International Red Cross, and global voices of protest rose up and demanded a ceasefire, but both houses of Congress overwhelmingly endorsed resolutions to support a continuation of Israel’s so called "self defense."

In November 2006, Father Manuel, the parish priest at the Latin Church and school in Gaza warned the world:

"Gaza cannot sleep! The people are suffering unbelievably. They are hungry, thirsty, have no electricity or clean water. They are suffering constant bombardments and sonic booms from low flying aircraft. They need food: bread and water. Children and babies are hungry...people have no money to buy food. The price of food has doubled and tripled due to the situation. We cannot drink water from the ground here as it is salty and not hygienic. People must buy water to drink. They have no income, no opportunities to get food and water from outside and no opportunities to secure money inside of Gaza. They have no hope....Without electricity children are afraid. No light at night. No oil or candles...Thirsty children are crying, afraid and desperate..."Many children have been violently thrown from their beds at night from the sonic booms. Many arms and legs have been broken. These planes fly low over Gaza and then reach the speed of sound. This shakes the ground and creates shock waves like an earthquake that causes people to be thrown from their bed. I, myself weigh 120 kilos and was almost thrown from mybed due to the shock wave produced by a low flying jet that made a sonic boom."Gaza cannot sleep...the cries of hungry children, the sullen faces of broken men and women who are just sitting in their hungry emptiness with no light, no hope, no love. These actions are War Crimes!"http://wearewideawake.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1523&Itemid=227

arvay
arvay like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

This is an act of desperation. 

Israel has no good options. America will not attack Iran. Israel cannot. Egypt is "lost." If Assad falls in Syria, the likely winner will be an Islamic leadership that will not exercise Assad's self-preserving caution. Hizbollah is alive, and well-armed. Turkey is hostile. Jordan is growing increasingly unstable. Obama won the election, and not by a squeaker. 

If the Gaza attacks escalate, Morsi may tear up the treaty and move military units into the Sinai. Certainly, his public will back him if he does.

The nation that has the real options here is the US.

Will be continue this losing bet and continue to back Israel? If we move to punish as state like Egypt -- forget any chance of mending relations with Muslim-majority nations in the region. We get increased hatred and perpetual war. We ready to fight more battles for a rogue nation that disrespects our president and entangle us in continued strife? These guys are still building settlements, thumbing their nose at the world and claiming Jerusalem as their capital. We signed up for that?

Time to come to our senses.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Why does the headline not read? "Israel AND Hamas roll the dice".

Oh! I forgot. Time writers have a bias against Israel.

TizzAlNabi
TizzAlNabi

First of all you forgot to mention that the individual assassinated was also responsible for firing an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, killing and injuring pupils. Second I find this analysis to be very cynical. What country would stand by and let terrorists fire thousands of missiles at civilian communities? What would the US do if Canada or Mexico started firing missiles into Israeli cities? I think that we all know the answer.

giraffe73
giraffe73 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@TizzAlNabi yes, and all of us stand by the country that brutally occupies and starves another ... but condemn when the other tries to break the bonds of bondage....

Kiwipolitico6
Kiwipolitico6 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

This latest retaliation against Hamas is all about the Israeli election early next year - Netanyahu's been criticised by the public and the right wing of his party for being too soft on Hamas and the rocket fire into Southern Israel, so he's trying to shore up his prospects by showing some serious muscle before the elections next year.  He's also trying to shut down any prospects of Abbas and the PA being successful in their bid for statehood at the UN - the vote for that is coming up quite soon.

Like some on here I feel very sorry for the Gazan civilian population, who don't support Hamas and the Islamic Jihad policy of attacking Israel with rockets, but get caught in the crossfire every time Israel retaliates.  However Israel has a right to defend itself, and not to have to put up with half its population living in fear of being bombed every night, and having to close schools and retreat to shelters every time a siren goes off.  As I see it there's only one long term solution to the escalation of violence, and that's for Israel to permanently overthrow Hamas and either retake control in Gaza, or install some kind of moderate transitional political authority there pending democratic elections. Hamas cannot be allowed to continue in power in Gaza, because even if they're not directly responsible for much of the rocket fire, they've shown that they can't or won't prevent other more militant groups attacking Israel from Gazan territory.

Sparrowdancer
Sparrowdancer like.author.displayName 1 Like

There can be no "war" for the simple reason that the people being held captive in Gaza are civilian refugees without the military power that the Israeli military has.  The so-called "Arab militants" have no tanks, no bulldozers, no planes, no gunboats and no intelligent rocket fire.  The only side that is armed to the hilt is the Israeli army, and they should be forever condemned for what they have done in Palestine. 

Zeen
Zeen

What do you mean "will there be"?  There is a war, Hamas has started it.  The only question is how far it will be escalated.  This will never end as long as he Arabs suffer no consequences for starting wars except a return to the status quo ante. Only when they suffer the full consequences, like the Germans and Japanese did, will there be peace.

KitBet
KitBet

@Zeen so you approve of what nazis did ! the same tactics and the same methods of ethnic cleansing ! be careful with what you say , do not justify what murderous nazis did ! 

mrxexon
mrxexon like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Zeen 

 I have no reservations in comparing zionist Israel with nazi Germany. Like nazism, zionism is based on racial  "purity". The movement was born in hungary a 100 years ago. Israel is the country they founded.

 It's no Jewish state. It's a zionist state and has been since day 1. The idea of zionism is you take away the land from the Arabs and build on it, thereby claiming it. What we are seeing today is the fruit of this labor and the opposition to it.

 The US has been suckered into supporting this apartheid society. Thanks largely to the presence of zionist Christians who don't understand the reality of modern day Israel. These white Jews from Europe and America have no claim upon this land. They're converts from a 1000 years ago. Not native semites, and certaintly not biblical Jews. REAL semites are related to Arabs, not white folk from northern Europe and Russia.

 These are modern day Pharisee who use the law to get their way. 

 Beware of those who call themselves Jews but are not...

x

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@mrxexon @Zeen Most countries are based on racial purity. The last I checked, America started out as mostly a White, Anglo-saxen country. Japan has high racial purity as does China, as does most countries in Africa, as does many, many other countries.

csangston
csangston

Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are...l

robcph
robcph like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Those crazy Israelis' with there 200 nukes just might make the Mayan prediction come true.

UsmanShahid
UsmanShahid like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Lets be serious; the Israeli Palestinian conflict is one of the greatest travesties of the modern age. Israel is a FULL fledged country receiving more military aid from the us then the entire continent of Africa receives in economic aid. Palestinians are a people with no airforce, no conventional military, over 50% are refugees. Because of misguided individuals in this country (evangelicals, right wing zionists) we are helping the extermination of a people without a real dialogue as to the morality of it, anyone who goes against Israel in the US is branded a lunatic. FACT the Israeli Lobby (not a pharmacetucial company or a tobacco company) is the largest lobby in the United States...is it not scary with a foreign government has the largest lobby in our government?

JoseGonzales
JoseGonzales like.author.displayName 1 Like

I suspected that as soon as the U.S. opened formal dialog with the Syrian opposition forces that Israel would make their move.  In the big plan, Israel needs Syria out of the way and now it looks like it will be.