Why a New Gaza War is Possible, But Unlikely

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In a conflict that has raged for 63 years, all violence can be termed “retaliation”. Israeli warplanes and tanks pound targets inside the densely populated Palestinian coastal enclave of Gaza in response to the dozens of rockets and mortars fired by militants over the past ten days; Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other smaller Palestinian factions fire rockets and mortars in the general direction of Israeli towns and kibbutzim citing the assassination of their fighters – 17 in the last month, one Hamas man told TIME this week. The first shots were fired so long ago that it’s usually the other side’s most recent ones that each side reaches for to explain their own.

But “retaliation”  offers a rationalization rather than an explanation for any outbreak of violence over the Israel-Gaza boundary fence. Even in exchanges of fire that both sides know they can’t “win” in any traditional sense of the term, Clausewitz’s logic still applies: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

So, while the logic of retaliation – not simply revenge, but deterrence through making the other side pay a price for the latest attack – always has the potential, as some Israeli commentators warn to spiral in into an escalation that both sides have good reason to avoid, right now, it’s the political calculations of the various players on both sides that will determine whether the advent of Spring will bring a new war in Gaza — or a relatively rapid return to the unwritten cease-fire arrangement that has prevailed since the last Israeli invasion of Gaza ended in February of 2009.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiance of Israel’s closest Western allies over ongoing construction of settlements on occupied territory has left Israel in its most diplomatically isolated position in two decades. Another major military operation along the lines  of the 2008/9 Operation Cast Lead — which, like that  one, would inevitably inflict heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side — is more likely to deepen that isolation than to break it. But Netanyahu’s domestic political rivals both on the right and the center of the spectrum are chiding him to respond with greater aggression, particularly after Wednesday’s terror attack in Jerusalem — which Israelis believe was not the work of Hamas — and Thursday’s Grad rocket attacks by Islamic Jihad that landed near the Israeli city of Ashdod.

Hoping to avoid another disastrous war in Gaza — for which Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has been agitating this week — left-wing Israeli analyst Dimi Reider
found himself unusually inclined to praise Netanyahu: “I still prefer a weak right-wing government that needs to prove it’s responsible to a strong centrist government that needs to prove it’s tough,” Reider told me. “Olmert and Livni would’ve been halfway through demolishing Gaza by now. But Bibi could still prove me wrong by the weekend, if people are actually killed by the rocket fire.”

For now, Netanyahu appears set on resisting domestic political pressure for escalation, vowing on Wednesday to act “assertively, responsibly and intelligently to preserve the quiet and security that has prevailed in the south over the last two years”.

The “quiet and security” of which he speaks, of course, relies on Hamas both refraining from mounting its own attacks, but also restraining rival factions such as Islamic Jihad from using Gaza to stage attacks. So, Netanyahu is in effect vowing to act responsibly to restore a de facto cease-fire with Hamas.

Curiously enough, some Israeli military correspondents put some of the blame for the recent escalation on their own side. Yediot Ahronot’s Alex Fishman, for example, said that while the IDF leadership’s insistence that it doesn’t want an escalation is negated by ongoing assassinations of key personnel on the other side: “A targeted killing is not just another step in an uncontrolled deteriorating spiral,” he wrote in Thursday’s Hebrew-language edition. “It is a clear evidence of a planned escalation.”

And Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff write in Haaretz that Hamas “actually has good reasons to believe that Israel is the one heating up the southern front. It began with a bombardment a few weeks ago that disrupted the transfer of a large amount of money from Egypt to the Gaza Strip, continued with the interrogation of engineer and Hamas member Dirar Abu Sisi in Israel [ed. note: Abu Sisi, the engineer in charge of the main electrical power station in Gaza, has been held in Israel after being abducted in Ukraine], and ended with last week’s bombing of a Hamas training base in which two Hamas militants were killed.”

They note that following the weekend fusillade, Hamas refrained from firing as Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday even after Israeli mortar fire accidentally killed four Palestinian civilians on Tuesday, and also that Hamas leaders in Gaza are trying to convince Islamic Jihad to stop their escalation — although meeting little success there, it seems, given Thursday’s Grad strikes.

Islamic Jihad, of course, is a more militant rival to Hamas, and is widely viewed as the Palestinian group closest to Iran. Their interests, of course, are not necessarily the same as those of Hamas.

There was a time when sudden spikes in attacks on Israel were deemed to be efforts to “derail the peace process”, but that train long ago ran out of track and ground to a halt. The political calculations in Gaza may be more domestic. It’s possible that Islamic Jihad, and perhaps some more militant members of Hamas, are leery of efforts to broker a Palestinian unity government agreement between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That’s an increasingly popular call coming from a protest movement, in both Gaza and the West Bank, inspired by the democratic rebellion sweeping the Arab world. But any such agreement would further constrain the ability of more militant elements to implement an independent strategic agenda. And a more democratically accountable Palestinian politics would also diminish the authority enjoyed by those responsible for running the armed wings of the various factions.

Some analysts even suggested that last weekend’s rocket fire resulted from an internal rift in the Hamas leadership over an invitation by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to President Abbas to visit Gaza, that was apparently issued without consulting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus. Even then, the fusillade of rocket fire was intended to be symbolic, rather than part of a Hamas plan to spark an escalation.

The problem, as Harel and Ischaroff note, is that while the main players have reason to avoid an escalation, they may not be able to entirely control it: “It seems Israel wants to strike the last blow in this round and then declare a halt,” they write. “The concern is that Islamic Jihad will refuse to play by Israel’s rules.”

And, as Reider notes, should the rocket fire from Gaza actually inflict casualties in Israel, Netanyahu’s political calculations would change. The deeper problem on the Gaza-Israel boundary is a political one, but it goes beyond domestic politics and cuts to the core of a 63-year-old conflict to which there is no military solution.


UPDATE: The International Crisis Group, for whose analyses I have the utmost respect, warns in an urgent briefing that despite the intention of both Hamas and the Israeli government to avoid an escalation, they could nonetheless find themselves carried along by its momentum in the context of the volatile regional situation. “Israelis’ anxiety is rising and with it the fear that outside parties might seek to provoke hostilities to divert attention from domestic problems and shift the focus back to Israel,” the ICG writes. “Hamas has been emboldened by regional events and is therefore less likely to back down from a challenge. The combination, as recent days have shown, has proven combustible.” And, they warn, the two sides appeared to be trying to avoid an escalation before the 2008 invasion, too: “As in the weeks preceding Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli attack on Gaza that commenced in December 2008, neither Hamas nor Israel seems intent on provoking an intensified or extended conflict. But the combination of civilian casualties, regional events and continued paralysis of Palestinian politics has created the conditions for a rapid deterioration toward the kind of clash to which neither side aspires, for which both have carefully prepared and from which they will not retreat quickly.” Their solution: Urgent international efforts to broker an effective cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, rather than the unspoken and easily transgressed arrangements currently in place. Couldn’t agree more: Pretending Israel can achieve any kind of peace without talking to Hamas has proven in the past to be a dangerous delusion.