The Gaza crisis teeters between the momentum of violence and a cease-fire all sides desperately want but no one can easily stomach. Many lives tragically hang in that precarious balance, but the outcome does not. Israel enjoys such overwhelming military superiority over Hamas militants that a tactical victory has always been assured, as evidenced by the lopsided death toll to date of over 100 Palestinians killed to three Israelis. The only question from the outset of Israel’s launching of “Operation Pillar of Defense” in response to escalating rocket attacks from Gaza, was at what cost?
Even as rockets, guided bombs, and naval artillery continue to crisscross the skies over one of the most densely populated parcels in the region, however, the second Gaza war has already offered a revealing glimpse of a future Middle East in the post-Arab Spring era. The fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has cut short her Asian trip with President Obama and rushed to the region to try and stave off an Israeli ground invasion suggests that she grasps the strategic implications of that vision. With the sound of air raid sirens echoing all the way to Tel Aviv and impact clouds blossoming on the horizon, Israeli leaders contemplating that vastly altered Mideast landscape should also find it deeply troubling.
The Gaza conflict has highlighted two powerful trends that have emerged from the Arab Spring revolutions. In country after country, democratic elections have elevated Islamist governments that have strived to more accurately reflect the will of the Arab street, and no grievance more inflames Arab public opinion than the Palestinian cause. The fact that those new governments are not only Islamist but weak (or, in the case of the Syrian government-in-waiting, fighting a violent civil war) has also created far more fertile soil and room to maneuver for violent Islamist extremist groups.
Gaza offers an early preview of how those trends can conflate disastrously. With Islamist governments giving support and diplomatic legitimacy to Islamic militants who Israel and the United States consider terrorists, the conflict has empowered radicals and marginalized moderates in the Palestinian nationalist movement. Left unchecked, that dynamic has the potential to push nascent governments to the radical right, ensnare Israel in a perpetual cycle of tactical skirmishes with an ever-more-potent opposition, and over time doom the prospects for a negotiated peace. The net result would leave Israel, and by association the United States, increasingly isolated in the region.
“With the backing of Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar in this conflict, the Islamists of Hamas are demonstrating that they are the primary force within the Palestinian movement, and that [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas has no influence over the situation,” said Dennis Ross, formerly President Obama’s special adviser for the Middle East. The new status quo, he said, is thus strengthening radical elements and weakening moderates in the region. “That’s a very negative trajectory.”
Consider what prompted Hamas to break an uneasy ceasefire and publicly take credit for escalating rocket attacks on Israel. Regionally over the past 18-months, violent jihadi groups have flocked to the fighting in Syria; launched multiple suicide bombings in Iraq; seized territory in Yemen and Mali; and attacked the U.S. consulate and killed four American diplomats in Libya. Likewise, extremist Salafi and jihadi groups have been increasingly active in Egypt’s Sinai and next-door in the Gaza strip.
“There’s been tremendous tension within Hamas for some time as it attempted to balance its role as the governing power in Gaza with its identity as the face of the Palestinian resistance,” said Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow in counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. With Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Salafi groups increasingly operating inside Gaza in the past year, he said, Hamas felt its power challenged from the radical right. “The increased rocket attacks were a way for Hamas to reestablish its resistance credibility,” said Levitt.
As an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas also rightly calculated that it could depend on far more diplomatic support from Cairo than it had received during the long reign of former President and secular strongman Hosni Mubarak. President Mohammed Morsi, himself a Muslim Brotherhood official, called Israel a “terrorist nation” because of its actions in Gaza. Not even Hamas leader Khaled Meshal could have anticipated, however, the outpouring of diplomatic support from around the region, which included meetings in Cairo with Morsi, the emir of Qatar, and Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” in Gaza. Hamas also received supportive visits to Gaza during the crisis from senior Tunisian and Egyptian officials.
After Israel’s 2008 “Cast Lead” operation against Hamas that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza and shattered Israel-Turkish relations, U.S. military officials redoubled efforts to bolster the secular Palestinian Authority by training and equipping Palestinian security forces that have kept the peace on the West Bank ever since. The strategy, U.S. generals said, was to give Palestinians a moderate and secular alternative to Hamas and bolster the peace-making prospects of the Palestinian Authority’s Abbas, a man who rejects violence and is widely considered the most moderate Palestinian leader ever.
In the intervening four years, however, Israel’s refusal to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a precondition to restart peace talks, despite considerable pressure from the Obama administration, has left Abbas with little to show for his moderation. Later this month, a dispirited Abbas is scheduled to unilaterally go to the United Nations and seek nonmember state status for Palestine in a futile and symbolic gesture that Israel has labeled an act of aggression. Meanwhile, real rockets rain down on southern Israel, Hamas leader Meshal is being feted in Cairo like a head of state, and the lyrics to a new hit song on the West Bank carries a pro-Hamas message that roughly translates to “give violence a chance.”
In the after-action reviews, Operation Pillar of Defense will inevitably be characterized as another tactical military victory for Israel that dealt a severe blow to Hamas. Viewed strategically, through the prism of a radically altered Middle East landscape, it looks like anything but.