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    Middle East
     Mar 14, 2012


Iranian hand seen in Gaza escalation
By Victor Kotsev

The Gaza Strip is a world full of violent paradoxes. The latest is the situation in which the Palestinian militant movement Hamas, which nominally controls the strip, found itself over the weekend sitting in the corner with its eyes down and praying for the lives of Israelis; all this when its former Iranian sugar daddy turned into a whip-cracking Dom whose surrogate, Islamic Jihad, battled it out with Israel.

Granted, there is creative emphasis added in the above interpretation, but the gist is on target. In fact, Islamic Jihad hasn't been very successful so far in the confrontation; over the last couple of days, as mediation efforts progressed, it scrambled to avoid leaving the impression of utter defeat (which is tantamount to utter defeat these days). It fired so many Grad missiles at

 

Israel that had it not been for the Iron Dome missile defense, which shot down about 85% of the ones it targeted, Israeli tanks would probably be in the outskirts of Gaza City now.

As it is, on Monday evening the Egyptian go-betweens announced a ceasefire to take effect at 1am Tuesday. There is no certainty how long it will last, but most analysts expect a calm to set in by Wednesday or so. There are reportedly two main scenarios that could derail this and trigger off a wider Israeli operation: if Islamic Jihad or one of the other groups, in an act of desperation, fires a missile that can hit Tel Aviv, or if the Iron Domes fails to stop a barrage that kills Israeli civilians.

Barring these kinds of developments, US President Barack Obama can congratulate himself on an investment that proved its money's worth (his administration gave Israel over US$200 million to procure the short-range missile defense system), and the Israeli military can congratulate itself on one of the most successful "surgical" operations it has ever conducted, with one of the lowest ratios of civilians to enemy combatants killed.

Based on what is known, 21 of the 25 Palestinians killed in the violence were combatants, some ranking members of Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, the two Palestinian militant organizations most heavily involved. Four civilians also died, including a 65-year old man, a 30-year old woman, and two teenage boys aged 12 and 15.

Over 80 Palestinians were reportedly wounded in the strikes, including dozens of civilians; the Israeli army claims that the militants' use of human shields is to blame for non-combatant casualties. [1]

The low casualty rate among Israelis - no deaths so far - is even more striking, given that over 200 rockets were fired at Israeli population centers in four days, a quarter of them Grad Katyshas with extended ranges of about 40 kilometers. At least 56 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome system, whose radar can map where a rocket will fall and whose operators can selectively shoot down only those headed for densely populated areas. (The accuracy rate of the rockets is far from perfect.)

Three or four Israeli civilians were wounded (accounts vary), including one who is in a serious condition. A number of others suffered from shock and minor related injuries.

In a sense, the Iron Dome is proving to be a game changer. Here is how the Jerusalem Post's defense analyst Yaakov Katz put it:
"Diplomatic maneuverability" are the two words that could be heard over and over again on Sunday within the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] in reference to the performance of the Iron Dome rocket defense system.

It is easy to understand why. Imagine if the 43 rockets that the Iron Dome intercepted on their way to Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon had succeeded in hitting their targets.

Had this happened, the government would be facing unbelievable pressure from the public to order the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] to launch a ground offensive into Gaza to stop the rocket fire, as it was on the eve of Operation Cast Lead in late 2008. The Iron Dome is helping to prevent that from happening.
That did not happen - at least not so far in a bout of violence that looks like it is nearing its end - much to the relief of almost everybody involved, reportedly ranging from Israel to Hamas to the Egyptians and Americans. Hamas did not take any significant part in this violence, and even as it condemned "Israeli aggression" it did its best to calm things down. [3]

It is true that Israel started the violence with a targeted assassination, but it is hard to ignore several important circumstances: firstly, the top militant who was assassinated on Friday, Zuhir al-Qaisi, was so deeply involved in terrorism that the Egyptian intelligence had recently warned him to keep it down or else Israel would kill him. [4]

Whether or not he was the mastermind of the specific terror attack that Israel accuses him of planning - a cross-border raid from Egypt in August of last year which killed eight Israelis - it seems quite plausible that he was intimately involved in the destabilization of Sinai in the last year. (See Sinai clashes send loud message, Asia Times Online, Aug 24, 2011)

Given that the Egyptian-controlled peninsula became the last stretch of a long arms-smuggling route that started in Libya and ended in Gaza, numerous Israeli officials have warned over the past month that more violence was to be expected in and near the strip.

Secondly, al-Qaisi was not a member of Islamic Jihad, the organization that launched the majority of the rockets at Israel and that suffered most of the losses (the majority of those rocket crews on combat missions). He was the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, another militant organization.

There is every indication that Hamas was the one being punished, as much as Israel was being provoked with the missile salvos. In the last couple of weeks, though really ever since the Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad took off, Hamas's relationship with its former patrons Iran and Syria have gone from bad to worse.

In late February, the organization moved its headquarters out of the Syrian capital Damascus, motivated by the fact that as an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, its primary allegiance rested with the Syrian opposition. Then over the last week, Hamas became embroiled in a controversy over whether it would strike back at Israel in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program. [5]

The punishment, it seems, came swiftly: at a period when Hamas is in flux, changing bases and supply lines and still responsible for the wellbeing of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants, Iran and Syria apparently unleashed the other proxies they had cultivated in the strip. In so doing, they capitalized on Hamas's lack of interest and readiness to fight, and sought to either draw the movement into a war that was bound to damage it badly or to weaken it domestically by portraying it as a collaborator with the Israelis.

It must be noted that in parallel with the turmoil in Egypt and Libya in the last year, Islamic Jihad has grown to be quite a formidable organization. The Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reported on this in an article published by the Jerusalem Post last October:
With the help of Iran and Syria, Islamic Jihad has become a major player in the Palestinian arena. The organization's leaders now visit Cairo and other Arab capitals, where they are received as VIPs. …

The organization is beginning to emerge as a major challenge to the Hamas regime, especially given the fact that dozens of disgruntled Hamas members are reported to have defected to Islamic Jihad. Former Fatah security officers, some of whom were trained by the US and EU, are also believed to have joined Islamic Jihad in the past few years. [6]
Israel itself seems quite weary of an escalation, to the point where the measured response to the "unprecedented" rocket salvos has raised a lot of eyebrows among the right-wing allies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So far, however, the lack of Israeli casualties and the surprising success rate of the surgical strikes have deprived the hawks of important ammunition.

As of early Tuesday morning, reports by the Israeli press suggest that the ceasefire was breached by new rocket strikes, but no casualties are being reported. Given Islamic Jihad's humiliation, a few isolated rockets, perhaps aimed loosely or at military facilities, are to be expected in the hours after the ceasefire comes into effect; a symbolic Israeli strike, perhaps of an empty militant base, can be expected in return.

What we need to look out for is anything that is more serious than that. We can only hope that the luck which has prevented greater civilian casualties on either side does not run out, and that Israel and Hamas do not end up drawn into a bloody war that neither seems to want. In an ironic twist, the two finally seem to find themselves sharing a similar agenda.

Notes:
1. IDF: Terrorists using human shields, Ynet, March 12, 2012
2. Analysis: Creating diplomatic maneuverability, Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2012
3. Jihad, PRC 'will not accept' Gaza ceasefire, Ma’an, March 12, 2012
4. 'Egypt warned PRC that Qaisi's life was in danger' , Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2012
5. Hamas denies it intends to stay out of Israeli war with Iran, Ha’aretz, March 7, 2012
6. Analysis: How Islamic Jihad is becoming a threat to Hamas, Jerusalem Post October 31, 2011


Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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