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    Middle East
     Oct 10, 2012

Gaza escalation threatens regional violence
By Victor Kotsev

The ongoing fire between Israel and Gaza, after a mysterious robotic intrusion into Israeli airspace attributed to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, conjures up a danger that had not received much attention - a regional conflict between Israel and Gaza groups and/or Hezbollah.

The current round of tension blew up on Monday morning with a barrage of some 55 rockets and mortars into southern Israel, which resulted in heavy material damage though with no human casualties reported so far. The previous evening an Israeli air strike wounded critically two alleged Global Jihad operatives in the strip (one of whom subsequently died), and lightly or moderately a number of other Palestinians, including five children.

In a particularly ominous sign and in contrast to other recent


escalations, Hamas, the dominant militant organization in Gaza, took the lead in the fighting. Some analysts argue that its fire was a symbolic retaliation for Sunday's air strike, and that it had to "save face" in front of other groups. In light of this, there is hope that a lull in the violence on Monday evening will last, but there are also significant dangers, especially given other recent developments.

On Saturday, the Israeli air force intercepted a small pilotless helicopter that infiltrated Israeli air space near Gaza and flew over southern Israel for some 30 minutes before being shot down. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Hamas was conducting a military exercise at roughly the same time - which may have contributed to the rise of tensions - but Israeli leaders pointed a finger for the incursion at Hezbollah or even Iran itself.

If the drone started in the north, in order to enter Israel over Gaza in the south, it would have had to take a considerable detour over the Mediterranean Sea. According to the Israelis, it was manufactured in Iran and was most likely aimed to test Israel's air defenses. One of the hottest questions in the Israeli press is whether it was headed for the Dimona nuclear reactor.

Experts note that its operation was a highly sophisticated endeavor.

"Operating a drone by remote control from such a long distance requires advanced capabilities, which Israel was not aware Hezbollah had acquired," wrote Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai. "Hezbollah's drones have infiltrated Israeli airspace in the past, from the north, but their activation did not require any navigation system. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that infiltrated Israel on Saturday did require such a system."

The Israeli intelligence-analysis web site Debka File, known for wild rumors as well as legitimate leaks, claims that "Israeli intelligence and air force waged a cyber battle Saturday, October 6 with unidentified parties, most likely Hezbollah or Iran ... for 30 minutes, as the helicopter flew over southern Israel, control swung back and forth between Israeli cyber operators and unknown agents." The report could not be verified.

In response to the incident, Israel activated an additional Patriot air defense battery near the city of Haifa in the north, and Israeli fighter planes breached Lebanese air space, conducting mock air raids in the south.

The Israeli military also responded vigorously to the Hamas missile fire on Monday, using air strikes, artillery and tank fire. While it took considerable care to protect civilian lives - despite five reported injuries - it sent a powerful message by not refraining from bombing a mosque. We could interpret this as an ultimatum of sorts: Israeli officials have recently threatened a "massive response" to an overwhelming missile barrage.

These incidents underscore that the threat of a war in the Middle East has not receded despite a flurry of recent reports that claim Israel will refrain from striking Iran's nuclear program this year. The sporadic outbreaks of civil unrest in the Islamic Republic in the past week, which are believed to have contributed to Israel's changing its mind, may serve as a trigger for such a more limited conflict.

Given recent friction between Hamas and its former Iranian patrons - the movement has increasingly sided against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is a key ally of Iran and Hezbollah, in the Syrian civil war - Iran may have an interest to lure the Gaza militants into a confrontation with Israel. In this way, it would punish the infidelity and would simultaneously raise the heat on Israel, deflecting attention from its own many troubles.

As Ben-Yishai noted, "[Hezbollah] wanted the drone to enter Israel near Gaza, perhaps in an attempt to place the blame on Hamas, which is currently considered hostile to elements that are loyal to Iran."

Given that no significant violence was reported on Monday night, it is possible that such a scenario will be thwarted, but much depends on whether any further incidents produce significant casualties Israel's own motivation must be examined. While most analysts agree that the Jewish state can ill afford to draw further negative attention in light of regional upheaval caused by the Arab Spring, there are also certain strategic arguments in favor of a short but intense operation.

For example, a campaign to degrade the military capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah would constitute a limited pre-emptive strike against Iran's sphere of influence. By picking out the Iranian military assets one by one, particularly given a solid legal justification for doing so (such as self-defense), Israel would offer Iran and Syria a grim choice: stay on the sidelines or be blamed for a war that could easily draw in the United States. Syria, which has plenty of domestic troubles right now, would probably be glad to take the former path.

Such an escalation on the part of the Israelis, if it happens, would raise the heat on US President Barack Obama but most probably would not bring up official accusations of interfering in the US elections. The ensuing conflict would likely be brief but violent; or it could spin out of control and engulf the entire Middle East.

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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