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    Middle East
     Nov 14, 2012

The Levant braces for regional war
By Victor Kotsev

Israel has embarked on open war preparations in the past several days, amid significant escalations of violence both in its south and in its north. On Monday, in the first such incident since the 1973 October war, Israeli tank fire destroyed part of a Syrian mortar battery which had fired shells across the border. Simultaneously over the weekend, Palestinian militants initiated an exchange which killed at least six and wounded dozens on both sides. Israeli ministers - including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu - ominously warned of a ground operation in Gaza similar to "Operation Cast Lead" in 2008-2009.

On the one hand, a full-scale explosion may not yet be imminent. Most experts believe the Syrian fire to be errant rather than intentional, and Egypt is actively mediating a truce in Gaza. Much of Israel's posturing, on the other hand, appears to be defensive in


character. Still, it is hard to avoid the sobering observation that the situation in much of the Levant today closely recalls that at the onset of several recent wars, or the conclusion that the next weeks and months will be fraught with tension and uncertainty.

In the north, the danger arguably comes from the Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah rather than from Syria proper. Hezbollah's political and military grip on Lebanon has been challenged by the weakening of the Syrian regime - a vital supply link to its main patron, Iran - as well as by the rise of radical Sunni groups, a spillover from the Syrian civil war. Its domestic popularity has plummeted as more and more coffins, including those of high-ranking commanders, arrive from Syria, where it is deeply involved fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The last time Hezbollah faced a broadly similar situation, in 2005-2006, it reversed its downfall by a executing a successful abduction attack in Israel and pulling off a widely perceived draw in the subsequent war. Consequently, a number of analysts are warning of a possible repeat of that scenario, pointing also to reports of increased Hezbollah activity on Israel's northern border.

It bears noting that Iran may have a strong interest in drawing Israel into a narrower regional conflict, hoping at the very least to erode further the Jewish state's international support for a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear facilities in the spring. The United States, on the other hand, is trying to keep the lid on the tensions and to reassure Israel of continued support against the missile threat posed primarily by Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. In that vein, the two countries launched four Patriot anti-missile missiles on Monday, as part of the ongoing "largest joint exercise ever carried out by the two countries".

The situation near Gaza is even more complicated, with numerous internal interests clashing, particularly on the Palestinian side. This raises the possibility of an accidental escalation, unwanted by any of the principal actors, which could serve as the spark to ignite the region.

"As in a Greek play, all of the sides involved are aware that a broad military campaign in Gaza may cause them great suffering and damage, but no one is able to stop the process that will apparently lead to this tragedy," wrote the respected Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai. He also revealed that Israeli military intelligence had recently estimated that there was a "high probability that we will find ourselves in a war-like situation in 2013" in either the south or the north. [1]

The current round was initiated by Gaza militants on Saturday (not counting an abortive attempt to blow up a tunnel full of explosives next to an Israeli force on Thursday) when an anti-tank missile fired from the strip penetrated an Israeli military jeep on the other side of the border, wounding four soldiers. In the subsequent exchanges of fire, more than 150 missiles were launched at southern Israeli communities, wounding eight more people, while Israeli strikes killed six Palestinians and wounded dozens.

On Monday, Netanyahu called a meeting of over 50 foreign ambassadors, pointing out that none of their governments would tolerate attacks such as these coming from Gaza. The left-wing Israeli President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shimon Peres voiced a similar warning in rare agreement with Netanyahu, raising speculation that Israel is seriously contemplating a broader operation in Gaza and is seeking to prepare world public opinion for that eventuality.

"It's the most idiotic shooting in the world, because if you shoot and you don't know what you want to achieve, what's the point? Do they want to destroy Israel? Do they want to make our lives miserable?" Peres told the Jerusalem Post. "If they shoot, we have to respond fully and immediately. There is no room for any consideration."

From Israel's point of view, the present situation near Gaza is eerily similar to that of late 2008, when a ceasefire broke down in the middle of an Israeli election campaign and the Jewish state launched a brief incursion codenamed "Operation Cast Lead".

Back then, as now, Gaza's dominant militant organizationk, Hamas, felt that it was losing more domestic support by keeping its head low than it would by openly provoking a clash. It gambled on a weak Israeli response, and lost, although several weeks of intermittent exchanges passed before the Israeli army launched the operation by surprise. "Cast Lead" ended with around 1,300 Palestinian and 13 Israeli deaths, with numerous wounded on both sides.

Today, the violence comes in the run-up to the January parliamentary election in Israel, and threatens to undermine Netanyahu's cherished security credentials. According to most analysts, the prime minister prefers quiet but may feel compelled to act. He is reportedly contemplating several scenarios, including a broader or a more limited land invasion as well as the targeted assassinations of top Hamas officials. As is his habit, he is holding his cards close to his chest.

Throughout the day on Monday, the Israeli air force was strangely quiet, despite over 20 rockets fired into Israel. It could be the silence before the storm, or it could be Netanyahu demonstrably giving Egypt another chance to reinstate the calm; the two scenarios are not mutually exclusive, and Israeli restraint at this stage would mean a greater international legitimacy for an operation later, should the provocations continue. By Monday evening, most Palestinian factions had agreed to a ceasefire, but missiles continued to fly sporadically.

On the Palestinian side, there are several internal considerations driving Hamas's behavior (whether or not it initiated them singlehandedly, the movement was a very active participant in the clashes). Firstly, Hamas is facing internal elections in the next days, and rumor has it that its politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, a rival of its Gaza leadership, is reconsidering his promise to retire after his current term ends. [2] The increased militancy of the organization may certainly be related to this intrigue.

Secondly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival of Hamas whose party, Fatah, is in power in the West Bank, is currently applying to the United Nations for an upgraded recognition of Palestine as a non-member state within the pre-1967 war borders. This claim has irked not only Israel, which plans to keep East Jerusalem as well as most of its post-1967 settlements in the West Bank, but also Hamas, which rejects the existence of the Jewish state altogether and calls for the liberation of "all of occupied Palestine".

The violence could be an attempt by Hamas to scuttle the application - or at the very least to force Abbas to harden his tone against Israel. The Palestinian president further angered his Gaza rivals earlier this month when he gave an unusually moderate interview for the Israeli Channel 2, renouncing rocket attacks and appearing to give ground on the refugee issue. [3] Hamas accused him of treason, and the missile fire could be an additional way of hammering home the point.

Iranian interference also cannot be ruled out as a trigger for the attacks. Several smaller militant organizations in the strip, particularly Islamic Jihad, are reportedly taking orders from Tehran.

In all, the current round of violence may end, but it is part of a slow escalation over the past months, with substantial exchanges every two weeks or so. This time, Israel is sending strong signals that the pattern cannot continue. If it does, a land operation in Gaza, or even a wider, incredibly destructive regional war on several fronts could follow.

1. Dragged into unwanted war, Ynet, November 11, 2012.
2. Hamas chief Mashaal may be reconsidering retirement, Times of Israel, November 11, 2012.
3. Abbas: No justification for Gaza rocket attacks, Jerusalem Post, November 2, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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