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"
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
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
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".
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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."
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.  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.  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
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.