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    Middle East
     Nov 20, 2012


Gaza crisis has more to come
By Victor Kotsev

On Sunday night, an Egyptian effort to establish a ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza militant factions reportedly collapsed. An Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip loomed, after missiles landed near Tel Aviv for four days in a row - once near Jerusalem, even farther away.

Though nobody was hurt in these specific attacks, they came as a slap in the face of the stated goals of the ongoing Israeli operation: stopping the missile fire and restoring deterrence. Rockets had not been aimed at the heart of Israel for over 20

 
years, since the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles during the First Gulf War. Therefore, as tanks and artillery units rolled toward Gaza and reserve soldiers were reporting for duty (75,000 initially, an increase of more than 40% of the army's active personnel), a long and bloody operation appeared to be in store, and only an effective miracle of diplomacy could prevent that.

Pinning down the beginning of the crisis is almost as difficult as forecasting its end. The Atlantic published an elaborate timeline of its gradual escalation, which involved the targeted assassination of a top Gaza militant, Ahmed al-Jabari, as well as the firing of some 150 rockets into southern Israel during the previous weekend.

Other analysts have their own versions: in a report dated November 16, 2012, for example, the influential intelligence-analysis firm Stratfor traced the beginnings of the conflict to the bombing of the Yarmouk weapons factory in Sudan on October 23. According to Stratfor, the Israeli operation, whose English codename is "Pillar of Defense", is first and foremost directed against longer-range missiles supplied by Iran to the Gaza militants; in this account, both Yarmouk and Jabari were key links in that supply chain.

Yet there are even deeper causes of the violence, which involve internal Palestinian and Israeli rivalries as well as foreign interests, and which may hamper the efforts to end it. Some analysts ask, for example, if the timing of the escalation right after the US presidential elections was coincidental and whether spoilers might try to ruin any of several major diplomatic initiatives that were expected after Obama's re-election.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood president and government are hard-pressed to establish a truce. No less than the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is at stake - Cairo already pulled its ambassador in Tel Aviv "for consultations" - and the Brotherhood is reportedly split between its loyalty for its daughter organization Hamas and its need for external stability in order to focus urgently on its domestic program.

Rivalry between the main Palestinian factions - Hamas and Fatah - plays an important, if under-reported, role in what is happening. In the past months, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, suffered a series of setbacks, including the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the recent visit of the Emir of Qatar to the Strip. Other important Middle Eastern leaders, such as the Turkish prime minister, announced plans for similar visits that would boost further the international legitimacy and prestige of the Hamas regime.

Abbas planned a grand comeback with his bid for implicit recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, which was expected to play out later this month. In international legal discourse, for example in the eyes of the International Criminal Court, a vote by the General Assembly would be a sufficient and rather official criterion for statehood. Abbas would achieve the status of a state leader and also win over the Arab masses as a man whose vision for a non-violent resistance produces results. He would acquire new diplomatic levers to use against Israel and would cement his relevance in Middle Eastern politics.

All of a sudden, however, it seems that Hamas and Israel took matters in their own hands. Technically, they both took issue with the part of the statehood declaration that specifies the borders of the new Palestinian state. Neither of them was happy with the pre-1967 war lines cited by Abbas, each for its own reasons: Hamas insists on liberating "all of occupied Palestine" while Israel hopes to annex East Jerusalem and its major settlements in the West Bank.

In addition, both had an interest in shifting the international focus on themselves. As the left-wing Israeli journalist Amira Hass reported in Ha'aretz, "opponents of Hamas in the Strip say that the escalation suits the political aims of both Hamas and Israel: It dwarfs the importance of the PLO initiative to bring to a vote the Palestinian bid for observer status in the United Nations."

Even less known - and still an important contributing factor - is the political battle raging inside Hamas. Internal elections were reportedly scheduled for later this month, and its present chief, Khaled Meshaal, had announced that he would not run.

Meshaal, a political rival of the Gaza leadership of Hamas, had embarked on a reconciliation initiative with Abbas last year and had also voiced cautious support for the UN bid (importantly, this put him on the moderate side of Jabari). Now that some of his main opponents are dead and the Strip is in distress, Meshaal may choose to reconsider his retirement.

Much more public is the election campaign in Israel, but allegations that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provoked the clash intentionally in order to gain popularity must be taken with a grain of salt. It is true that in the first few days of the operation, most of the media attention shifted to the prime minister, while his rivals from the opposition rallied behind him. However, he was leading in polls even before the violence, and a prolonged campaign without a clear outcome could destroy this advantage. Most analysts seem to agree that a calm would have been more beneficial to Netanyahu in the run-up to the election.

The Israeli leaders' dilemma can best be summarized as a need to find a response to the continued rocket fire - particularly to the fire on central Israel - that is simultaneously harsh enough to satisfy their primarily right-wing constituency and soft enough not to cause a diplomatic disaster with Egypt and the international community. Netanyahu and his coalition partners would certainly not like to go down in history as the people who let the peace treaty with Egypt collapse - even less so right before the election.

Military experts caution that an air war usually becomes less effective after a few days because the air force exhausts most of its target bank. We may be seeing a reflection of that in the increased number of civilian casualties in the last day - 24 died on Sunday, at least 13 of whom were civilians. But while ground war usually increases rather than decreases what the military terms "collateral damage", if the rocket fire from Gaza does not stop and a ceasefire is not established soon, an invasion may become a tactical necessity for the Israeli army.

Amid a decisive push by Cairo to establish a ceasefire and no signs of a let-up in the violence, time may be running dangerously short.

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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