Israel’s ‘Protective Edge’: Why Now?
Another Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip; it’s not the first and won’t be the last if the political equation in the region does not change. With the previous offensives launched by Israel on Gaza, several military goals were declared. This time, “Operation Protective Edge” comes within a different context, with new domestic, regional and international factors at play. These conditions, by and large, are more prosaic and complex and have been key elements in determining Israel’s goals for this operation, as part of a larger strategy that goes beyond the war itself.
A clear change in the map of world politics has underlined a rising Russian role. With Moscow’s fundamental stance on the Syrian crisis and clear US and EU bewilderment towards the Ukraine and Crimea, Russia’s political weight cannot be overlooked anymore; fading US influence has become a fact.
China has revised its position and role in the Middle East and opted to stay away from the limelight, maintaining its interests but with a lower voice. This was seen as the best option in order to halt its sliding popularity in the region due to its obvious support for the Syrian regime.
Regionally, this Israeli war comes when the events of the Arab Spring continue to surprise all observers. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, by force in Egypt and voluntarily in Tunisia; the escalated crisis in Syria; and the unprecedented chaos in Iraq, Yemen and Libya are cases in point. On the other hand, Iran managed to defuse international pressure and has been successful in reviving and preserving the diplomatic track of its nuclear file.
In Israel, a volatile ruling coalition has been facing mounting domestic criticism. Several domestic travails and economic difficulties have pushed many Israeli intellectuals and politicians to call repeatedly for the dissolution of the current government. In Palestine, the aggression on the Gaza Strip comes shortly after the long awaited national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah; a new deadlock in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations (Israel has been widely blamed for this stalemate); and a wave of violence in the West Bank, started by the killing of three Israeli settlers and followed by the murder of a Palestinian teen in cold blood.
Israel had constantly asked the Palestinian Authority to choose between reconciliation with Hamas and peace. For this reason, Israel could not hide its irritation at Palestinian reconciliation and the resultant unity government, and threatened the moderate PA with serious consequences. In response, its closest allies called upon Israel to put the Palestinian new government to the test and to give it a chance.
In light of the noticeable decline in Israel’s international popularity, its frustration was expressed in condemnation of the US administration’s willingness to work with the new Palestinian government. It is bizarre to see Israeli leaders accusing the Palestinian Authority of isolating Israel globally.
In this vein, one should concede that the Palestinian leadership has succeeded in building bridges with people and governments around the world. The international community has become closer to the Palestinian narrative on peace and international campaigns to boycott Israeli institutions and products have grown to include civil societies, universities and official positions.
Considering the above, it has become unimpeachable that the Israeli government had to find a way out of its domestic crisis and international dilemma. Domestic cohesion often requires governments to find an external bogey; the US has played this card at least since the start of the Cold War and it is not a novel strategy by any means. Concocting an external crisis, therefore seems to have been a foregone conclusion, but what, who and where, especially at this critical juncture for the Middle East? Israeli decision-makers had a number of options.
Iran: There is a broad swathe of anti-Iran sentiment in Israel, for example, and considerable popular support for a military strike on Tehran’s nuclear sites, although polls showed that Israelis are lukewarm about the Sisyphean task of attacking Iran unilaterally. So what about the northern front?
Hezbollah: Hezbollah may cause Israeli leaders to have sleepless nights but they are fully aware of the strategic, logistic and military capabilities that the Lebanese militia possesses. Moreover, the Israeli government is also aware that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and its losses there have not exhausted the movement enough to make military surprises on Israel’s northern border unlikely. That leaves the Palestinians.
Palestine: Whether it is true or not that Israel “fabricated” the killing of the three settlers by hiding the “fact” that they were actually killed in a car crash which was covered-up to provide the government with the “kidnap and murder” story, is irrelevant. The real fact is that Israel has been itching to pick a fight with the Palestinians. The military and political planners knew that no amount of bloodletting on the Palestinian front would bring down international condemnation or major losses; nor even garner much media attention given the current regional and international chaos
Hence, Israel blamed Hamas for killing the settlers, which the Islamic movement still denies. Before the government could benefit in this respect from the deaths, however, a number of Jewish settlers abducted and burned alive a Palestinian teenager.
As a result, Israel decided to transfer the battle wholesale to the Gaza Strip, intending to get Hamas embroiled in a confrontation and bring the movement to its knees. There was a specific sequence to Israeli attacks on the besieged territory; unpopulated open areas were targeted first and there was a gradual shift until Israel is now hitting anywhere and everywhere. This was done with the aim of pushing Hamas and other resistance groups into retaliating by firing rockets across into Israel.
Fully aware of the limited effectiveness of, and thus threat from, the Palestinian rockets, the Israeli government succeeded, despite some criticism, to unite its citizens against the perceived threat coming from the Gaza Strip and so distract attention away from domestic problems and international crises. Images of Israelis in bomb shelters were shown worldwide; the Palestinians, of course, have no such places to seek refuge from Israeli bombs and missiles.
Israel’s gains have not stopped at the domestic level. With every rocket fired from Gaza, the government gets closer to other goals. Whereas many in the international community had started to accept the Palestinian position and condemn Israel’s disproportionate violence, the rockets fired from Gaza brought them back to the Israeli side. Led by the usual suspects in Washington, London and Paris, we were told that Israel has the right to “defend itself”, regardless of its excessive use of force and the horrifying death toll among the Palestinians.
Not limited to these gains, Operation Protective Edge dealt a heavy blow to the Palestinian unity government. Any plans for it to implement the reconciliation agreement and prepare for national elections have been side-lined, with priorities changed by Israel’s fait accompli. In addition, Israel depended, as it has always done, upon the contradictory positions taken by the Palestinians on how to deal with such aggression, creating another setback for reconciliation.
The only military goals that Israel’s offensive can hope to achieve are to damage the capabilities of the Palestinian resistance groups, who are presumed to have a limited stock of weapons, destroy the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt and continue the siege.
It was always on the cards, therefore, that the Israelis would accept an unconditional ceasefire. Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire initiative was unexpected, placing the Israeli government in the position of having to consider an unplanned ground operation. The longer the operation lasts and the more losses that Israel suffers, the more likely that it will seek new terms with amendments to the 2012 truce in an agreement acceptable to its citizens.
Hamas and the Palestinian resistance groups, meanwhile, will not accept languishing in the besieged Gaza Strip any longer; they are unlikely to agree to the terms of the 2012 truce again. Finding an outlet to the world beyond its borders has become sine qua non; this could be the Rafah border crossing, a sea port or even an airport. It is obvious that neither Hamas nor the disgruntled and weary Palestinians in Gaza would accept a return to the detested status quo.
Appeared in: Arabian Gazette, Political Science Academy, Iran Review, Arab Media Network, the Daily Journalist, Middle East Monitor, Today’s Zaman, Daily News Egypt, News 24, Democratic Arab Center, Institute for Middle East Studies Canada, Pakistan Tribune, Al-Ahram Weekly, Tuck Magazine.