The Tinderbox: Israel's Battle Against Hamas Could Spark Wildfire
The bitter battle in Gaza highlights the fact that Islamist extremists have gained ground in the Palestinian territories with support from Egypt and Iran. The next battleground is likely to be the United Nations, where the Palestinians are seeking observer status. Has Israel miscalculated with its new offensive?
The current situation in the Middle East is reminiscent of events that unfolded shortly before Christmas in 2008, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched a campaign against the radical Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip to stop it from launching rockets at his country -- and, most likely, with the aim of securing a second term in office. Elections were around the corner, and Olmert's opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, was ahead in the polls.
Now Netanyahu is fighting for votes once again, and this time, as the current prime minister, he too is fighting terror. His army has been attacking Gaza since the middle of last week, in an operation dubbed Pillar of Defense. Netanyahu's aim is to use force to achieve the peace on the Gaza front that Olmert was unable to secure four years ago. And perhaps, two months before the election, Netanyahu is also hoping for a war bonus, even though he is already ahead in the polls. At the very least, a military campaign against Gaza is a distraction from the serious social problems Israel currently faces.
But it's also a dangerous game for the entire Middle East. Egypt's new president, Mohammed Mursi, promised Hamas that his country was "standing with all its resources to stop this assault, to prevent the killing and bloodshed of the Palestinians." Most of the players in this conflict are literally being driven to war by pressures at home. Netanyahu can't show weakness before the elections, Hamas has to protect its reputation as it competes with even more radical Islamists, and Mursi must defend himself against critics in the Muslim Brotherhood, who accuse him of being too soft on Israel.
First Strike on Tel Aviv Since First Gulf War
When the conflict began, Netanyahu promptly suffered a serious psychological setback when two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv early Thursday evening. The last person who dared to strike Israel in this fashion was Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, who retaliated in the Gulf War over Kuwait in 1991 by ordering that Scud missiles be fired at Tel Aviv. And as if nothing were sacred to the attackers, they also fired rockets at Jerusalem on Friday afternoon.
For the extremists in the poverty-stricken Gaza Strip, the attacks represented a spectacular triumph, even though the rockets failed to strike any targets. For the first time, they had shown that they have weapons capable of reaching Israel's two major cities. The missiles, known by Hamas activists as M-75, were allegedly built in Gaza and have a range of 75 kilometers (46.6 miles). The extremists also have Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles.
Israel's attacks in recent days have been massive. Since the start of the operation on Wednesday, the Israeli military claims it has struck some 1,350 "terror sites," including rocket launchers, launching pads and weapons caches. The militants in Gaza, for their part, returned Israeli fire with a total of close to 850 rockets so far, many of which Israel's "Iron Dome" missile defense system intercepted in time. By Monday, the hail of missiles had claimed three dead and dozens of wounded on the Israeli side.
Both United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and United States President Barack Obama guaranteed Netanyahu their support in the fight against terror, but they also urged the Israeli leader to exercise restraint. Nevertheless, the Israeli military mobilized 16,000 reservists, amassing an army of 75,000 troops by the weekend. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is campaigning for his splinter party, assured Israelis that "the other side will pay its price." Prime Minister Netanyahu threatened that "all options" were on the table.
Could this be a repeat of 2008? This time, the players are too driven by their own announcements and self-created expectations, and too entangled in alliances and dependencies. Netanyahu is also under pressure on the global political stage. Only a few weeks ago, it seemed as if the possibility that Israel would go it alone and strike the Iranian nuclear program could spoil US President Barack Obama's changes of re-election. But now, if Netanyahu can't even deal with Hamas, it will be a triumph for Tehran.
The 'Iranian Front'
On the other hand, a devastating strike against the extremists in Gaza would also be a serious blow to the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to Israeli intelligence information, Iran's Revolutionary Guards are the most important suppliers of weapons to the extremists, and they could very well have provided Hamas with its rockets. Tehran manufactures the Fajr, or "Dawn" missile.
Like other arms, the six-meter (20-foot) rocket reaches the Gaza Strip through one of the many tunnels under the border with Egypt. Some of the tunnels are now so big that even small trucks can drive through them.
Both sides now run the risk of becoming embroiled in a war. Netanyahu has an interest in bringing calm to the Gaza front, partly to cover his back in case he plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The regime in Tehran, however, emphasizes deterrence. It wants to demonstrate how much firepower its allies in Gaza have, in case they are determined to exact revenge. Israel's military leadership is already referring to Gaza as the "Iranian front."
Some in Israel even believe that the strike against the Gaza extremists is merely a trial run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. For four years, the prime minister did relatively little against daily rocket attacks from "Hamastan," says an Israeli security expert. But now he has crossed his "personal red line" and is taking action, first with a military strike against Gaza and then possibly against Iran.
A New Balance of Power
But can Netanyahu succeed where Olmert failed, despite a campaign that lasted for weeks and claimed so many victims? And would it even be smart to destroy Hamas?
The balance of power in the Middle East has shifted fundamentally, and not in Jerusalem's favor. With the overthrow of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Israel lost its most important security partner in the region. Although his successor Mursi has officially left the Muslim Brotherhood, he remains indebted to the Islamists. If he is too accommodating to the Jewish state, he runs the risk of being forced out of office.
The so-called Salafists and the group Islamic Jihad are very popular in Gaza. They view the Hamas strategy of targeted but limited pinpricks against Israel as outrageous. They want nothing short of "holy war" against the "Zionists."
- Part 1: Israel's Battle Against Hamas Could Spark Wildfire
- Part 2: Hamas' Conundrum
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