Friday, November 16, 2012

Digganalysis: The Latest Middle East Conflict

The latest Israeli-Palestinian deadly altercation continues in Gaza and Israel, is very much like previous battles, but also different.  One thing that remains the same is the media’s inability to delve into the awful situation beyond the surface, I hold out hope for Fareed Zakaria this weekend, and get to the root of the situation.

What seems to have triggered the latest battle was Israel’s targeted killing of Al-Qassam Brigade’s, the militant wing of Hamas, leader Ahmed Al-Jabari following the launch of over 100 rockets from Gaza into southern Israel over the preceding days.  Immediately following Al-Jabari’s death, the conflict escalated as rocket launches from Gaza continued and return fire from Israeli land, sea, and aerial forces became more deadly.

It’s Politics Stupid:

There has been speculation that the Netanyahu government targeted Al-Jabari to help his Likud party in the coming elections on January 22, 2013.  Whether the rapid escalation was part of the calculus is unknown, but  is it out of the question to think that Prime Minister Netanyahu would risk the lives of Israelis, the deaths of innocents on both sides, possible global condemnation, and potential economic shock for an election?  That is a serious allegation and I am not prepared to make it, but when you look at recent history, is it beyond the realm of possibility?  Four years ago Israel launched operation Cast Lead, an all-out assault into Gaza, including ground troops that left over 1,000 Gazans and 13 Israelis dead.   It too came after unanswered rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel and it too occurred just two months before the last Israeli election.   In 2006, under Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the invasion of southern Lebanon in response to rocket and mortar attacks and the killing and kidnapping of five Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah.  These two most previous ‘wars’ took place when the Israeli government was facing social, economic, and even legal challenges.   Are these causal or correlation?

Inside Hamas:

In January 2006 Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections and following a brief civil war they took control of Gaza as Fatah fled to the Palestinian territories in the West Bank.  Since 2006 Hamas has faced the reality that after the insurrection it is time to govern; instead of blowing things up, people expect you to build things.  And while Hamas and the various Israeli governments it has opposed have declared openly their mutual hostility, the nastiness apparently climaxed in the 2008/2009 conflict described above.  A tacit agreement had been in place between Hamas and the Netanyahu government where each would use low level violence to prop up their popularity.  Hamas would launch rockets into empty fields in southern Israel and Israel would respond with some artillery shells into buildings that have been abandoned.  The rhetoric and victimless attacks allowed the powers to remain in power.

This suddenly changed when Bashar al-Assad launched the brutal crackdown turned mass murder of his own citizens in 2011 and which continues today.  As the resistance stiffened and the atrocities mounted Iran continued to support its ally al-Assad and when Hamas came out in opposition to the brutal Syrian regime, it drew the ire of its Iranian patron.  Iran pulled its funding and rocket supplies from Hamas in favor of its Gazan rival Islamic Jihad.  Suddenly Hamas’ leadership was not threatened by Israel and it was not threatened by Fatah, instead the threat was from within, the new Iranian darling.

Strange Bedfellows

Facing a threat from Islamic Jihad, Hamas turned to its rivals to help support its political power position.  Yes it turned to Fatah and the Netanyahu government.  It started floating the idea of reconciliation with its West Bank rival Fatah and here is the crazy part: the aforementioned late Ahmed Al-Jabari was being paid by Israel to keep peace.  SHOCKING!  Yes Israel was paying its sworn enemy a sort of mafia protection fee.  That is until last week when Islamic Jihad launched 100 rockets into southern Israel and not at the usual empty fields.  Apparently, this broke the agreement and Ahmed Al-Jabari was sanctioned and quickly killed by the IDF.  No one in Israel will mourn Ahmed Al-Jabari, the mastermind behind numerous attacks and the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.  Nonetheless, the pact of enemies had been violated.

What’s Different This Time?

For starters, I think the Netanyahu government completely underestimated the response from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and this time the arsenal includes longer range unguided rockets courtesy of Iran.  Also, following the Arab spring, the new Egyptian government is clearly more supportive of the Hamas leadership in Gaza.  Whereas the Mubarak regime would have worked with Israel to suppress Islamists in Gaza, the Morsi government is trying to establish its credibility with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas brethren.  Finally, there is Iran.  The Shia nation has no love for the Sunni Hamas, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend and sometimes friends make great diversions.  As long Syria remains embroiled in its internal conflict, as long as Turkey and Syria are sniping at one another, and as long as Hamas and Israel are engaged in a missile and rocket exchange, no one is talking about the Tehran nuclear program.

The Final Analysis

It’s about Power.  Netanyahu wants to consolidate his power in advance of the election.  Hamas is fending off internal threats from Islamic Jihad.  Bashar al-Assad struggles to hold on in Syria.  Mohamed Morsi is trying to establish his authority in Egypt.  Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to be the power broker in the region while battling his own Kurdish autonomy movement. 

It’s that simple.  It’s that complex. It’s that messy.  It’s not going to end anytime soon.

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