Same old Gaza crisis but a new Middle East context

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By Brian M Downing

The Palestinian issue has once again resurfaced. Hamas and possibly Islamic Jihad have sent volleys of rockets into Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded vigorously with a targeted killing and repeated airstrikes inside Gaza.

Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on Nov. 16. Ahmed Zakot / Reuters

Israel is preparing ground troops for a possible incursion into the Palestinian enclave.  In some respects, the crisis is a routine recurrence of old battles, but it is taking place in a changed international environment – one that involves emerging political systems, the Syrian civil war, and the Iranian nuclear program. Israel must operate with more caution than before.

We need not bring in foreign actors to understand the present Gaza crisis. After all, Israel and Palestine are both eminently capable of warring without outside forces at work.

However, actions take place within an international context and Hamas is of course tied to Iran.  But what is Iran’s strategy? The Iranian nuclear issue is at present much calmer than it was only a few months ago and Iran would not likely be motivated by that.

The Syrian war rages and Israel and Iran have much at stake there, which makes it a more likely motivation. Syria is Iran’s chief ally in the region and Israel is eager to oust the Assad government and replace it with a weak or friendly one.  The rockets from Gaza are likely intended to signal Arab publics that Israel is the true enemy and that most Arab governments are seeking to oust its strongest adversary. Arab publics are being reminded that their governments are aligned with Israel, at least in regard to Syria.

As the Israeli government weighs further action, it must consider the impact of too strong a response, appealing though one might be as elections near and as consistent it might be with the Likud leadership’s world view.  By overplaying its hand, Israel could cause the Free Syrian forces to question their priorities and recognize the Assad government’s position in regard to Israel and the Palestinian matter.  This would weaken the gathering momentum against the overstretched Syrian regular army. Alternately, the Free Syrian forces could resolve to finish their work against Assad before directing their new weapons and skills against Israel.

Too firm a response may also coalesce ire in the emerging governments of Libya, Tunisia, and most importantly Egypt.  President Mubarak’s quiescence during previous Israeli contests with the Palestinians angered the Egyptian public and played an important role in building hostility to his rule over the last decade or so.

Ongoing unrest in Jordan could readily take on an anti-Israeli dimension. Israel may make the region even more hostile to it than it already is and open the entirety of its borders – with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – to the possibility of guerrilla operations like those Hizbullah has long conducted from Lebanon, opening the possibility of a low-level but protracted war of attrition that could wear on educated middle-class men with options abroad.

Lurking just under the surface of the Iranian nuclear situation is the ad hoc arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which oppose Iran’s growing power – conventional and nuclear alike. Saudi passiveness in the face of a strong Israeli response could accentuate popular and clerical mistrust in the House of Saud. Alternately, the Saudis could break off their strategic arrangements with Israel and refuse it flyover and refueling rights for attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and curtail help with Israeli covert operations inside Iran.

It might be asked just what Israel would gain from an extended air campaign against Gaza and a ground incursion into it. It could only chip away at Hamas leadership and weapons caches, without dealing with the popular support the organization has both inside Gaza and abroad and without enhancing Israeli security.

As much as it may go against Mr Netanyahu’s instincts, an iron fist is not in his country’s security interests and a more proportionate response to Hamas might demonstrate more skillful statesmanship.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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