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Pillar of Defence and the new Middle East – the effect of the operation on the main actors

23/11/2012

The result of eight days of military action:

  • over 1500 Israeli air and naval strikes on Gaza;
  • 1500 missiles, rockets and mortars fired from Gaza towards Israel’s centre and southern cities and villages (putting 3 out of 4 Israelis under direct threat);
  • 1 bomb attack on a bus in Tel Aviv (for the first time in 6 years);
  • reports of 6 Israelis killed and over 50 injured;
  • 163 Palestinians killed and over 1200 injured.

Operation Pillar of Defence ended with a so called “unsigned memorandum of understandings” between Israel, Egypt, Hamas, Islamic Jihad – with the support of the UN, US and EU. The basic principle “quiet will be answered with quiet” was announced by the Israeli Government as its first condition, turned in its initial 15 hour period into “sporadic fire will be answered with quiet”, as 15 missiles were launched towards Israel. From now on though, time will tell whether these unsigned understandings will lead to a real cessation of fire, whether the deterrence Israel wished to recreate was achieved and if these continuous cycles of violence which have been an unfortunate and permanent part of the scenery of the Israeli-Gaza front will be left in history or remain as a dreadful part of our present and future. While we are unable to predict what the future has in store – with most experts saying that the next cycle of violence is only a matter of time despite the ceasefire – this operation has created new positions, characteristics and images for all of the actors involved in the post “Arab Spring” Middle East.

Israel

While it has only been three years since Israel carried out its last operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, this was the first dramatic military action between Israel and an Arab actor after the “Arab Spring” and its impact, being the change of regime in Egypt, Hamas’ allies after the quarrel with Syria and Iran, and the overall Islamisation trend in the Arab street against Israel – has all had a direct effect on the Israeli decision-making process. This was clear from Israel’s decision to withhold, accept a ceasefire and not escalate into a ground invasion “in order to avoid deterioration of relations between Israel and its neighbours” (Jordan and Egypt). The briefings that the Israeli Government has given to the media, emphasising that Mubarak – a rival of Hamas – is no longer ruling Egypt and that Israel must (rightfully) bare this in mind – echoes this. From the beginning the daily tactical manoeuvres during the last eight days, conveyed an obvious awareness of these changes, as Israel was very instinctive in its targets and the levels of escalation – focusing only on Hamas’ (and the smaller groups) operatives, field commanders, military headquarters, bases and Government infrastructures – emphasising its intent to weaken the organisation and not to expand the operation. Israel’s restraint on the Northern border, despite several incidents in which Israeli posts on the border with Syria were fired at and the discovery of missiles aimed at Israel from the border with Lebanon, resulted from the aspiration to focus on Hamas and not escalate to an Israeli-all Arab conflict. And so, Israel can point out several achievements related to Hamas – successful targeting of its top commander and dozens of field commanders, direct and substantive hits on its long-ranged Iranian missile infrastructure, the elimination of Hamas’ special (and Iranian sponsored) UAV programme, the targeting of approximately 50% of its missile and mortar capabilities and the severe damages it caused to the political establishments of Hamas in Gaza. In this sense, Israel did crucially weaken Hamas, forcing it to re-build its actual governing capabilities over Gaza, re-arm if it seeks to achieve capabilities which would enable it to carry out another such attack and re-align its forces all around the Gaza Strip. Militarily Hamas is today much weaker and more vulnerable, it agreed to a ceasefire at a point in which it did not achieve its own goals of “ending the blockade over Gaza” and “the opening of all the crossings” (which, effectively, would grant it sovereignty and politically enable it to control borders). Israel’s guarantees from Egypt to maintain the tranquillity, enables Israel to use the leverage of a new actor – the new Egyptian President – over Hamas, and in this sense creates a non-existent bridge between Israel and the new Muslim-Brotherhood regime in Egypt. With the challenges which lie ahead for Israel in the near future, especially with the Iranian threat, this bridge could be extremely important, and the once again proven alliance between Israel with the United States (which stood next to Israel throughout) proves to all actors in the international community that the re-elected US President, stands by Israel in times of need.

Hamas

The operation also caught Hamas at a sensitive time vis-a-vis the New Middle East. Public conflicts with Assad and Iran – which never concluded in a split from the Iranian finance and military channels – pushed it closer to the new Egyptian regime, therefore enlarging its dependency on Egypt as an Arab “big sister”. This is why, right from the beginning Hamas leaders reached out to Mursi and tried to rally the Egyptian street to pressure him to go against Israel; why they accepted Egypt to be its proxy for negotiations over a ceasefire – over Qatar and Turkey; and even why they asked the Egyptian Prime Minister to come to Gaza (acknowledging Hamas’ rule over Gaza) on the second day proving that they are no longer rivals. However, as the operation prolonged and Hamas believed it had an ability to carry on for days, without surrendering, even Egyptian pressure to halt fire on the third day did not convince Hamas to stop, and even made their pre-conditions more complicated and pretentious. After eight days, while suffering major operational hits as stated above, Hamas’ leaders believed they could herald some significant achievements. Among them they name their ability to break the Israeli “psychological barrier” by attacking the heart of Israel – Tel Aviv and Jerusalem–being the first Arab actor to do so since Iraq’s Sadam Hussein in 1991; to continue launching missiles every day, despite constant counter attacks; directly threatening 75% of Israel’s population – a record for Hamas (some would say- the first notorious record since the 1967 war).  Their insistence on “saying the last word” by launching dozens of missiles even after the ceasefire started, is an elementary part of its “resistance” ideology, stating that they managed to stand up despite the attacks against them. The bombing of a bus in the centre of Tel Aviv, so close the military headquarters (though not necessarily carried out by Hamas), portrayed the organisation as a capable one, on many levels, to Palestinians and Arabs all over the world. More importantly, as this operation was the first after the “Arab Spring”, Arab and Muslim countries, which previously had connections and ties with Israel, lined up next to Hamas, in Gaza (again, acknowledging their regime) cheering for its success. Among these important countries we could see Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, and others. Khaled Mishaal, Hamas’ leader, became a welcomed guest in the Cairo Palace, and held in this week more public political meetings with prominent Arab and Muslim leaders, than he has in any other week before. In the words of the Tunisian FM, visiting Gaza “what Israel could do in the past – it can’t do now. The Arab world had changed”. Hamas, for the first time ever, is considered to be the sole governor of the Gaza Strip, with all other organizations and factions under its banner (including Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad and other global-Jihad and Salafi groups). In the long running political battle between Hamas and Fatah/the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has managed to better position itself, even Abu Mazen congratulated Hamas “on its victory”, while his UN appeal for a non-member state (due next week) has been overshadowed. In light of possible future scenarios, including an attempt by the international community to resume negotiations between Israel and the PA, Hamas now has more bridges to direct talks – and actual influence – with many more leaders in the region, who previously neglected Hamas or preferred to cooperate with the PA as the sole Palestinian political address.

Egypt

“Egypt is now not an enemy nor an ally” – these were the words of President Obama only three months ago, after Mursi was elected. The Muslim-Brotherhood take-over of the biggest Arab nation raised suspicions and even fears about the possible steps this Islamic-driven government in charge of one of the Middle East’s biggest armies may take. The threat seemed real and imminent as the media picked up on statements made by many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Mursi included, against Israel, the US, Jews and Christians. The challenge looked even more complicated as the first test case would be a conflict between Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood’s official branch in the Palestinian territories, Hamas. Yet from the beginning, and despite great pressure from Hamas and Egyptian demonstrators – the Mursi regime played a crucial and effective role in the achievement of a deal which would end the cycle of violence. Very quickly, and despite the absence of public discussions between the Israeli and Egyptian governments, Israel agreed to view Mursi’s Egypt as a legitimate “Middle Man” for the negotiations, and used Mursi’s newly appointed commanders of intelligence as their agreed liaison. Mursi’s leverage on Hamas, and on Israel, was crucial for the resumption of the negotiations and for an end to the violence. Mursi managed in this week to overshadow other actors who had tried to build bridges between Hamas and the West – Turkey and Qatar; and managed to overlap them under his auspices. It was clear that both Israel and Hamas understood that the “Best Man” of this wedding was Egypt, and so the one who would announce the ceasefire would be the Egyptian FM. Moreover, according to the media coverage both sides saw Egypt as the guarantor for the success of the ceasefire and even appointed Egypt to be the “Judge”. In just one week, Mursi, who was an enigma to the West, became the most wanted leader for photo-opps and meetings, sought-after by everyone from the UN Secretary General, German FM, Khaled Mashaal and Hilary Clinton. It was enough to hear the praises Mursi received from Clinton and Israeli Leaders to understand that a new actor has risen to the skies of the Middle East. This last week, and the new positioning of the new Egypt, is crucial for any future developments in the Middle East.

USA

Despite the fact that it was very low-key in its initial involvement in the operation, the United States proved once again its dominance over Middle East events. It was no surprise that a ceasefire started only after Hillary Clinton arrived and met with the leaders, leading the final push needed for the execution of the ceasefire. Post the election America, while clear how reluctant it is to be involved in international events given important domestic issues, has proven it has enough leverage on all sides – and enough skills too. It enabled to the Israeli government to go ahead with the ceasefire, framing the it as an “acceptance of a US proposal” (not a Hamas-Egyptian deal) while promising to help Israel in its fight for security. It used Egypt’s financial interests in US foreign aid to pressure Mursi to persuade Hamas and to avoid any escalations, and also to prevent any extreme measures by the Egyptians against Israel – as demanded by Egyptian protestors. While standing next to Israel from day one, it remained a key player necessary for all actors in the region, making the calls or at least making sure that the right calls were made. In light of all challenges the area faces – this reminder of a US presence was extremely important and reassuring.

Iran

The past week was maybe one of the few weeks in recent times were we barely heard about Iran, but make no mistake its involvement was strong, direct and dangerous. It wasn’t only that Iran played a role through the deadly Fajr 5 missiles launched by Hamas against Israeli metropolises (a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards admitted it was Iranian technology and finance) but Iran did as much as it could to escalate the situation and avoid a ceasefire. Through its strong ally Islamic Jihad – it ordered an increase in the launching of missiles and to harden the line that the Palestinians conveyed to Egypt in negotiations. So to some extent it prevented a ceasefire in the first days of the operation. Some say, it even encouraged the launching of missiles towards Israel before the operation began (120 missiles were launched towards Israel in the 3 weeks before) in order to warm up the border and to distract international attention from its ally in Damascus. Iran, which still poses a direct threat to Israel and the West, was highly invested in this operation, with the money and the weapons, which were used against Israel; and is willing to continue to support all groups that stand next to it in its battle to “wipe Israel off the map”. When Israeli PM Netanyahu calls Gaza as an Iranian base – this week proved what he meant. The new Middle East, filled by Islamic trends and a hatred for Israel, effects Iran’s intentions and its attempts to build new alliances against the common enemy – Israel – and the new situation, after the operation may effect their success. Hamas needs Iran to recover, Egypt would need to decide whether it stands next to it or against it, Turkey, Qatar and other Arab and Muslim nations – who have just backed Hamas over the PA and against Israel – need to draw the line before they find themselves on the wrong side of the equation that Iran is tryng to create.

Pillar of Defence was not just an operation which consisted of a battle between Israel and Hamas – it can be considered as a strategic turning point for the region. As they say, “With power comes great responsibility”, and the new empowered actors must see now, as the dust settles, how they channel their powers towards a stable Middle East. If they’ll mishandle their authority and capabilities – the next cycle of violence is only a matter of time. If so, something tells me that it would be much a more dangerous one.