The bloody confrontation between Israel and Palestinian extremists after the death of Ahmed Jaabari, Hamas’s military commander, follows a familiar pattern of targeted assassinations and rocket attacks from Gaza aimed at Israeli population centres. In 1996, Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas bomb maker known as the Engineer, was killed by a targeted Israeli attack. In 2002, Salah Shehada, leader of Hamas’s military wing, was similarly dispatched, as was Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a founder of Hamas, in 2004. Broader confrontations then ensued.
When the Labour-led government of Shimon Peres took down Yahya Ayyash, for instance, there was a rash of suicide bombings that killed more than 60 Israelis and triggered blockades of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank.
Few Israelis question the wisdom of their government’s actions now, whatever the retaliation, because terrorism is a real and immediate threat to their homes and lives. Hamas apologists might claim that very few Israelis have been killed over the years in comparison with ordinary Palestinians, who have suffered many more casualties in what seems an inevitable cycle of escalation. One reason for the large numbers of civilian casualties, of course, is the fact that Gazan weapons production and infrastructures are located within the confines of one of the world’s most densely populated ghettos.
An Israeli election campaign is now under way, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not risk the appearance of backing off in the face of Hamas’s rocket attacks. His reputation is based on a well-established and tough image – the “iron fist.” Electoral considerations aside, Mr. Netanyahu strongly believes that any perception of Israel moderation now would encourage radical Islamists to do still more damage, which they likely would. If there’s a price to be paid, Mr. Netanyahu will pay it. Israel will continue to target Hamas’s military wing because more than one million Israelis are directly within missile range. And that range is expanding – even Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest population centre, has been targeted this time.
Unless Barack Obama can find a way to persuade the sides to back off, a further flurry of “revenge” attacks could send Israeli ground troops into Gaza in a massive “search and destroy” mission, paralleling that of 2008. The aim would be twofold: to further degrade Hamas’s war-making capacity and, as important, that of more radical groups such as Islamic Jihad that have never exercised even relative restraint; and to intensify the “hurt” factor, pushing those in control in Gaza to actively seek some kind of face-saving formula because there’s just too much suffering.
The longer such an intervention were to last, if days stretch to weeks and weeks to months, so will the international community’s concern spiral. While many express understanding for Israel’s decision on targeted assassinations, patience will be quickly exhausted as the blood continues to flow. For this reason, Israeli plans would almost certainly call for as short and speedy an intervention as possible.
But there’s never any certainty. The bloodletting serves not only to further demonize Israel in the Arab world but contributes to further alienation from the United States, which is seen on the Islamic street as pursuing Israel’s interests without question – humiliating Islam.
Arab regimes that have come to power in the wake of the Arab uprisings are fragile. These governments need to consolidate their own positions internally, and must be seen to be true to ideology. By personal inclination, these leaderships, such as Mohamed Morsi’s in Egypt, share street opinion and, indeed, have capitalized on it in the past.
Yet, Mr. Morsi is now walking a tightrope. Egypt, which needs massive Western financial assistance and continued American support not only for its economy but also its armed forces, has no interest in provoking a confrontation that could prove costly to foreign investment and tourism. Nor does Mr. Morsi want to abandon Egypt’s traditional role as a major strategic player in the region.
The Egyptian President has a tough balancing act. Although he resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood upon assuming the presidency, he’s still part and parcel of that constituency. While his government has been muted in its reaction, despite the recall of its ambassador to Israel, the Brotherhood’s rhetoric has been full of fire and brimstone.
Should a steep deterioration of the situation result in Egypt’s expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, we would really be heading down a long, dark tunnel. Thus, it’s in Egypt’s interest to counsel restraint to Hamas, possibly using the threat of sealing the Egyptian/Gaza border as leverage. This border is Gaza’s only lifeline to the outside.
We can be sure that Mr. Obama is playing on all these factors in hopes of a return to the status quo ante. We may wish him success, but the odds seem heavily stacked against him.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.
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