The air-raid sirens that shocked residents of Jerusalem at sunset Friday night signalled more than just the launch of a missile from Gaza aimed at the holy city. Coupled with yet more rockets reaching the Tel Aviv area, it meant that the militant Islamic movement, Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has withstood heavy bombardment from Israel and retains a new capacity to strike at the heart of the Jewish state.
It also means there is a whole new equation in finding a way out of the current conflict that has seen Israel and Hamas hammering each other with rockets for the past three days: It’s a formula that could bring regional powers into play, if not into war.
Inside Israel, the pressure is building to take greater action against Hamas, which is being held responsible for the rain of rockets emanating from Gaza’s numerous militant resistance movements. Israelis are not used to having their comfortable main cities come under threat as they have this week and they expect the government to do something about it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing an election in nine weeks, is acutely aware of the pressure.
The nine-member security cabinet met Friday night at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv to decide on a course of action and voted to increase the call-up of reservists to 75,000 from the 30,000 approved just a day before.
Along with a steady stream of tanks and other armoured vehicles being trucked all day Friday to the outskirts of Gaza, as well as an announcement that roads on the perimeter of the strip are now a “closed military zone,” it suggests an imminent ground war.
“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Mr. Netanyahu said Friday.
But the options for his government are not so clear.
If it does nothing but maintain current tactics, it will most likely embolden Hamas. The current approach of treading carefully in its missile attacks on Gaza’s military installations, limiting civilian casualties, is unlikely to make Hamas “beg for a ceasefire,” something Israeli officials said Thursday they wanted to see before they ended their assault on Gaza.
But if, instead, Israel launches a ground war and invades Gaza as it did in the 2008-2009 war against Hamas, the government risks its army getting bogged down in fighting and suffering casualties of its own, just weeks before an election.
If it chooses to intensify its air war, as it also did in the 2008-2009 fighting, it risks taking many more Palestinian lives and losing the international goodwill it has painstakingly cultivated. That, too, would haunt Mr. Netanyahu and his allies in the January vote.
It appears to be a no-win choice.
The last two options of increasing military force also run the risk of bringing regional powers into the conflict.
Egypt, for example, whose new Muslim Brotherhood Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited Gaza Friday in a show of solidarity, has so far only condemned Israel for its “unacceptable” attacks on Gaza, and has turned a blind eye to a certain amount of smuggling of weapons into the strip from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Though Mr. Qandil vowed to stand by the Palestinian people until they achieved a state, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who appeared in public Friday for the first time in several days, is reported to be disappointed that Egypt didn’t offer more.
Should the military operation escalate, however, and Egypt’s Islamic ally, Hamas, be existentially threatened, President Mohamed Morsi will be under great domestic pressure to act. He could do much more to supply the Gazan leadership with weapons and to fortify Sinai with Egyptian troops, breaking the country’s peace treaty with Israel in the process. From there it’s not such a long way to conflict between Israeli and Egyptian forces.
More countries than Egypt could be involved. Tunisia’s newly elected Islamist government also has voiced support for Hamas, and its foreign minister is scheduled to visit Gaza Saturday.
Not to be outdone, the region’s biggest power, Turkey, has its Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arriving in Cairo this weekend, with the prospect of a trip to Gaza not at all unlikely. Mr. Erdogan is one of Hamas’s earliest supporters and has broken off dealings with Israel over his support for flotillas that sought to break the blockade of Gaza.
Even Israel’s closest neighbour, Jordan, could be brought into the mix. King Abdullah, whose father, Hussein, signed a historic treaty with Israel, is under fire from the public for the high cost of essential products such as cooking oil. Recent protests have been led by the Muslim Brotherhood that also professes fidelity to Hamas. It is quite possible that King Abdullah may be compelled to withdraw his ambassador to Israel just as Egypt did this week after Israel’s assassination of the Hamas military commander, Ahmed Jaabari.
All these displays of solidarity may buttress Hamas, but it may be a double-edged sword as they may also make Hamas dependent on their continued support.
None of these countries has an interest in regional war; all of them want to see the spread of Islamist governments, especially those cut from Muslim Brotherhood cloth. And each of these countries has ties to Washington they want to see continue.
Mr. Morsi, for example, is under pressure to make a radical break from former president Hosni Mubarak’s support for Israel, but, at the same time, he wants to ensure the Obama administration’s aid in resurrecting Egypt’s economy, and that means maintaining the U.S.-mediated Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Ironically, Israel’s best hope of getting Hamas to agree to a meaningful ceasefire may rest with the very countries that are embracing Hamas today.
While Egyptian Prime Minister Qandil said nothing in public in Gaza about a proposal for a truce, leading Israeli analysts say Egypt is trying to broker a ceasefire. But under pressure to act against Hamas, the Netanyahu government may scuttle such efforts.
“From Israel’s perspective, ignoring Egypt’s truce proposal in order to do more damage to Hamas now could ruin the chances of Cairo being an effective mediator in the future,” wrote Zvi Bar’el in Haartez on Friday. “Acceding could serve both sides’ interests.”
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