Israel's assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari will reverberate far beyond the impoverished, violence-torn Gaza Strip.
In striking Hamas, and especially if the bloodshed continues, Israel will be widely regarded as attacking the broader Muslim Brotherhood, which, under various names, embraces a host of Islamic political movements throughout the Arab world.
With affiliates now in the ascendant across the Arab world – already in power in Cairo and Tunis, spearheading rebel forces trying to oust the Syrian regime and drawing support from rich Gulf countries – the Israeli strike threatens an increasingly fragile Middle East peace.
The dangers of regional conflagration may be greater than at any time in decades – and certainly since Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Israel and Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf war in 1991.
Thursday, a Hamas rocket killed three Israelis north of the Gaza Strip, as the Palestinian death toll rose to 15 and the military showdown threatened to develop into all-out war.
"Israel does not want war," Defence Minister Ehud Barak said hours after Israeli fighter-bombers launched scores of bombing raids. But "Israel will not tolerate a situation in which Islamic militants continue to fire barrages of missiles from Gaza into Israel," he vowed.
In a grim warning, Mr. Barak added that Wednesday's air strikes were just "the beginning of the event, not at the end."
Hamas, first elected to govern the Gaza Strip in 2006, is a direct offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has been the standard-bearer for an Islamic government in nascent Palestine, fighting off its more secular Palestinian rivals for dominance in the densely populated swathe of land between Israel and Egypt. Under its reign, militants have fired thousands of short-range rockets into Israel, prompting periodic retaliation and the outlay of billions of dollars by Israel to construct a sophisticated anti-missile system called "Iron Dome."
Wednesday's devastating military strikes on Mr. Jaabari and the Hamas infrastructure were the biggest since Dec. 27, 2008, when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip. Raging battles, often in urban slums packed with homes and schools, left some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers dead.
As Israel's hard-line Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, girds for re-election early next year, the latest Gaza attack served notice that war remains a very real option for the Jewish state. His government promised that the killing of Mr. Jaabari, a veteran military commander held in almost mythic esteem, could be just the beginning of a Gaza campaign that could last days or even weeks.
In ordering the assassination, Mr. Netanyahu took a calibrated risk that presumes the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt will not respond militarily in support of its political brothers in Gaza, according to Mark Heller, a senior research associate at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.
"The worst realistic scenario would be if Egypt broke relations with Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador, and maybe declared support for Hamas and provided some supplies," said Mr. Heller, a former adviser to Mr. Barak. Israeli leaders, he added, "hope that Egypt will content itself with perhaps just recalling their ambassador and then quietly working to restrain Hamas in the future."
For Egypt's fragile new democracy and its President, Mohammed Morsi, the Israeli attack in Gaza complicates an already tense peace. Mr. Morsi, like his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had tried to mediate between Israel and Islamic militants in Gaza. He had little success, and after the assassination the deep-seated fury among many Egyptians that had been ruthlessly silenced for decades was evident.
Mr. Morsi's own Islamic Freedom and Justice Party issued a statement saying, "The wanton aggression against Gaza proves that Israel has yet to realize that Egypt has changed and that the Egyptian people who revolted against oppression and injustice will not accept assaulting Gaza."
Mr. Morsi must navigate treacherous shoals. He can't abandon Gazans as they are bombed by Israel and needs to show solidarity with another Brotherhood government. Nor, as an avowed democrat, can he simply silence internal opposition with truncheons and prison. Yet he is seeking to keep billions in aid flowing from the United States and so can't risk open hostilities with Israel.
But if the blood continues to flow in Gaza's coastal strip where 1.5 million Palestinians live mostly in poverty and anger, Mr. Morsi will come under increasing domestic pressure to tear up the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, or at least threaten to do so.
For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has reaffirmed his willingness to strike far and hard. Only weeks after Israeli warplanes flew thousands of kilometres to bomb a munitions factory in Khartoum – a facility linked to Iranian support of Hamas militants firing rockets into Israel, the Gaza strikes back up his avowed willingness to act – alone, if necessary – against Iran's nuclear program.
- With a report from Reuters
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