By Dishank Purohit:
There was general calm in Gaza after the horrors of the 2008 ‘Operation Cast Lead’, as it was called by the Israeli Defence force. It killed more than one thousand civilians and nearly destroyed Gaza city’s infrastructure. The attack unleashed by the IDF, according to Israeli newspapers was a message to Hamas to stop firing rockets; else Gaza will be brought to the brink of an irreversible catastrophe.
Indeed Hamas, the organization which rules the tiny Gaza strip, understood the message, therefore ever since 2008, Hamas has put rocket attacks on the back burner. Hamas’s pragmatism was based on two assumptions, the first being that regional Arab partners, especially Egypt, were less interested in helping it out. Secondly, Hamas’s actions tend have gory reactions, as for one missile, IDF launches multiple rockets.
Apparently, there had been increase in rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. According to one estimate, some 700 rockets were being fired. On November 10th, a Kornet missile targeted an IDF jeep and killed four soldiers, this incident finally ended the fragile peace, and both the sides again locked themselves in this never ending stalemate. This time the Israelis called it the ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’. But as it turned out in the later weeks, this time Hamas was not the principal group involved in the rocket attacks. Rather for the first time, small, yet more radicalized organizations like the Palestine Islamic jihad and Popular Resistance Committees did the most damage by targeting Israeli cities of Western Negev and then beyond it in Beersheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod.
According to a ‘Christian Science Monitor’ article, for Israel it does not matter who fires the bullet, as long as the gun is located in Gaza, the responsibility is on Hamas to prevent attacks on Israel, else Hamas will be punished for the crimes of other organizations. To prove this, Israel assassinated Ahmed Jabari , the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, whom Aluf Benn , a senior Israeli journalist described as a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza. Israel’s Defence Minister went one step ahead and declared that “Hamas is responsible for the rocket fire and all other attempts to harm our soldiers and civilians, even when other groups participate.” The message for Hamas was clear- you cannot shy away from your responsibility.
Given the destruction wrought by Israel and Hamas’s last major conflict, Hamas’s calculations in the lead-up to this round of fighting are especially puzzling. But at the same time it also reflects the new and changing realities of the Middle East, which acted as a catalyst in the enhancement of the conflict.
Hamas was greatly emboldened by the post-2011 Arab Spring and the changes in the regimes it brought. According to Jonathan Spyer of ‘Foreign Policy’, “Hamas has been deeply encouraged by the astonishing advances made by Sunni Islamism across the region. In Egypt and Tunisia, Hamas’s fellow Muslim Brothers are now in power. In Syria, Sunni Islamists are at the forefront of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. And the Emir of Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar recently visited Gaza, pledging a gift of $400 million.”
A big part of Hamas’s miscalculation was based on the Egyptian side. Indeed in the past, Mubarak’s regime had helped Israel in blockades, it also helped later to counter the threat of Hamas from its soil. Hamas’s hope was that in the post-revolution Egypt, its parent organization – the Muslim brotherhood would not follow the precedents of its precedent power and in turn would help it out against Israel. But as it turned out, the Mursi government was less interested in this whole affair, most apparent reason of which was the badly needed annual aid package of $2 billion from the US, $5 million from International Monetary Fund along with a $7 billion pledge by the European Union to Egypt. Instead, Egypt cajoled Hamas to sign a truce.
Hamas won elections in the year of 2006, and came to power in 2007. After elections, Hamas pushed its archival, a moderate political party ‘Fatah’ into the corner. Since then Hamas is ruling Gaza whereas Fatah is based in the West Bank. But the real problem is not Fatah, but the new and very potent ‘Salafi Jihadi’ groups that have threatened Hamas’s authority in Gaza. Hamas has bitterly involved itself in this conflict against Salafists. During August 2009, the Hamas police gunned down the leader Jund Ansar Allah amidst a fierce battle fought between the two. Even during the conflict, Hamas could not go very far to quell these groups, the reason behind which was a big fan following that the Salafists enjoy. Also, excessive force could have cost Hamas a lot in terms of popular support amongst Palestinians who would eventually support any group attacking Israel.
After the fall of regimes in Northern Africa and the revolution in Egypt, this pressure of Salafists has only increased. Salafi Jihadi fighters have channelled in weapons and fighters into the Sinai Peninsula and since Egyptian military has failed to neutralize the Salafists, these groups have waged a war against the state of Israel. In response, Israel is firing back. According to Mendelssohn of ‘Foreign affairs’, “As the ruler of Gaza, it could not sit on the sidelines while Israel targeted territory under its control”. Hence it was inevitable on Hamas’s part to restrain from the on-going conflict any longer.
According to ‘Foreign Affairs’, Hamas also miscalculated the Israeli reaction. It expected Israeli cooperation while Hamas reconciled with this paradox of the Salafists. In Israel, this is an election season where the embattled Benjamin Netanyahu has been under fire for his policies on Iran’s nuclear program; and there already are chances of tough contenders like Ehud Barak battling out for the post of the Prime Ministership. According to Hussein Ibish “Netanyahu has made his political career on security issues, but even if he hopes to limit the conflagration, it could spiral out of everyone’s control.”
In Relation, IDF launched ‘Operation Pillar Of Defense’ which had two objectives. Firstly by killing Jabbari, Israel threatened Hamas that its leadership could shrink in the wake of continuous target killings. Secondly, IDF during the course of action decimated many of Hamas’s long range rockets which Hamas fighters were using to fire near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, hence rendering Hamas incapable of firing further so deep in the Israel.
The Central Military Doctrine of Israel was based on the principle of ‘the deterrence’. This same policy was used by Israel during the 2006 operation against Hezbollah, where Israel heavily bombarded Hezbollah targets, and as a result, there has been calm along the borders of Hezbollah , Lebanon.
Barak Mendelsohn, in an article published in ‘Foreign Affairs’ wrote that “Hamas had a political interest in perpetuating the siege idea, which could be used to foment anger against Israel and drum up popular support.”
This aspect that Mr Mendelsohn points out cannot be taken for granted. Hamas is divided into two divisions, the politburo or the senior leadership residing in the neighbouring Arab countries like Syria, Egypt and Iran, this group is usually called as the ‘exile leaders’. But in recent times, the Hamas Gaza leadership is making the case that it is the local leadership of Hamas in Gaza that is on the driving seat and exile leaders are nothing more than just Hamas’ diplomatic arm. According to Hussein Ibish ,a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, in his column in ‘Foreign policy’ states that, “The attacks are part of the case for the transfer of paramount leadership away from the exiles and to the Hamas political and military leadership in Gaza, which portrays itself as doing the ruling and the fighting.”
Adding more to the fighting is the decision of Hamas head Khaled Mashaal to step down. The decision which he announced in September has opened the way for new leadership to step in, and according to The Guardian‘s report, two contenders in the fray are Abu Marzouk and Ismail Haniyeh. While Ismail Haniyeh is the Gaza based leader of Hamas, Abu Marzouk is the member of ‘exile leadership’ which is Cairo based. According to a Hussein Ibish article featured in Foreign Policy Magazine “A Haniyeh victory would cement the transfer of power within Hamas to Gaza, while Abu Marzook represents continued hopes that Hamas’s fortunes hinge on benefiting from the region-wide “Islamic Awakening” – the group’s interpretation of what others call the Arab Spring.”
Hamas cannot beat Israel, but it hopes to prove that it can outlast it. If Hamas can keep firing rockets, it can demonstrate to its own people that though it is bloodied, it is also unbowed. Moreover, by striking not only areas near Gaza but also firing on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas is trying to bring the war home to all Israelis -and score points with Palestinians at home with television images of Israelis running for cover. According to ‘Foreign Policy’, “This would play directly to the long-term goals shared by Hamas’ leaders in Gaza as well as those in exile: to take over from Fatah the role of primary representative of all Palestinians.”
In between this stalemate are the citizens of Gaza, a city which has been severely destroyed, it’s economy is crumbling down owing to the constant blockades; a whole new generation is growing up in Gaza where hopes are limited and the future looks bleak. Bereft of jobs and security, this generation is vulnerable in the hands of organizations like PRC and Hamas.
On the other side of the wall are Israelis , many of whom seriously believe in the doctrines of Theodor Herzl and have grown up listening to the stories of the holocaust. This combination makes both the sides, with each passing generation, more determined than ever to fight until one of them prevails over the other. Adding fuel to the fire are the religious dimensions and Biblical prophecies, about which Christopher Hitchens in his bestseller ‘God Is Not Great’ points out that, both the parties could have arrived at a logical conclusion, had there been no Rabbis or Imams and Biblical prophecies to threaten the two states.
Both Parties understand that they have come to a stalemate, which would not be resolved by another battle, rather, both are pursuing conflict to push their own political equations.