The latest round of violence in the Gaza Strip between the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and the Israel Defense Force continues in fits and starts, even after calls from President Obama for an unconditional cease-fire. In many ways, this is the continuation of a long and bloody conflict dating back to Israel’s creation in 1948. Here are a few twists to an old conflict that have gone largely unnoticed:
Israel’s enemy is invisible to the West. When was the last time you saw a Hamas fighter on your TV screen? I’m willing to bet the answer is “never.” Hamas has not allowed one embedded journalist. They have not released any YouTube videos, either. It’s almost as though Israel is firing blindly into the densely populated Gaza Strip without a military target in sight. The West only sees the devastating aftermath of the firefights in Gaza, but never what led to them. The journalists reporting from Gaza have not done a good enough job explaining this dynamic.
New Middle East politics are preventing a cease-fire. It may look like Israel versus Hamas, but it’s also Egypt versus Turkey and Qatar. Egypt has it out for the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is a splinter faction of the Brotherhood. Turkey and Qatar are the last remaining bastions of Brotherhood support in the aftermath of the movement’s collapse in the Arab Spring. These actors are now locked in a bitter fight over the terms of the cease-fire — and the future of the movement. Turkey and Qatar want favorable terms for Hamas that Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, will not abide. The longer this continues, the longer the deadlock, and the more blood will be shed in Gaza.
Hamas rockets are Iranian rockets. The rockets that have been fired into Israel from Gaza have Iranian fingerprints all over them. The longer-range M302 and M75 rockets were smuggled to Hamas courtesy of Iran. Hamas has indigenous rocket capabilities thanks to Iranian training. Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said as much last week. This is not surprising, but here’s what is: America provided Iran with sanctions relief for complying with technical issues on its illicit nuclear program during the time that Hamas stocked up on Iranian arms. In other words, American sanctions relief has indirectly subsidized Hamas’ Iranian rockets.
Washington looks confused. Iran is just one example of how American foreign policy has looked muddled. The president balked on enforcing his “red line” in Syria last year, and let’s not forget the failure of U.S.-led peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis in April. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has hung in there admirably since the Gaza conflict erupted, fighting for a cease-fire. But he created quite a diplomatic storm on Saturday, endorsing a Qatar-Turkey cease-fire plan, which only served to alienate the Israelis, Egyptians and others.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could be the big winner. Mr. Abbas has been sidelined of late. He moved his family to Jordan while the West Bank erupted in protest against the Israeli ground operations in Gaza. Some say he’s irrelevant, but he’s not. He’s still the moderate Palestinian yin to Hamas’ radical yang, and the West loves him for that. The Israelis love him less, but he is still their first choice among Palestinian leaders. Mr. Abbas know this, which explains why he insists that he is the only one who can deliver calm. He has ulterior motives, though. He is looking to retake control of the Gaza Strip, which Hamas conquered by force in 2007. It was a black eye for Mr. Abbas that he has not forgotten. It’s possible now that he will benefit from Israel’s weakening of Hamas. Depending upon how diplomacy goes, he might also assume meaningful responsibility over the Gaza Strip, and still find time to take the Israelis to the International Criminal Court for what he calls “war crimes” in Gaza. Talk about a happy ending for Mr. Abbas.
A mass-casualty event was prevented. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not want this war. He delayed a ground assault multiple times before finally giving way, at considerable damage to his ruling coalition. There can be no doubt that he feels vindicated, though. Since going in on the ground, the Israelis have discovered more than 32 sophisticated tunnels that snaked their way into Israeli territory. Hamas’ goal was to launch a coordinated ground assault. This war, however painful for Israel to endure, prevented a surprise attack that could have yielded far more casualties than the 43 reported so far.
Israel’s ground forces are back. The 2006 war with Hezbollah was a bitter pill for the IDF. They were unprepared for a ground war and flailed. Not so today. Operation “Protective Edge” may sound like a shaving-cream commercial, but it is undeniable that Israel has dominated the battlefield. Remarkable Israeli technology has contributed to this effort, such as the Iron Dome rocket-defense system and the Trophy anti-missile system that protects Israeli tanks. In short, this war is re-establishing Israeli deterrence. More importantly, it is restoring morale in a country where the army is a central institution.
This war is backed by 86.5 percent of Israelis. This is an astounding number for a place where everybody argues about everything. Israelis can’t agree on the color of hummus. One news broadcast after another make it clear that the vast majority of Israelis see this operation as key to their long-term security. Threats of sanctions or war-crimes tribunals mean little to this tiny country when survival is on the line. The Israeli public wants the IDF to finish the job of destroying tunnels and rocket stores before facing the political and legal challenges that are sure to follow.
Three weeks of war has only deepened the bitterness on both sides of this conflict. This is not new. But it is clear that the other dynamics at play are different than in battles of the past.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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