War Drums in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Prepare to Challenge a New Regional Order
By Kaylan Geiger
Over the course of the past few days, reports of an increase in Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip have fluttered across headlines. With minimal attention, these attacks did not raise significant red flags, seeing as they have become commonplace in an area that has been prone to conflict long before the series of Arab uprisings that have dominated the news over the past two years. With the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari on November 14, it looks as though the increase in violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will once again become something more than just a series of headlines.
There is no doubt that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has become sidelined over the past two years, with much speculation over when and how Palestine will introduce itself to the Arab Spring. Even the Palestinians’ petition to the United Nations in September 2011 to modify their status in the General Assembly did not bring the conflict back to the forefront of Middle East politics, as events in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen continued to dominate news reports and analyses.
Yet, Ahmed al-Jabari’s assassination, coupled with the increase of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and the upcoming Israeli election, appears to have broken the glass that has kept the conflict at bay over the past two years. While it is still too recent to estimate what affect the reverberations of the assassination and these attacks may have on the region, they certainly will provide the first real challenge for a the new political order in the Middle East and U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term in office.
The most prominent challenge will be close to the heart of the conflict, challenging the strength of the Palestinian Authority, in addition to the Palestinian political parties of Hamas and Fatah amidst an ongoing rift despite years of attempts to reconcile their differences. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) plans to bid, for a second time, that Palestine obtain nonmember observer status at the United Nations on November 29. It is uncertain whether or not this increase in violence will affect the PLO’s petition, but these new circumstances will certainly present questions on whether or not the Palestinian Authority (PA), and more specifically Mahmoud Abbas, have the power to reignite solidarity amongst Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The division between these two territories boils down to more than just land and politics, it has become a division between people. The challenge to unite Palestinians has been daunting for the PA, and the division between Fatah-Hamas only exacerbates the problem. Events such as these, assassinations, airstrikes, and Israeli directed violence toward Palestinians, tend to unite Palestinians culturally, however, it is unlikely that the PA, or Hamas and Fatah, can steer that unity towards productivity in order to reignite political solidarity.
The next challenge comes from south of Gaza, as the new Muslim Brotherhood run government in Egypt seeks to reposition itself in Arab politics. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has repeatedly mentioned the Palestinian cause in public speeches, most specifically during his address to the United Nations General Assembly and the Arab League. There has been much speculation over whether or not Egypt’s policy toward Israel will change, as the policies of former President Hosni Mubarak remain stale in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government.
In the aftermath of the assassination on al-Jabari, the Muslim Brotherhood has called upon Morsi to review relations with Israel. While Morsi’s pragmatic political decisions up until this point make it unlikely that recent events will cause a shift in policy toward Israel, Egypt is now in a position to redefine itself in Arab, and global, politics. How it redefines itself will be less from political statements and more from concrete decisions and actions in the wake of these recent attacks. This is a political and cultural test for Egypt, one that has been looming since the January 25th uprising. However, given the lack of change in Egyptian policy toward Israel in the after effects of increased in violence across the Sinai Peninsula and the debacle at the Israeli embassy in 2011, it still remains unlikely that all of the speculation over an increase in Egypt’s defence for the Palestinian people will mature into a change in policy toward Israel.
On November 14, Israeli Defense spokesperson Avital Leibovitch stated that Israel’s targeted killing of Al-Jabari was the first target in a new military operation titled “Pillar of Defense.” In addition to the assassination of Al-Jabari, Israeli airstrikes targeted more than 20 sites across the Gaza Strip, claiming that Al-Jabari was the source of the terror emanating from the Gaza Strip and responsible for the increase in attacks on southern Israel. The decision to strike Al-Jabari is strategic and telling in many ways. First, the increase in attacks on the Gaza Strip is clearly, and well-noted as, a political move ahead of Israeli election in 2013. However, the decision to target Al-Jabari specifically, although it might appear obvious, is telling of Israeli politics and the defense policy of the current government. Al-Jabari played a significant role in the negotiations for the exchange of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for Palestinian prisoners. The decision to assassinate an individual who played what appears to be a crucial role in negotiations between Hamas and Israel, albeit through several channels and not always directly, presents a pessimistic outlook for further negotiations on a larger scale. The decision to strike on an individual who made the decision to negotiate with Israel will be presented as a reason for others to withhold from entering into talks on other issues.
From Israel’s standpoint, the decision to increase violence directed toward the Gaza Strip is concerning considering the emerging conflicts, both political and violent, the state is surrounded by. With riots erupting in Jordan on the day of the assassination, the assassination of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan in October 2011, and ongoing violence between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Syrian opposition, Israel’s decision to reignite violence comes at a dangerous time.
The response from the United States remains vague. Hours passed after the attack with no official response from the White House or the U.S. State Department. Given the lack of attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by the Obama administration in his first term, it appears unlikely that renewed violence in the conflict will jumpstart the United States’ role in the peace process.
With reports of Israel preparing a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip and Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades, stating that Israel “has opened the gates of hell” makes it clear that Al-Jabari’s assassination and the recent airstrikes have opened Pandora’s box. Whether or not the lid has been lifted entirely remains unclear, but what is clear is that this conflict has found its footing once again after months of stagnation.
Kaylan Geiger is a master’s candidate at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. She can be found on Twitter @kaylangeiger.