By Rajeev Agarwal
On 14 November, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in an attempt to prevent rocket attacks from Gaza and protect its citizens in South Israel. Commencing with the targeted assassination of Ahmed Jaabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing on 14 November, and the subsequent killing of Hamas’ Central Command chief Ahmad Abu Jalal on 16 November, the operation is threatening to become a full scale Israeli ground offensive into the Gaza Strip. Jaabari is the most senior Hamas official to be killed since an Israeli invasion of Gaza four years ago and he had topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Throughout the week, Israeli fighter planes and artillery have rained bombs and shells into Gaza killing up to 52 people. In fact, on 17-18 November, sea borne firing added a new dimension to the Israeli firepower brought to bear upon Gaza. While the United States stands committed to Israel, though in a much muted tone, there has been outrage in the region, particularly from neighbours such as Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Tunisia as well as the Arab League.
The present crisis has thrown up a host of questions in an already turbulent region.
- What prompted Israel to undertake this punitive action?
- Will it be able to dictate terms as it did in December 2008?
- How will the emerging Arab region respond to this crisis? Will it spark off an unprecedented Arab and Muslim solidarity?
- Will Israel take the risk of launching a ground offensive?
It may be perhaps more than just a curious coincidence that Israel has undertaken the decision to launch the present military operation exactly four years after the last offensive in Gaza. A few factors need to be taken into account in this context.
- In 2008, as well as now, Israel undertook the decision to launch operations just after US Presidential elections, this time exactly one week after the pronouncement of results.
- Both in 2008 and now, the provocation was not a direct and immediate military or terrorist action by Hamas or any other Palestinian group, but perceived and declared threat to the lives of its citizens in South Israel. The Hamas rocket attacks into Israel were an ongoing phenomenon at a scale that was not unprecedented on both occasions.
- On both occasions, it was the Israelis who provoked the Hamas to react offensively. On 4 November 2008, Israel launched a military strike on Hamas to destroy a tunnel on the Gaza-Israel border dug by militants to infiltrate into Israel and abduct soldiers. According to Israel, the raid was not a violation of the ceasefire, but a legitimate step to remove an immediate threat even as Israeli infantry and tanks entered the Gaza Strip. Similarly, this time, the assassination of Ahmed Jaabari was an Israeli provocation which prompted a barrage of Hamas fired rockets into Israel.
- Both in 2008 and now, the Government in Israel stood practically dismissed and early elections announced. War rhetoric has always drawn Israelis towards the ruling dispensation and the leaders would be banking on similar support to ensure re-election.
Israel is on a war footing to prepare for a possible ground offensive. The Israeli Cabinet on 16 November approved Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s request to call up 75,000 reservists (significantly more than the 10,000 called up during Operation Cast Lead), of which 16,000 have already been summoned. Sea borne attacks from the Mediterranean have joined the aerial attacks into Gaza. With the United States already committed to support, Israel is lobbying hard for support from the European Union as well.
Hamas, on the other hand, has vowed to retaliate. The Qassam Brigades of Hamas issued a furious communiqué in response to Jaabari’s death on 14 November, saying that Israel had “opened the gates of hell on itself.” Fawzi Barhum, a spokesman for the ruling Hamas, said “The occupation committed a dangerous crime and crossed all the red lines, which is considered a declaration of war.”
Hamas is banking on support from the Arab World and all Muslim countries. In military might, it is no match to the Israeli war machinery. It does not have any fighter planes or artillery and has to solely rely on rocket attacks. Additionally, the success of its rockets striking targets in Israel also stands reduced in light of the Iron Dome Missile Defence System installed by the Israelis. Israel has claimed that the Iron Dome has been able to intercept and destroy most of the rockets targeted towards it.
Egypt was amongst the first to react and condemn Israeli actions. On 15 November President Morsi recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Israel in protest and ordered his prime minister to head to Gaza in a show of solidarity. “We don’t accept the continuation of this (Israeli) threat and aggression against the people of Gaza,” Morsi said in comments at a Cabinet meeting aired on state TV. “The Israelis must realize that we don’t accept this aggression and that it can only lead to instability in the region.” Morsi also said, “Egypt will not leave Gaza alone. I speak on behalf of all of the Egyptian people that Egypt today is different from Egypt yesterday, and the Arabs today are different from the Arabs of yesterday.”
Hamas has always enjoyed excellent rapport with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political group. Since entering office in June 2012, Morsi had hosted Hamas leaders and has repeatedly pledged support to the Palestinians. In fact, Morsi has also opened Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza for Palestinians to enter and exit. Thousands of Egyptians gathered outside mosques and in squares across the country on 16 November calling on Egypt and the Arab world to back the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.
Turkey too has pledged support for Gaza and has condemned Israeli actions. Prime Minister Erdogan said that Israel had started striking Gaza and killing innocent people using fictional excuses ahead of elections, as had happened prior to the 2008 election. In fact, Erdogan had also recently announced that he would visit Gaza.
Iran came out in strong support of Gaza with its Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast saying “Iran considers the criminal act of Israeli military forces in killing civilians as organized terrorism and strongly condemns it.” On 18 November, at Syria’s National Dialog meeting in Tehran, the Iranian foreign minister said that Arab countries and particularly the Arab League and Muslim countries should focus all their attention on the main enemy and take practical measures to help the innocent people of Gaza.
Tunisia too joined in condemning Israel. Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem visited the Gaza Strip and denounced Israeli attacks as unacceptable and against international law. “Israel should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river,” Abdesslem said.
The Arab League called an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers in Cairo on 17 November. The meeting denounced Israeli military actions in Gaza and decided that Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi would head a delegation to Gaza in a show of solidarity.
It would be naïve to contend that Israel would not have expected a serious response from Hamas after the killing of its military chief and subsequent air strikes in Gaza. It is however difficult to pinpoint any specific military provocation from Hamas which led to such a severe initiation of strikes from Israel. The only reason, as discussed above, could be the political mileage that Netanyahu hopes to gain in the run-up to the elections. Here, it is important to remember that Israel, in recent times, had been largely unsuccessful in building up international rhetoric against Iran and it nuclear weapons programme. That would have left the option of a war on Palestine ‘to teach them a lesson’ as a platform to mobilise national support. The same could be gauged from the statement of Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has been quoted by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper as saying that the goal of the operation was “to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years”. Also, on 14 November, an Israeli official said that they may try to topple Palestinian Chief Mohammed Abbas if he carries out a plan to ask the United Nations this month to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority which would give the Palestinians a place in the UN akin to that of the Vatican – short of full membership as a sovereign state but as close as they can get without the full recognition that Israel says can only come from a peace treaty. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a speech on 14 November at the settlement of Ariel in the occupied West Bank that if the Palestinian upgrade request was accepted – as is widely predicted – it could force Israel to punish the Palestinians.
Israel has commenced a process which can only escalate into an irreversible security and geopolitical situation in the region. Israel has not benefited from the Arab Spring in any way and this could further increase its isolation in the region. Egypt is not the same as in 2008 and Israel cannot bank on a muted stance from it. With Sinai already burning, Israel cannot afford to open any more fronts. Israel’s falling out with Turkey will add to its strained position in the region, with the latter pledging support for Gaza. The Islamists, rejuvenated after the Arab Spring, are calling for Arab and Muslim unity which could only be bad news for Israel. Even the much-discussed potential opening for direct US-Iran nuclear negotiations could potentially be affected by the unfolding confrontation. A full scale ground offensive could build up into something messier than Israel may bargain for and the scars would set the Middle East Peace Process back by decades. Israel has to soon find ways to de-escalate the situation without losing face with its electorate.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/CanIsraelAffordtheRiskofOperationCastLeadPart2_RajeevAgarwal_191112