The ongoing changes gripping the Middle East over the last two years seem to keep surprising leaders and analysts alike. History once again repeated itself recently. The mini Israeli war against Hamas was short-sighted and did more harm to Israel’s stature and deterrence. It also emboldened Hamas — gaining support not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank — brought to the fore Egypt to regain its leadership role as a pivotal country in the new Arab order, tested the effectiveness of the so-called defensive system known as the “Iron Dome” and validated the assumption that the US cannot really “pivot” away from the Middle East towards Asia.
Moreover, the mini-war dealt a blow to the old ‘Axis of Resistance’ by plucking out Hamas from the Iranian orbit and silencing Iran and Hezbollah. The tactical success of the “Iron Dome” — which shot down one-third of Hamas’s 1,500 missiles — at a cost of $30 million (Dh110.34 million) is a clarion call to both Hezbollah and Iran alike not to mess with Israel. On top of that, the gamble by Benjamin Netanyahu will be tested and its dividends will be known with the looming Knesset election in January.
Back in 2008, just a few weeks after the election of President Barrack Obama, the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, had launched a bloody war against besieged and wretched Gaza in what was dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”. Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, four years later, does not seem to have comprehended the lessons from that conflict and has not grasped the profound changes that have come about since then in the region.
Just days after the re-election of President Obama, Netanyahu launched another war against Gaza dubbed “Operation Pillar of Cloud” with a biblical connotation. What sparked the latest showdown was Israel’s provocative target assassination of Ahmad Al Jabari, the leader and chief of military operations of the armed wing of Hamas — Al Qasam. A tit-for-tat attacks across the border that ensued caused much destruction to Gaza once again and witnessed a new balance of terror albeit limited in scope when Hamas missiles blitzed cities in southern Israel, and more surprisingly, the major cities of Tel Aviv and occupied Jerusalem. The bloody face of the mini-war, which caused much harm and destruction to Gaza, with a numbing death toll of 167, mostly civilians — including 42 children, 11 women, 18 elders and injured 1,222, including 431 children, 207 women and 88 elders. In comparison, only six Israelis were killed and a few injured. Clearly, the Palestinians have been hurt and have suffered more casualties than the Israelis with the disproportionate Israeli retaliation.
The war set in a new reality and put for the first time about three million Israelis under direct attack by Hamas’ missiles. Though the military operation was short and inconclusive, lasting just eight days, yet it has set in motion new dynamics. It is feared that the fragile US-Egypt orchestrated ceasefire, that was celebrated by Hamas as a victory and caused anxieties and criticism in Israel, could re-ignite “Round Three” without a lasting arrangement for permanent peace and security. Anthony Cordesman argued this could “lead to a degree of strategic paralysis that ensures no stable solution is possible to the crisis, that future tensions will rise, that Palestinians will suffer more because they are weak and that Israelis will not become more secure simply because they are strong”.
The Israeli mini-war, took place in a new, much changed and different Egypt, Israel’s neighbours, the Middle East and Arab World. The Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi put it best when he said: “We won’t let Gaza to face the onslaught alone.” Mursi then sent his prime minister in the midst of the war to Gaza, recalled his ambassador, answered phone calls from President Obama more than once received US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and emerged as the guarantor and the arbitrator for the ceasefire. The Tunisian Foreign Minister announced from Gaza “what used to be the norm in here are no longer the norms.” Even the language of the Arab League, which hosted an emergency session for Arab foreign ministers, was bolder and much more salient with clear nuance and assertiveness. For the first time, there were talks about rethinking the moribund decade-old ‘Arab initiative’ which was the only feeble Arab peace strategy announced at the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002. More Arab leaders are expected to visit Gaza in a show of solidarity and defiance with the victorious Gazans.
With Palestinians celebrating the end of the inconclusive war, the Israelis are probably wondering about the end results and what the military operation achieved. One could argue that this war was the wrong war in a new regional order. The face of the Arab world has changed. Although, the Arab Spring is still a work-in-progress, yet the Arab Spring republics played a leading role — along with the GCC states, led by Qatar and supported by Turkey in the latest showdown. Clearly, it was not only Hamas that punched above its weight, Egypt emerged as the mediator, broker and the guarantor of the ceasefire. Debka, the Israeli intelligence outfit, summarised the Israeli dilemma and its war in a changed environment, arguing: “By deferring to Egypt’s superior authority, Israel let itself be demoted to an equal footing with Hamas, a group listed as a terrorist organisation in the US and Europe and dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state.”
The positive outcome of the “Pillar of Cloud” operation could be the reconciliation between Hamas and its rival Fatah, especially with the serious bid by the Palestinian National Authority to push forward with an observer status for Palestine in the UN.
The wrong Israeli war in a changed region with a changed regional dynamic and trajectory was delineated recently by the Economist: “Hamas’s leaders may well conclude that time is on their side. As Islamists across the Arab world have gained clout, so Hamas has made powerful and rich friends. Turkey, a resurgent regional power that was once Israel’s closest Muslim ally, has taken up Hamas’s cause; so has Qatar, one of the richest and most dynamic of the Gulf states. Jubilant Hamas people say an Islamist crescent is curving around Israel, from Lebanon in the north, where Hezbollah holds sway, through Syria, where rebels of an increasingly Islamist bent may topple Bashar Al Assad, and downwards through Jordan, where Hamas’s allies are menacing the king.”
When will Israel learn that regardless of how powerful it gets, the lesson of the time has to be heeded. The occupation, the oppression, the unjust and inhuman treatment of the Palestinians — killing them, humiliating them, colonising their land — will have to end. It will not solve Israel’s security dilemma. Israel cannot afford to be the only imperialist power left in the world and its best option is to become a normal state and make peace, not wars.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji