Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Sands shift under Israel and Hamas as conflict winds down

After a month-long barrage of missiles and rockets flew over the Gaza border, the bulk of Israel Defence Force (IDF) ground troops have left Palestinian territory.

The ground incursion aimed to find, fix and finish as many tunnels along the border as possible and stop rocket and mortar fire. According to IDF reports, more than 30 tunnels were destroyed and an estimated 70% of Hamas’ rocket inventory has either been fired or annihilated.
The UN claims more than 1,800 Palestinians were killed and over 60 Israelis. Multiple cease-fires were quickly violated, but now the two sides are discussing some form of truce. Considering Israel’s superior defensive capabilities, Hamas needs the truce more.

Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have the ability to crush the other, and every political solution offered has not worked. The situation always reverts to a who-punched-who-first, but it’s turtles all the way down and that’s never a good way to solve any crisis.

Israel refers to operations like Protective Edge as “mowing the grass”. Their end-game is always to remove Hamas’ fighting capability but keep it in power to avoid a power vacuum. Hamas wants to stay in power too, and retain their ability to rearm for future conflicts.

But the recent campaign in Israel smelt different to previous ones. This time it felt more like a proxy battle. This makes sense looking at the whole affair in a regional context. It is no longer simply fight between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is a struggle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich states of the Gulf usually leverage anti-Israel sentiment but they’re finding their mutual interests diverge as the power dynamics change in the Middle East.

It is also a clash between Iran and the Gulf States. This is the explosive divide separating Persian from Arab and Shiite from Sunni Muslim playing out all over the Middle East. Iran supports Hamas, as does Turkey and Qatar (where Hamas houses its headquarters).

This dynamic in particular reveals just how far the Middle East has changed. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are for the first time quietly rooting for Israel to remove the Muslim Brotherhood-associated Hamas once and for all. A new power alignment is materialising in the Middle East. The conflict has evolved into a battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and its Arab opponents.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are petrified of the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing influence. The group has already pushed its politics further than the Gulf States want, and they know the Muslim Brotherhood could one day attract support from Iran as another useful tool to undermine Sunni Arab power.

In Egypt, General-cum-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military-backed regime removed the Muslim Brotherhood government after it became too radical for the military’s liking. The Saudi monarchy keeps a heavy boot on the group, which has a presence in the kingdom.

As a result, the political costs of Israeli action against Hamas are lower than usual. Perhaps the Arab Spring stirred the dust enough to convince Israel’s traditional enemies that more pressing threats need addressing. Israel is by no means a friend to Arab nations, but they are proving useful.

Saudi Arabia can’t strike Iran or Qatar without hurting itself, so they encourage the Israelis to hammer Hamas instead. In Riyadh’s calculation, so long as it’s Israeli troops dying on the streets of Gaza, it isn’t Saudi troops. Each rocket emplacement or cache destroyed weakens Hamas and by extension Qatar and Iran. Egypt’s blockade of southern Gaza is also assisting the IDF campaign.

Cairo is conducting its own house-cleaning by clamping down on Muslim Brotherhood groups in the country. Egyptian forces have destroyed smuggling tunnels into Gaza and the country’s media has been vocal in supporting the Israeli campaign.

Hamas is not blind to the changing power alignment, but it is falling behind. The Egyptian blockade is strangling the group, Qatar is a long way from Gaza, and Iran oscillates between support and outright antagonism. Besides, Iran has more important (and competent) allies in Syria to defend right now.

All this puts Hamas in an increasingly isolated position. Israel took advantage of Hamas’ weakness and temporary geopolitical backing by launching Operation Protective Edge a month ago. Israel will now be gauging how deep the tacit support from Arab countries really goes. Top diplomatic officials will discuss how the current conflict ends, but the reality in the Middle East is impressively different. No one’s been here before.

As an addendum – because that’s all they were in this round – the Americans are seen as disengaged and fumbling. Their shambles of a cease-fire proposal hurt US prestige in the region. Iran smells blood in the water and will push for greater hegemony over Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories. Saudi Arabia won’t like that.

The only unchanging aspect in the Middle East is that alliances shift unexpectedly. Israel will ponder the Arabian tale of the scorpion and the frog as it tiptoes through the coming act. It knows all too well what happens when geopolitical reality is replaced with naïve idealism.

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