Middle East

Shadow of Iran Looms Large Over Gaza

Israeli artillery shells explode over the Gaza Strip, as seen from Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp on January 9, 2009. (Photo: Mohammed Abed / Getty Images)

Even if both sides in the current Gaza conflict insist that their confrontation is at the center of the world, in reality it isn’t anymore. Car bombs and missiles in Beirut, Baghdad and Islamabad are all horrifying. There is no "top horror" anymore.

The Israeli air raids on Hamas’s infrastructure along with troop movements around Gaza’s enclave and the shelling of Israel by the jihadist organization are both troubling developments in the Middle East but they are certainly neither new nor surprising. Dramatic images of bloody Palestinian civilians fleeing from attacks and pictures of Israelis rushing to the shelters while under fire will always bring chills to observers and depress the entire international community.

Sadly, it’s hardly the first time we’ve seen these images, and tragically, seven years after 9/11, they seem to connect with similar bloodshed in Mosul, Kabul and Mumbai. Even if both sides in the current Gaza conflict insist that their confrontation is at the center of the world, in reality it isn’t anymore. Car bombs and missiles in Beirut, Baghdad and Islamabad are all horrifying. There is no "top horror" anymore, even in the never- ending cycle of Gaza’s turmoil. It has all become part of the so-called "War on Terror" even though the Palestinian-Israeli quarrel is a conflict all its own. Still, why is this escalation so dramatic, why did it happen, who triggered it at this particular moment and what can we expect going forward? It’s too grandiose to claim that anyone has all the answers, but here is my take:

A Deadlock in the Peace Process

After decades of unstoppable enmity, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization struck a deal in 1993, under the sponsorship of the United States: The Oslo Agreements. The two parties at the negotiations continued to complain about difficulties in the final stage, but nevertheless moved forward in implementing piece after piece. A Palestinian Authority (PA) was established and funded by the West to become the partner in Peace of the state of Israel, as a first stage of Palestinian statehood. But by the mid-90s, the Syrian-Iranian "axis" armed and funded Hamas and other jihadi organizations to "sink" the process.

Wahabi quarters joined in funding the rejectionist forces. The equation was simple: Hamas attacks Israel, causing a collapse in the negotiation process; Israelis and Palestinians blame each other; suicide bombings blast inside the Jewish state triggering air raids on the Palestinian territories. The history of the past 17 years is one of obstruction toward any attempt to reach a final agreement between the two parties and one of efforts by the United States, Europe, and the rest of the international community, to push the process forward. In short, it’s a struggle between the fledgling peace process and an Iranian strategy designed to destroy it. Everything else is just a facet of this image, but the Iranian-imposed deadlock is the root cause for all frustrations, failures and bloodshed on both sides.

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The Gaza Blockage

Despite the barrage by the "Iranian axis" via Hamas and Hezbollah against the Israeli-Palestinian settlement, which escalated even further after 9/11, and the Iraq U.S. campaign, still small steps were achieved between Israeli Governments and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Authority. By 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip, and the Palestinian Authority was closer to statehood than ever. But Hamas, which won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, thanks to massive Iranian support and its armed omnipresence, refused to follow the course of the Camp David process. According to its ideologues and leaders, and unlike Arafat and Abbas, the radical group "cannot" recognize the existence of the state of Israel. Perfectly in line with Mahmoud Ahmedinijad’s stance on the "Jewish state," Hamas is not simply another part of the Palestinian national movement, (as many asserts) but is a Jihadist organization with a clear ideological goal: Establishing an "emirate" in Palestine — not a secular Palestinian state — similar to what Al Qaeda wants to establish worldwide — but with a much better international reputation.

Soon enough Hamas and Abbas’s Presidency clashed over the future of the Palestinian people. Hamas (per its Iranian and ideological commitments) wanted an endless "Jihad" against the pre-1967 Israel, while the PA was moving forward towards the two-state solution. In June 2007, Hamas executed a bloody coup d’état in Gaza: Hundreds of Fatah members and other opponents were eliminated and tortured. A Hamas "regime" was established in the enclave. As I wrote then, "two Palestines" emerged: The Iranian-supported entity in the south, and the embattled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Since that coup, Gaza’s forces blocked the process while the rest of the Palestinian territories moved slowly to normalization. As of this fall, for example, the number of tourists spending time in Bethlehem and other Palestinian Authority locations has reached the highest azimuths. One Palestine in the West Bank was slowly rising while another Palestine in Gaza was sinking rapidly. Meanwhile, Israel imposed a blockage on Gaza. Hence Hamas had to act to avoid a rotting process. Last week, the Islamist militant movement ended the cease fire, which obviously triggered this war.

Gaza on the Arab Map

Viewers and readers in the West have been overwhelmed since the Israeli air strikes began, with footage and pictures from the so-called "Arab street." This term was coined by regimes and ideologues in the Middle East to claim that the "region" as a whole has one voice, one set of feelings, and one direction when it comes to the Arab Israeli conflict, and all issues related to the "Umma" (Arab or Islamic nation). In fact the "street" in mostly non-Democratic societies reflects the desired agenda of either radical regimes or ideologues. Hence, getting a real grasp on reality in the region is more subtle. When it comes to the public attitudes regarding any Israeli action in the region, there is a strong ideological force which will always drive all governments, regimes, and political parties to be against the Jewish state, regardless of the context. That is a fact. But below the ideological level, there is a divided Arab map regarding Gaza. While Syria, Sudan, Hezbollah, the Wahabis, Qatar and also the (non-Arab) Iranian regime support Hamas, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and most of the Gulf States are nervous about Iran’s influence in Gaza. More importantly, the Palestinian civil war initiated by Hamas against Fatah in June 2007, is still on. President Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority wants to resume peace negotiations but cannot confront Hamas head on. In short Arab governments are simply unable to solve the issue at this point.

Israel’s Options

From Israel’s perspective, the room for maneuvering is very tight. Hamas is a direct ally of Iran, and strategic decisions by the jihadi group are made in Tehran. The Israelis seem to have decided to respond to the Hamas challenge now before their own elections, and before the Palestinians also go to the polls, and especially during the transition period in the United States. It looks like Israel has three options: Pursuing an air bombardment before reaching a cease fire; engaging limited ground troops at the edges of Gaza to alter the capacity of Hamas in shelling Israel; or going for a full-fledged incursion inside the enclave. The bottom line: Once Israel begins the operation they can’t return to the status quo. With this in mind, the minimal goal for Israel seems to be a Lebanon-like arrangement with a UN Security Council resolution separating the forces and freezing violence or a UN sponsored security deployment in Gaza to change the military landscape and bring about civil peace and stability. We will know more in the next days and weeks.

Iran’s Gaza Battlefield

The big picture is obvious. The current conflict is not really about the classic Arab-Israeli process, which can resume between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League anytime it is not obstructed. The Gaza fight is about Iran’s confrontation with Israel, and perhaps with the U.S. globally. A global strategic reading leads us to conclude that — just as we saw in Lebanon in 2006 –Tehran is pulling the strings, and very smartly. Timing the Hamas end to the cease fire between two American presidencies in Washington, and just before the Israeli and Palestinian elections, the Mullahs thought they would drag Israel into the Gaza battle on an Iranian timetable, triggering a "street" show of anger, boosted by the jihadi propaganda machine in the region, with all the usual ramifications in the West. The astute Iranian move is to drag Israel enough into Gaza’s mud to indict it internationally, so that any future Israeli strikes at Iran’s nuclear program will be seen as catastrophic. Tehran is calculating the minutia, hoping Hamas will win at the end of the day, and that the Obama administration will begin its "talks" with Iran from an inferior position (since Israel will be blamed for the violence not the jihadists in Gaza). But the game has lots of risks, including the possibility that Hamas may lose its ability to be a military event maker after this campaign is over.

Dr Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad

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