Monday, March 26, 2012

The Multi-Layered Gaza Conflict

Yisrael Ne'eman

Some two weeks ago there was another round of shellfire from the Gaza Strip and return fire from Israel. It all began when a Jihad terror squad was preparing rocket launches into Israel and they were knocked out by the Israeli air force. What followed was an Israeli targeted removal of one of the leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees responsible for the attack and then everything escalated. What is often forgotten is that the Resistance and Islamic Jihad are constantly firing salvos into Israel which for the most part miss their targets and/or are not reported. In this past round, and there will be many more, these two pro-Iranian groups decided to raise the ante, use larger and longer range missiles and draw Hamas into a full scale battle with Israel. Hamas PM Ismail Haniya, despite his fiery speeches about world Jihad and the destruction of Israel, declined the invitation. After a week of major instability Hamas found itself "sitting on the fence" not wanting a repeat of the Cast Lead operation of three years ago while denying they were remaining outside the conflict and the armed Jihadi struggle. Rather they put out the word that the time was not ripe - the Islamic cease-fire or "hudna" needed to continue until Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood would be guaranteed victory over the "Zionist entity". Attacks against Israel are on the background of the Jihad/Resistance Committees – Hamas competition for power in Gaza. So if that is the case, why do the Jihad and Resistance Committees continue undermining Hamas policies, if supposedly all are on the same side? The Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees enjoy Iranian support in their challenge to Hamas, who now enjoy Turkish patronage since the flotilla affair two years ago and as of late they have the support of the new Egyptian Islamic regime. Both view Iran as an adversary despite diplomatic niceties. All three Palestinian groups are Sunnis, yet this does not stop the seemingly more radical Jihad and Committees from lining up with Tehran.

The second level of conflict is between the main Islamic Middle Eastern players, Turkey and Iran, as they vie for regional dominance, the Gaza Strip being only one front. Elsewhere Ankara lines up with the Sunnis and Tehran with the Shiites. Such is the case in the multi-ethnic Lebanese landscape where Hezbollah is a staunch Iranian ally and the minority Sunnis are split between religious and secular. Turkish PM Erdogen openly supports the opposition insurgency in Syria while Iran's Supreme Islamic Council stands with Assad's (pro-Shiite) Alawite regime. The conflicts in Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen follow the Sunni-Shiite divide while engaging the Turkish or Iranian patrons accordingly. The only difference in the internal Gaza struggle is that all are Sunnis. The more radical factions are allied with the Shiites. The vast majority of the Arab World is Sunni and hence their loyalties, although Arab nations are often less than happy about the Turkish projection of power, but due to their own domestic turmoil there is little they can due to counter any outside influence. Overall the Gaza issue is just a microcosm of a much larger power play.

The third level of clash is the most spoken about and most obvious, the one between Israel and the Gaza Islamists dominated by Hamas, just that the latter did not want a conflict at the moment even if their more radical Jihad/Resistance cohorts did. The latter won and received their week of instability. When firing on Israel both groups threaten Hamas with Israeli retaliations since Jerusalem views Hamas as the sovereign in Gaza responsible for security and keeping the border quiet. True, Israel will seek out Jihad/Resistance targets under such circumstances but increasing violence can force an unprepared Hamas into a war, one favored ideologically but in practical terms the continuing hudna is preferred.

As for Gaza several issues have yet to be decided. Who will get the upper hand, the Iranians through the Jihad/Resistance forces or the Turkish influenced Hamas? An Iranian victory determines an increase in hostilities. And even should it be the "moderate" Islamist Turks, would and could they force Hamas into making peace and accepting Israel's existence? This is an enormous long shot nullifying all Hamas (Muslim Brotherhood) doctrines. Hamas could be drawn into a conflict with the Jewish State and face a major invasion. Israel has the ability to capture all of Gaza but will not be able to enforce control without committing tens of thousands of soldiers on an average day to hold down the territory. A total Israeli victory is as unfeasible as an Israeli loss. Israeli options over what to do about Gaza are limited.

The "hudna" issue is only an excuse for the real clash between the Turks (and Arab Sunnis) and the Iranians. It is only a matter of time before rocket attacks against Israel will resume. The initiative can be expected to come from the Iranian proxies.

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