Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Deciphering the Public Relations Game in Israeli-Palestinian Politics

STRATFOR (http://www.stratfor.com)

Israeli Minister for Home Front Defense Matan Vilnai said on Israel Radio Aug. 25 that Israel is “not fighting Hamas, but Islamic Jihad, which is even more radical than Hamas, and is acting like a terrorist organization.” Vilnai called Islamic Jihad trigger happy, adding that Hamas is not responsible for everything that happens in the Gaza Strip. His statement concerned the stream of artillery rocket and mortar fire that emanated from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel over the past week. The rocket fire has significantly increased in frequency since the Aug. 18 attacks in Eilat, where armed groups launched a coordinated assault on civilian and military targets in southern Israel, near the Sinai border. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have responded to these attacks with air strikes on Gaza, first targeting senior members of the Palestinian Resistance Committees (PRC), and more recently targeting senior members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group that has claimed responsibility for recent rocket fire into Israel. We find Vilnai’s comments, which seemingly exonerate Hamas of any responsibility in the recent militant activity in Gaza, extremely noteworthy. The jury still appears to be out on who committed last week’s deadly attacks in Eilat. Those attacks coincide with a rise in Salafist-jihadist activity in the Sinai Peninsula over the past several months, raising the possibility that groups like the newly proclaimed al Qaeda in the Northern Sinai carried out the attacks with the possible cooperation of Palestinian militants in Gaza and with the strategic intent of instigating a crisis between Egypt and Israel.

However, a number of IDF assessments of the Eilat attacks, selectively distributed to groups like STRATFOR (with the likely presumption they would then be distributed more widely), did not address the Salafist-jihadist threat in the Sinai Peninsula. The IDF assessments focused the blame on the PRC, with the insinuation that the group was likely acting as a front for Hamas. IDF thus focused its airstrikes on PRC targets, while the Israeli government publicly warned Hamas against breaking a de facto cease-fire. Even as rocket attacks claimed by PIJ have escalated in recent weeks, Israeli officials like Vilnai are going out of their way to distinguish a “trigger happy” PIJ from Hamas, thereby allowing the latter a large degree of plausible deniability.

By no means does Israel believe Hamas is losing its grip in Gaza while groups like PRC and PIJ run rogue and provoke Israel. On the contrary, even as the exact identities of the attackers may not be fully known, Israel likely still considers Hamas the ultimate authority of Gaza, able to influence operations against Israel one way or another. In the past, Hamas has used other groups within Gaza — including PRC and PIJ — to fire on southern Israel when it was politically inconvenient for Hamas to do so directly. Even if Hamas publicly announces its commitment to the cease-fire (and gets other groups to do the same), it could be as part of an attempt to portray Hamas as the victim being provoked by Israeli aggression.

One could be spun in a thousand different directions following the various claims, counterclaims and denials on all sides of this conflict. The fundamental question that needs to be answered is what Hamas’ intentions are for the months ahead.

As we discussed in this week’s Geopolitical Weekly, Hamas likely shares a strategic intent with a number of jihadist and Palestinian militant factions in the region to create a crisis between Egypt and Israel. As the September United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood approaches, Hamas is searching for a way to distinguish itself in the short term from its secular rivals in Fatah. Hamas regularly accuses Fatah of colluding with Israel against the interests of the Palestinian people, and claims to represent the legitimate resistance. In the longer term, Hamas could be looking for a way to sever the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and to further a political evolution in Cairo that would result in an Egyptian government friendly to Hamas interests.

These may sound like ambitious goals, but the regional conditions have arguably never been better for Hamas to pursue such an agenda. Egypt is in a state of high political uncertainty. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is preparing to enter the government, the Syrian regime is atrophying, the “Arab Spring” protest sentiment is spreading and Israel, unprepared to deal with these growing foreign policy challenges, is coming under heavy domestic political pressure. Provoking Israel into a military confrontation in Gaza, with the help of militant affiliates like PRC and PIJ, could bolster Hamas’ credibility at home while, more importantly, stripping away the foundation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty at a time of great political uncertainty in the region.

It is within this context that Vilnai’s comments distinguishing PIJ aggression from Hamas can be understood. Israel does not want to be lured into Operation Cast Lead II, and so is trying to give Hamas room to back down and rein in its affiliates. At the same time, Israel can see a significant threat building to its west. The threat goes beyond Palestinian militancy in Gaza and the inability of the Egyptian government to contain jihadist activity in the Sinai. Israel sees the potential for Egypt to fail to honor the peace treaty. Under the doctrine of pre-emption, an argument is building among some Israeli political and defense circles, pushing for Israel to absorb the risk of international condemnation and extend an Israeli military presence into the Sinai, with or without a treaty with Egypt. The other side of the debate argues that the cost of re-entering the Sinai is simply too high — all efforts must therefore be made to preserve the treaty and hope that the tradition of Egyptian-Israeli cooperation against regional militant threats will endure.

This debate is naturally of great concern to Egypt, which since the Eilat attacks has tried to negotiate with Hamas, while creating incentives for Bedouins to cooperate with the Egyptian state and deny access to militants in the Sinai buffer between Egypt and Israel. If Egypt wants to avoid giving Israel a reason to extend Israeli security into the Sinai, it needs to contain the militant threat itself. But Egypt is already concerned with managing a shaky political transition at home. In addition, an increase in Egyptian troops in the Sinai may lead to Israeli nervousness over a possible remilitarization of the region.

Israel has a number of growing and dynamic threats to game out, but for now is likely to avoid any drastic moves in the Sinai. Instead, Israel can be expected to try to avoid a major ground incursion into Gaza. This entails taking care not to directly blame or provoke Hamas, while applying pressure on Hamas affiliates in hopes that the group will choose to ultimately avoid the cost of inviting IDF troops into its territory. Israel’s ability to avoid such a conflict will depend greatly on Egypt’s ability to rein in Hamas. What no one can be sure of at this point is whether Hamas is quietly creating the conditions for the very conflict that both Israel and Egypt are desperately hoping to avoid.

* Military
* Politics
* Terrorism/Security
* Israel
* Palestinian Territories
* Egypt
* UN

Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/geopolitical_diary/20110825-deciphering-public-relations-game-israeli-palestinian-politics

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