December 24, 2010

Second Gaza War Still Long-Shot

A voice of reason or a trap? Today Mahmud Zahar, one of Hamas’s co-founders and current foreign minister, reaffirmed the group’s ceasefire with Israel. IDF forces have escalated their response to sporadic rocket fire from the Gaza strip, drawing rebuke from PLO leadership in the West Bank. But Zahar claims there’s nothing to worry about.

"We declare our commitment to respecting the truce between us and the occupier," he told a gathering in Khan Yunis. "Despite the sacrifices, we announce that we continue to respect the truce... it's a sign of power and anyone could look to what the occupation's military leaders are talking about.”

So is Zahar lying?

Recent events are certainly disturbing. With the Gaza war’s anniversary nearing (December 27th) and the U.S. peace process in shambles, the region is accumulating tension as it braces for potential conflict. The latest international wave of Palestinian recognition has further aggravated Israeli officials, who feel they must once more reassert their dominance in the territories.

Technically the U.S. peace process hasn’t collapsed because it hasn’t moved in the first place. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, still hanging onto negotiations after their delay in September, recently told EU representatives that an IDF operation into Gaza would “lead to the collapse of all international efforts aimed at salvaging peace.”

"Military solutions such as these won't attain a thing and would only complicate the situation," warned Saeb Erekat, Abbas’s senior negotiator.

Hamas possesses several reasons to keep cool. As Zahar himself boasted, the group is using the ceasefire to rearm beyond its pre-war stock, similar to Hezbollah’s massive rearming after the July war. Any major IDF operation will interrupt the international weapons flow and Hamas’s own domestic arms production.

Hamas also wants to stay relatively popular with its soldiers and people; two wars in three years could lead to mutiny. In the midst of a “hearts and minds” campaign, Hamas is trying to boost its support ahead of a potential election in the Palestinian territories. And it knows that interrupting Gaza’s painstaking reconstruction would be disastrously foolish.

Finally, Hamas provoked the first Gaza war to stay relevant in the region and to bait Israel into a disproportionate response, which it would then exploit as political, legal, and information warfare. Achieving both of these objectives to a degree, the latter more than the former, Hamas no longer needs to cast Israel as “the bad guy.” Israel has done that itself following the Gaza war.

Now completely isolated and fearful of the international community stripping Washington's mediation, the last thing Hamas should do is create sympathy for Israel.

That leaves Israel, who does have reason to launch a comprehensive assault on Hamas, as the potential aggressor - basically for the reasons Hamas shouldn’t attack. Israel would like to stunt Hamas's regenerating military capabilities, interrupt its PR campaign, and spin itself into the victim before negotiating with Abbas. Although Fatah and Hamas remain hostile to each other to the point where Hamas just halted reconciliation talks, Erekat accurately noted that Israel holds a strategic interest in sowing division between the West Bank and Hamas.

This goes for inside Gaza too. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, told Army Radio on Wednesday that Hamas isn’t doing enough to prevent rocket attacks from militant groups, and warned that Israel won’t cease its response until all fire is eliminated. On one hand Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket attacks inside the Gaza strip, and on the other undermines Hamas’s rule through the blockade and IDF military activity.

Israel wants Hamas to eliminate these harder-line groups, yet its policy seeks to radicalize minority factions in order to subvert Hamas's authority.

Both Israel and Hamas have more to lose than gain through another war, unless one side overtly provokes the other. Thus a second Gaza war appears unlikely, at least for now. But this havoc is typical of a stalled peace process.

If war were to break out again, Washington would deserve a healthy share of the blame.

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