Old wars in a new Middle East

Strategic Outlook/ the Commentator

For the first time since the Gulf War, sirens were heard this past weekend in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. News stations broadcasted scenes of confused residents running for shelter along with instruction on what do when you hear a siren.  Fortunately, people here adapt quickly.  All of the sudden, long-hardened residents from down South were reassuring their friends and family in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Rishon LeZion: “You have more than a minute before the missile hits” they say, “down here we only have 15 seconds!”

The escalation in Gaza and the Israeli response, a.k.a Operation Pillar of Defense, is the first Israel-Palestinian escalation to unfold in the “new” Middle East.  The last two years, the years of the Arab Spring, minimized the Palestinian focus of the Middle East. Instead, citizens of the region were out on the streets, taking down dictators, and installing new governments.  The people of the Middle East are still finding their way as blood continues to be shed in Syria. Israelis and West-Bank Palestinians had their own “mini spring” in the form of demonstrations against economic policies and rising prices although these issues will be left for the coming elections. As for the Gaza Palestinians, well, they were neither allowed to demonstrate nor to elect any leadership since Hamas took control of Gaza in a military coup in 2007.

We have now a new Middle East and a new Arab world. Ben Ali is gone, Mubarrak is gone, Khaddafi is gone, and Assad might be heading in the same direction. It is a Middle East that inspired its citizens to take the streets, articulate dreams and visions, and speak of new horizons. But it is also the same old Middle East with Islamist rhetoric, terrorists who explode in the name of Jihad, and with the same old song when it comes to Israel.

Unfortunately, little has changed in the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even less when it comes to Hamas. On June 14, 2007, following the Hamas takeover in Gaza,  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the dissolution of the unity government and declared a state of emergency. There were several attempts to mediate between Fatah and Hamas and an agreement was finally reached in Doha.  But alas, Hamas decided to follow its own path, a path of Islamist interpretation and of uncompromising struggle against Israel.  “Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, destroy the Americans and their supporters. Oh Allah, count them one by one, and kill them all, without leaving a single one ” said recently Hamas’s deputy speaker of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza, Ahmad Bahr. Hamas continued to increase its rocket launching campaign and continued to target civilians in cities in the south of Israel. Hamas’ escalation, in the form of a jump in the number of missiles being launched into Israel, led to an IDF response in 2008.  The current escalation in the conflict followed the same pattern – a barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israeli cities and a strong Israeli response.

To a certain degree, the trajectory of events is relatively clear. The campaign will continue, with or without a ground invasion, while at the same time attempts are made to broker a cease fire, which both sides will eventually accept. For Israelis, the operation is aimed at achieving some quiet. The goal is simple: the cessation of missiles launched from Gaza into Israel (Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, over 9000 rockets were launched toward Israel).  For Hamas, this will be a Tahadia, a “temporary cease fire” aimed at buying time before the next stage of the declared campaign.

The situation is “sad, scary and sad,” my dear friend Mohamad tells me from Gaza, stranded between crying children, Israeli missiles and a Hamas administration that will not allow him to communicate freely. The children of Gaza are the real victims of a campaign that uses their homes to shoot at children on the other side of the border, one that triggers a powerful military to respond. In Gaza, secured locations are harder to find and missiles are launched from populated areas putting many lives at deliberate risk. There were thousands of missile loads in Gaza. It was clear that they would be used and that destruction would ensue. The cease fire, which will hopefully soon be reached, won’t change that reality. It might offer a brief reprieve, allowing the traumatized children to recover a bit, before the next wave of fighting begins again.

It is a new Middle East, but when it comes to the acceptance of the other, it is still very much the Old Middle East.  In Egypt, bloggers are again in prison for insulting the president of the republic. In Syria, the military uses tanks and gunships on civilians. There are over 40,000 dead in Syria and not a word of Arab protest is heard.  In Jordan we hear yet again the rumors that Israel is about to blow up the Temple Mount and that Muslims must fight to protect it. No need to check the facts. Abu Mazen and Benjamin Netanyahu continue to speak over each other and Hamas continues to accumulate missiles that now find their way to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

An operation in Gaza won’t change this trajectory. Change will only be possible when a different tone will be heard from Gaza; a tone not of missiles and terror but of a will to engage with Palestinians and Israelis alike.  Hamas is unlikely to take that lead, but Palestinians are entitled to a leadership capable of making another choice. Turkey, Egypt and the Arab world can do a lot to change the current discourse which, in turn, will oblige Israel to act differently as well. The children of Gaza, Sderot and Ashkelon will thank them if they will succeed. Or they will grow up and continue the fight if they fail.





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