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Next Gaza War a Matter Of When, Not If

Adnan Abu Amer, a political analyst based in Gaza, is pessimistic about the durability of the current cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and points to regional factors as well as an Israeli desire to reassert its military superiority.
A Palestinian flag flutters as Palestinian boys stand atop the rubble of a house, which witness said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike during an eight-day conflict, in the northern Gaza Strip December 20, 2012. Eight days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza and cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks ended in an Egyptian-brokered truce agreement last month calling on Israel to ease restrictions on the territory. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem (GAZA - Tags: CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The recent Israeli war on Gaza ended with an urgent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, after the two sides failed to completely achieve their objectives.

Israel carried out this military operation to restore its deterrence, which was dealt a severe blow by Hamas’ possession of Qassam and Grad missiles. The Palestinians’ initial targets, no more than 40km away from the Gaza Strip, put half a million Israelis at risk. By the end of the war, Hamas was able to reach 80km inside Israel, placing millions more in danger.

As for Hamas, it suffered a great defeat due to the loss of its military commander Ahmed Jabari, and became exposed to the threat of a ground operation that would have unseated its rule of the Gaza Strip. This hovering threat may rewind years of effort by Hamas to turn itself into a hub of the Palestinian political scene.

The two sides agreed to a cease-fire under international pressure and out of fear that they might reach the point of no return. This raises questions about the stability of this temporary cease-fire.

At the beginning of the recent war, Israel’s political circle largely endorsed the war as necessary to respond to Hamas’ portrayal of the Israeli army as “weak” and “helpless,” particularly on the eve of Israeli elections, when political leaders want to appear strong in the face of the voting public.

But it is worth noting that no glowing appraisals were given to either Israel’s political leadership or its military following the war, raising doubts about the success and necessity of conducting the war.

When assessing the recent 2012 war on Gaza, we must recall the 2008-2009 war, which still preoccupies the minds of both sides, and which was also fought in winter on the eve of Israeli elections.

The cease-fire at the end of the 2008-2009 barely lasted four years; will the current truce last for a similar duration?

Answering this question requires a more thorough analysis of Israeli and Palestinian objectives vis-à-vis the conflict in Gaza, and whether they were attained. The fact is that Tel Aviv failed to find fundamental solutions with Gaza.

Once again, Israel failed to curtail Hamas. When the stated goal is to only achieve calm, without exploiting it to move forward, the result will be increased Palestinian strength. Palestinian military capabilities in Gaza will continue to grow, allowing them to strike even deeper into Israel in any future confrontation. The sum doesn’t change from the Israeli equation — its overwhelming military superiority also exacts the same toll on Palestinians. However, the price of waging war on Gaza rises higher for Israel at every round of fighting.

But Israel’s calculations regarding its actions in Gaza are just as influenced by regional factors as they are by the Palestinian track. Israel’s latest assault on Gaza also included a series of political messages to both Iran and Egypt.

Israel has long sought to put an end to Iranian arms shipments to Gaza, but once again failed to achieve this objective. Unconfirmed reports have surfaced indicating the resumption of arms smuggling into Gaza.

The Israelis wanted to feel the pulse of Egypt’s new Islamist rulers, and check its reaction to any major military operation against the Gaza Strip.

The recent war did not completely resolve the security issue in the Gaza Strip, as it was not accompanied by long-term peace agreement. Mutual deterrence appears to be the basis for the current calm, which may last for a few months of years. A period of confusion and tension awaits both sides. It is important that Hamas does not claim total victory in the latest round, for fear that it could invite an even greater Israeli response in a bid to re-instil fear in the Palestinian camp.

Interestingly, the liquidation of Jabari has gone without scrutiny in Israel. Previous assassinations of Hamas cadres and leaders have resulted in immediate gains for Israel, only to be followed by greater dangers. The gain of the assassination policy is its impact on Hamas’ morale and the confidence of Hamas leaders. However, the danger is represented in the strength of the reaction, and whether a more militant hard line takes shape.

On the ground, the truce agreement between Israel and Hamas is expected to explode at every breach of calm. For this reason, both Israel and Hamas are making complaints to Egypt with accusations of breaches, including continued arms smuggling into Gaza, and Israeli incursions in the eastern parts of the territory.

The concern is that following Israel’s elections and the formation of a new government, the cease-fire could break down if breaches aren’t checked. Stabilizing the conflict again requires a regional focus.

Importantly, Iran was notably absent in the recent truce agreement, whereas the sponsoring states were its visible opponents Turkey, Egypt and Qatar. Tehran may not be an enthusiastic supporter of a durable peace in Gaza, and could push to flare violence in the Gaza Strip as a second military front to shift focus away from Syria as well as its own domestic concerns.

To counter this is Egypt’s clear desire for calm on its border. Cairo will make every effort to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation with Israel. Its internal problems are enough to ensure Gaza and the Palestinian question remains low on its agenda. The irony of the divergent interests between Iran and Egypt is that Hamas, which is seeking closer ties to Sunni Islamist states, will only find a reliable source of weapons in Iran, not the Sunni axis. And yet, while Hamas might be interested in stabilizing its conflict with Israel, its primary source for military support is an Iranian regime that would prefer that the violence continue.

The keys to a renewed war in Gaza, however, lie in Israel. Crippling Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel requires the re-occupation and control of Gaza. If the Israeli army occupies the Strip, it faces a south-Lebanon-style occupation that knows no clear solution.

One interpretation of the current jostling between Israel and Hamas suggests that a countdown to another confrontation may follow the Israeli elections. This confrontation would be tougher and more painful to both sides, since Israel failed to accomplish its objectives in the last round. Decision-makers in Gaza no longer wonder whether an Israeli war is imminent, but when.

Adnan Abu Amer is the dean of the Faculty of Arts and head of the Press and Information Section as well as a lecturer in the history of the Palestinian issue, national security, political science and Islamic civilization at Al Ummah University Open Education. He holds a PhD in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on issues related to the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Follow him on twitter: @adnanabuamer1.

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