x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Operation 'Pillar of Cloud': advantage to the Palestinians

One likely outcome of the current crisis in Gaza will be a shake-up in Palestinian politics, and of the relationship between Hamas and Fatah.

Amid a steady steam of TV news reports hinting that an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire is imminent, it is worth speculating how this latest round of conflict will end, and what comes next. The possibilities range from a rapid cessation of hostilities that essentially restores the status quo, to a negotiated and halting draw down that could flare up at a moment's notice.

With the situation so fluid, it is difficult to make any conclusions about the broader strategic implications of Israel's decision to launch yet another assault on the Gaza Strip. We do not, for example, yet know if Hamas will survive intact and emboldened, or if Israel will be in a position to credibly claim a significant achievement. While all indications now point in the direction of the former scenario, we cannot clearly rule out the latter.

The above notwithstanding, several tentative conclusions about the strategic implications can already be drawn.

Israel initiated this confrontation in order to restore its increasingly frayed deterrent posture vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the region and the world at large. It sought to do so by means of a severe body blow to Hamas that would simultaneously eliminate longer-range missile capabilities within the Gaza Strip. Whether seen from the perspective of Tel Aviv or Tehran, this campaign has been an abysmal failure.

Indeed, if Israel has proven incapable of taking out a few dozen missile launchers in the minuscule Gaza Strip - a territory that Israel has for almost half a century controlled as tightly as it does a prison within its sovereign territory, and which is teeming with Israeli spies and informers - what prospects remain that Iran, or for that matter Israel's foreign backers, are going to take Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's consistent warnings of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran seriously and continue to appease Israel in order to dissuade him?

Closer to home, Egypt and other Arab states will - and in fact already do - feel increasingly less constrained by a need to defer to Israeli and American sensibilities in dealing with the Palestine question. This could have major, positive implications for Palestinian reconciliation, and provide Hamas's efforts to emerge as a legitimate political player with a significant boost.

And for his part, Hizbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, will be acutely aware that Israel failed to meet its objectives against opponents that are but a pale shadow of his own movement.

At the regional level, and reflecting the upheaval of the past two years, there is a sea change between the Arab response to Israel's 2008-2009 assault upon the Gaza Strip and that of today. Then, most Arab governments stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, while Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and the then Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, led an effort on their collective behalf to prevent the Arab League from holding an emergency meeting to address the slaughter.

Contrast that response to today's. Arab foreign ministers met within 72 hours of the assassination of Hamas's Ahmad Jabari, and it would be fair to state that each of them rushed to be the first to arrive. So many official Arab delegations have - with Egyptian facilitation - visited the Gaza Strip during the conflict that one wonders if Hamas's leaders have time left for responding to the Israeli onslaught.

It is a new region, and the transformation is indisputably - and today very visibly - to the advantage of the Palestinians.

To return to the question of deterrence, it is Hamas and other Palestinian organisations that have - thus far - deterred Israel from launching a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, rather than any Israeli calculation. Indeed, Hamas has successfully introduced new rules to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: you take out one of our senior leaders, and missiles will be aimed at Tel Aviv. Once introduced, such practices are extremely difficult to revoke.

A bomb attack on a bus outside Tel Aviv's Defence Ministry, which appears to have been carried out by the Syrian-aligned Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is the sort of development that could have serious electoral implications for Mr Netanyahu and his deputy prime minister, Ehud Barak.

And for Mahmoud Abbas. The latter's entire strategy - such as it is - today lies in complete shambles. This does not mean Hamas is within reach of assuming leadership of the Palestinian national movement, but that the entire edifice that has governed the West Bank since the schism of 2007 may be ready to collapse.

 

Mouin Rabbani is an independent analyst based in Amman, co-editor of Jadaliyya and a contributing editor of Middle East Report