x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gaza remains under pressure and 'waiting to explode'

A year on from Operation Cast Lead, Israel's offensive in Gaza, the threads of a possible Middle East peace are so knotted that they look impossible to disentangle.

A Palestinian demonstrator takes part in a protest in the West Bank village of Nilin to mark the founding of the Fatah movement.
A Palestinian demonstrator takes part in a protest in the West Bank village of Nilin to mark the founding of the Fatah movement.

NAZARETH // A year on from Operation Cast Lead, Israel's offensive in Gaza, the threads of a possible Middle East peace are so knotted that they look impossible to disentangle. A right-wing government in Tel Aviv has dared to snub the US administration by barely enforcing what has become a partial and very temporary freeze on the expansion of its settlement programme in the West Bank. Israeli generals, meanwhile, proclaim that they are gearing up for an even fiercer repeat of the attack on Gaza last winter that killed around 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions ruling respectively Gaza and the West Bank, have failed to reconcile despite intensive Egyptian mediation. The power of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and Israel's only putative partner for a peace deal, is in terminal decline over failing to win any substantial concessions from Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, not only survived relatively unscathed the Israeli attack of a year ago but is reported now to be testing rockets that can reach Tel Aviv. It also appears to be boxing Israel into an uncomfortably tight corner in negotiations to extract its soldier, Gilad Shalit, from a captivity of more than three years. A deal releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for Sgt Shalit would be a tactical triumph for Hamas and could possibly sound the death knell for Mr Abbas and the PA.

Egypt, having so far failed to make headway on either Palestinian unity or the release of Sgt Shalit, is showing its displeasure. It is implementing one of Israel's stated goals in Operation Cast Lead - sealing off Egypt's border with Gaza - by building a steel wall underground to prevent smuggling through tunnels. Cutting the last lifeline for Gazans, who have endured an Israeli chokehold lasting more than three years, may force either capitulation from Hamas or - more likely - further confrontation with Israel.

Regionally, Israel has put great strain on its already cool relations with its Arab neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, over Operation Cast Lead and damaged its traditionally strong ties to Turkey, a potential peace broker. Hizbollah, the Shia militia that has proved to be Israel's nemesis in south Lebanon, is reported to be stronger than ever and is sitting in the Lebanese government. It has been rearming at a rate that, according to the Israeli military, means it will be an even more fearsome opponent than during Israel's 2006 onslaught when it rained rockets down on the Galilee.

The Iranian regime, the regional backer of both Hizbollah and Hamas, is in the midst of internal political turmoil as it tries to suppress protests from opposition groups and contend with the pressure for intensified international sanctions to stop its supposed nuclear programme. Should Tehran get a nuclear bomb, as Tel Aviv fears it may do soon, the balance of regional power would inexorably tip away from Israel towards Iran.

For Israel, all these elements are pushing towards war, probably on more than one front, rather than peacemaking. Certainly, Iran, Hamas, Hizbollah and the Lebanese military have all expressed concern that Israel has them in its sights. Israel has recently completed the renovation of all of its 5,000 or so public bomb shelters, and is investing heavily in the development of new missile defence systems to fend off the expected response to an attack - thousands of rockets from Hamas and Hizbollah, and more sophisticated missiles from Iran.

Jeff Halper, a long-time analyst of Israel's military strategies, doubts that genuine peace talks with the Palestinians are possible in this climate. "I don't see Israel negotiating, not unless Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to capitulate to Israeli demands for an imposed peace. Only that might restrain Israel at this stage," he said. "But it seems extremely unlikely that Abbas has the credibility to sign off on an Israeli deal when Hamas is in his way."

Instead Mr Halper fears that Israeli actions are being designed to provoke another confrontation. "Gaza is a pressure cooker waiting to explode again," he said, pointing to an Israeli siege that prevents the import of all but the most essential humanitarian items. Should Hamas try to break this siege, it may offer Israel the chance to launch another operation, Mr Halper said. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae