Israel and Gaza: One Size (Doesn't) Fit All

Once again, Hamas and Israel are on the brink. As Israel mobilizes its military for a possible ground invasion, Hamas refuses to back down. Air strikes light up the Gazan sky while rockets explode in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Surely, intermittent exchanges of rocket fire and violence have been a mainstay on the Gaza-Israel border for years now, but with the recent escalation of violence, war now appears to be imminent. Israel threatens a ground invasion, while Hamas claims Israel has “opened the gates of hell.”

Not since Operation Cast Lead in 2008 has the violence and rhetoric escalated to this extent. At that time, and under similar circumstances, Israel responded to steady and destructive rocket fire from Islamist militants, nearly toppling Hamas and leaving over 1,000 dead. The three-week military campaign surely left a message: Israel won’t tolerate incessant rocket fire from Gaza. So as Israel weighs its options of response this time around, the military one is a very real one—especially given Israel’s pride in the strength of its armed forces. But there’s reason to believe that 2012 is not 2008. To be frank, with recent tectonic shifts of the political and social terrain in the Middle East, Israel can’t afford another ground war and occupation of Gaza. The Israeli position now is not as secure as it once was four years ago. The Middle East of 2008 is not the Middle East of 2012, and the Hamas of 2008 is not the Hamas of 2012.

In 2008, the pre-Arab Spring political order was very much alive and well. The priority of the many secular autocratic rulers in the region was the preservation of the status quo, and popular demand was marginalized. The dominant United States had its friends and it enemies. Broadly speaking, the US-supported Jordan-Egypt-Saudi axis opposed the more virulent Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah axis, while Turkey worked to expand its influence in the region as it avoided antagonizing any one side. To the east, King Abdullah harbored no enmity towards Israel. The conservative and still very much empowered Bashar al-Assad posed no serious threat, and the recent 2006 Israel-Lebanon war left Hezbollah exhausted from conflict. But most importantly, on Gaza’s southern border Mubarak in Egypt was just as much suspicious of Hamas in Gaza as was Israel.  A time-old enemy of Islamist movements, Mubarak long suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—of which Hamas is an offshoot—and preserved cordial security relations with Israel.  Not to mention, the United States still held a tight leash on Mubarak, ensuring a de facto loyalty and alliance.

At the same time, Hamas was still a nascent governing body in Gaza (after kicking Fatah out and taking over in 2007). It was still widely perceived to be merely a violent Islamic resistance force against Israel, and it did not enjoy strong political or popular support in the region. Surely, Fatah had been dealt a strong blow after Hamas’ victory in Gaza, but it was still considered the more legitimate and favorable Palestinian political body.

That was the 2008 Middle East and that was the 2008 Hamas. And it was within these circumstances Israel was able to launch Operation Cast Lead, enter Gaza, send a message, and leave with relatively minimal political consequences. Entrenched allegiances held firm and the political climate disarmed any popular uprising.

But then the Arab Spring happened, and is still happening. With the likes of Mubarak gone, the empowerment of popular Arab and Islamist forces in countries across the region, and a United States exhausted from years of war and uncertain about the future of its relationships in the region, Israel is not sitting as cozy as it once was. The political order in the Middle East has been destroyed, and is in the process of reforming in a new and still unpredictable way.

And surprisingly enough amidst all this upheaval, Hamas is sitting pretty. With recent frustrations directed towards Fatah in the West Bank, coupled with Hamas’ campaign to establish itself as a legitimate governing body in Gaza, Hamas’ stock is on the rise in the Palestinian world. And with the tumult of the Arab Spring, it is now enjoying unprecedented foreign support. As “Islamism” emerges as the new lengua franca of the Middle East, and countries and regimes position themselves to grab power in the political vacuum, Hamas appears to be reaping the rewards. Only a few weeks ago, the Qatari emir was the first head of state to officially visit Gaza, pledging $400 million in aid and support. Erdogan in Turkey too has reached out, and has stated that he plans to visit Gaza as well. And already amidst this crisis, the Egyptian Prime Minister and Tunisian Foreign Minister have visited the territory. For Israel, Iranian relations certainly haven’t improved at all, the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to destabilize the Jordanian government, and the black hole in Syria continues to expand.

Most significantly, though, Mubarak has been replaced with Morsi, and Egypt is suddenly now a vocal supporter of its sister organization in Gaza. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty, a prior keystone for relations in the region, is no longer an unquestioned determinant of allegiances. The United States is finding itself increasingly powerless to drive its agenda and anticipate developments, and as popular demands rock the region, governments can no longer sit behind the force of their rule and ignore sentiments about the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Within this climate, an Israeli operation in Gaza would be disastrous. While Israel does not yet have more regional enemies since 2008, it certainly has fewer regional friends. On the flip side, Hamas is exponentially more powerful—perhaps not in military strength, but certainly in political support. Israel can no longer just walk in and out of Gaza. In fact, this is no longer just about crippling a radical Islamist resistance force in Gaza, but rather about confronting the tide of the Arab Spring. Undoubtedly a military operation would draw sharp and unprecedented regional criticism. Many governments, now more beholden to their populations, would have to respond to the wave of anti-Israel sentiment as the conflict is framed as another example of Israeli aggression and Palestinian hardship. Furthermore, the US would be less capable of manipulating various regional forces and alliances to soften the shock of an invasion. A military campaign would in fact become a perfect opportunity for both the new leaders of the Arab Spring to assert their strength and prowess on the regional stage, as well as an opportunity for governments of the Arab Spring to demonstrate new Arab political independence from a western yoke.

Strategically speaking, the consequences of an invasion far outweigh the benefits. Even if Israel launches a successful operation and sends Hamas a strong message, it will not be a permanent one. At the same time, Israel will have antagonized many in the region and influenced the still shifting power structures unfavorably against it. Undoubtedly Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza. But fighting fire with more fire in this case would be very unwise. The Israeli leadership must be prescient, and recognize that the winds are blowing back towards Israel.

But in the same sense that the power structure of the Middle East is no longer as favorable to Israeli interests, it has not yet solidified yet to directly threaten them. Israel must take advantage of the ambiguities of the present diplomatic relationships and try to cut a deal. While relations between Egypt and the US and Israel have become more strained since the fall of Mubarak, they are still significant. Israel and Egypt have to both worry about militants in the Sinai, and the United States still sends checks to Egypt every year. It would be political suicide for Morsi to outright support Israel, but he also doesn’t quite have the independence or influence to throw his weight behind Hamas. In the Gulf, while Qatar has already condemned Israeli aggression, it too has been eager to project its power in the region. Surely participating in cease-fire talks would enhance its credentials.

In this context, Israel should make known its desire for peace, call off its air strikes, and go the diplomatic route. It should take advantage of the uncertainty in the regional power structure, and reach out to a region that doesn’t want another war. Invading Gaza would force the hand of the many countries lining up behind Hamas, upset an already uncertain political climate, and offer the new regional governments an opportunity to show their new character and capacity. Israel will probably not find a permanent solution through a cease-fire, but it will avoid the political storm of an invasion. It must avoid the military operation, consider its own and Hamas’ changing positions in the region, and develop a new approach to handle Hamas. The Middle East of 2008 is not the Middle East of 2012. And how Israel reacts to this crisis could very well determine the Middle East of future years.