Gaza strip

An Israeli military excursion into Gaza is uncertain, but then nothing is certain in the Middle East except uncertainty. Despite hundreds of Israeli bombing sorties, Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets into Israel, upping the stakes as they target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The mainstream media has pointed to Israel’s targeted assassination of Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari, a key Hamas military leader, as the immediate cause of the conflict. But in truth, the roots of the current conflict began well before that. The immediate events were the wounding of an IDF officer in October by an explosive device near the Gaza border. On November 6, three IDF soldiers were injured by an explosion. Palestinian militants then sent rockets into Israel. Two days later, the IDF killed a 13-year-old boy in a firefight. Three days later, Palestinians wounded four IDF soldiers. In response, IDF tanks fired into Gaza, killing five Palestinians and wounding at least 25.

On November 10-12, Palestinian militants fired more than 100 rockets and mortars into southern Israel, injuring at least eight Israelis. The conflict came to a head on November 14 when four rockets hit southern Israel. Later that day, Jabari was assassinated in a bombing attack. From the Israeli perspective, the underlying context for the current conflict was the 680 rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into southern Israel in 2011 alone.

The question is why did this come to a head now? The answer is found in the convergence of several events. First, Syria is in the throes of a bloody civil war and has been the focus of intense international scrutiny. The Syrian government is clearly feeling the heat, and the longer the scrutiny, the more international support the Syrian rebels garner. In early November the Sunni-dominated Arab League recognised the (Sunni-led) Syrian rebel coalition as the legitimate government over the Shia-based government of Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey and France also recognised the Syrian rebels, and France is considering arming them. Assad knows the longer the civil war goes on the greater the chance for outside military intervention. It’s in his interest to buy time by deflecting attention away from Syria and onto the Palestinian issue.

Middle Eastern politics are full of sudden twists and turns. For example, Hamas’ highest decision-making body, and its leader Khaled Meshal, have until recently operated out of exile in Damascus. Despite decades of dependence on Syrian hospitality, arms and funds, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya recently threw his support to the Syrian rebels. Distancing Hamas from Assad’s sinking regime was an attempt to woo the sentiment of the Arab street. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that Hamas doesn’t owe a significant debt to the Assad family and maintains a strong — if circumspect — connection. Alternatively, Hamas could have adopted Paris Hilton’s approach to BFFs.

Like Syria, Iran wants to steer international attention away from its nuclear ambitions. Perhaps not coincidentally, Gaza exploded at the same time that Iran made major advances in its nuclear capabilities. Despite shifting loyalties to the new Sunni-based governments, Hamas remains beholden to Iran and Syria who have been some of their major weapons and cash suppliers. Along with the locally made M-75 rockets, Iran’s Fajr-5 rockets made the long range attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem possible. In turn, Syria and Iran have the least to lose and the most to gain from a regional conflict.

Hamas’ interests in maintaining — and even escalating — the conflict is rooted in the recent promises brought about by the Arab Spring. As the political landscape shifted from relatively secular dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya to religious-based governments, Hamas may want to test the commitments of these new governments to their cause. That may partly explain why its demands for a ceasefire — including open borders — are unrealistic in terms of what Israel will accept.

By continuing to fire missiles into Israel, Hamas will force an Israeli ground invasion and push Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi into a corner. Will Mursi pay lip service to the Hamas cause like Mubarak or will he appease his constituents and intervene, thereby nullifying the peace treaty with Israel? For Hamas, the question is how much they can actually rely on the new Arab governments to stand alongside them. For Israel the danger is that they will and start a major regional conflagration.

There are also countervailing pressures for Hamas to agree to a ceasefire. In an Israeli land invasion, Egypt would be faced with backing away from Hamas and losing face in the region, or intervening and losing billions in US aid. Turkey and Tunisia would also feel the pressure to aid Hamas and risk alienating their relations with the West. It’s a tough balancing act all around.

What does Israel stand to gain from an escalation of the Gaza conflict? Very little apart from the cessation of missile fire into southern Israel. Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud coalition doesn’t need to demonstrate that it’s tough on the issues. Netanyahu’s popularity is stable and polls show his government is set to win the January 2013 elections. On the other hand, Israel has a lot to lose in a ground invasion if the new Arab Spring governments decide to “put up rather than shut up”.

*Howard Karger is Professor and Head of the School of Social Work and Human Services at the University of Queensland. He has lived and worked in the Middle East.