Israel and Gaza are involved in an escalating firefight that began with the exposure of undercover Israeli soldiers at a militant checkpoint in Gaza over the weekend. The Israeli probe there is part of an ongoing operation to limit Hamas’ ability to wage war. It may seem that this attempt failed, given that several hundred rockets have been fired into Israel. But the strategic situation goes far beyond this exchange.
For the Palestinians, one of their main challenges has been the profound divide between Palestinian groups. The West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, a descendant of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO is an umbrella organization for various Palestinian factions that all descended from the secular Arab movements that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Gaza, on the other hand, is dominated by Hamas, a different strand of the Palestinian movement that took its bearings from the rise of Islamists. Ideologically, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority diverge profoundly. Strategically, they have different interests in Gaza. The PA had some possibility of creating a viable entity there and made formal and informal arrangements with the Israelis to achieve that end. But ultimately, Gaza wasn’t viable. Given its size and population, it was sustainable only through outside support. Any settlement with Israel would leave Gaza permanently unmanageable. But the divergent interests of the PA and Hamas benefited the Israelis. Internal division had been a feature of the Palestinian movement from the beginning, but this sharp ideological and geographical split made it easier for the Israelis to manage the situation.
Gaza was contained not only by the Israelis but also by the Egyptians, who saw Hamas’ links to the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their interests. The Saudis, on the other hand, saw an opportunity. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the center of Sunni Islam and, therefore, responsible for the religiously oriented Palestinian movements, providing them with military support.
Another factor was Iran, which also offered Hamas support. The foundation of Iran’s power in the Levant was Hezbollah. It was a Shiite political and military movement that confronted the Israelis during Israel’s invasions of Lebanon and in Israel itself. There was tension between Shiite Iran and Sunni Palestinian groups, but Hamas needed military aid, and Hezbollah and the Iranians were ready and willing to supply it. They provided the rockets that Hamas fired at Israel and the technology Hamas needed to construct rockets of its own. Israel was thus militarily diverted in two directions: to the north in Lebanon and to the south in Gaza. Neither posed an existential threat to Israel, but together they were a significant force drawing Israeli attention in multiple directions.
After the U.S. withdrawal from the region, the spread of Iranian power created a new strategic dynamic. Saudi Arabia and Israel had a common interest in containing Iran, and Iran’s connection to Hamas concerned both. The Saudis seemed to support Israel’s efforts to shift Hamas away from confrontation. As the main supplier of non-lethal aid, the Saudis had massive influence over Hamas, and in recent weeks, the group indicated it was interested in some settlement with Israel and displacing PA as the main representative of Palestinians.
The shift in Hamas’ posture had to alarm the Iranians. Gaza was not an existential threat to them, but its ability to divert Israel’s focus and shift logistical support would be an asset in any potential conflict with Israel. I speculate now that the Saudi pressure to accommodate Israel may have resulted in Iranian counter-pressure, and the increasing Israeli probes were in some way connected to this. Gaza would be permanently crippled if it accepted the Saudi status quo and, therefore, continued working with Iran, as covertly as possible.
For Israel, the real strategic problem is that Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa are the heart of the country and where its population is concentrated. If they were to come under massive rocket and missile fire, the losses would likely be unacceptable. Israel, therefore, must pre-empt any possible attack from Iran. U.S. economic pressure on Tehran has weakened the regime, but that has not changed the strategic problem Israel faces.
Gaza is therefore not the real problem. The real problem is the peripheral threat from the north, east and south. The Israeli military has no way to instantaneously destroy all the rockets that can be launched from these positions. Any Israeli attack, therefore, would take an extended period of time and might require ground forces. And once the Israelis begin such an operation, the Iranians would be able to launch a large number of missiles toward the main population hubs. Israel would thus have to engage its entire periphery simultaneously. It’s unlikely Israel would use nuclear weapons given the proximity and high probability of nuclear fallout reaching Israel. An Israeli assault must be conventional and very quickly effective. A difficult task, to say the least.
It would also have to be pre-emptive. If Iran were to initiate war, Israel would be in the worst position possible. It can’t assume Iran won’t act, nor can it assume that a pre-emptive strike would even work.
As odd as it seems, the matter may come down to the Russians. If they block Israeli aircraft attacking Syria, then Israel has the choice of backing down or attacking Russian facilities, making the situation even more unmanageable. What Israel needs is for the Russians to force Iran to withdraw its missiles from Syria. Gaza is manageable, and with the Syrian problem eliminated, Israel would face only one remaining threat: Hezbollah in Lebanon. Indeed, without Gaza and Syria involved, Hezbollah might not be willing to begin an exchange.
The Russians don’t want to see Israel attacked, and they don’t want to face an Israeli assault either. Russia would be at a disadvantage, and it has little desire to deploy more forces to the region. And while it has no love for Iran, it doesn’t want to force the Syrians have to choose between Russia and Iran. The Syrian army is far larger than the Russian force in place, and superior training and weapons don’t always compensate for numbers. Russia’s presence in Syria is getting more complicated by the day, but it can’t withdraw without giving up the one thing it sought in Syria in the first place: credibility. It can act quietly against Iranian missiles but can’t guarantee their withdrawal.
It’s for this reason that the U.S. abandoned the nuclear agreement with the Iranians and demanded they halt the construction of missiles. Long-range missiles in Iran would turn Israel’s problem insoluble without rapid, aggressive action, which the U.S. doesn’t want at a time when the situation throughout the region is volatile.
The Least Dangerous Force
The current fighting in Gaza is part of years of sporadic conflict, but there’s more to it. The spread of Iranian power has threatened Sunni Arabs in the region, particularly the Saudis. Now it has reached the point of forcing Israel to consider pre-emptive action, and Gaza is the least dangerous force with which it can deal. The Israelis clearly didn’t take Hamas’ offers for an agreement seriously, likely due to its rocket production capabilities.
The Israelis have warned the Lebanese about Hezbollah’s rockets. They have insisted that the Russians permit continued airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria without warning. And they are taking rocket fire from Gaza. All these events are in some way connected to the massive growth in Iranian power. The Iranians, though, are facing severe economic pressure and may see confrontation with Israel as the kind of national security event that could boost patriotism and allow citizens to forget their economic hardships.
Meanwhile, intense talks are undoubtedly underway. The Americans are using their new favorite weapon – economic warfare – against Iran and avoiding military involvement. The Russians are getting the old sinking feeling of foreigners intervening in the Middle East. The Israelis are contemplating full peripheral warfare. It comes down to how badly the Iranians want to hold their current position, and the extent to which they are willing to back down. The possibility of a defeat might be enough to force them to choose another day.