I had hoped to write a different article this week about the troubles of General David Petraeus, not to talk about the scandal but the role of the individual in history and how destiny often has the last word.
But in Egypt and the Middle East, as usual, it is difficult to divert one’s attention because developments are relentless. And so I find myself writing this article as Israel’s war on Gaza enters its third day of successive air strikes.
The question is whether Israel will transition from air to ground operations by invading Gaza once again or, based on strategy or international pressure, will stop here, especially since it scored an important hit by killing Ahmed Al-Jaabari, a key figure in the operations of the Ezz El-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing. According to Western sources, Al-Jaabari is responsible for suicide attacks inside Israel during the second Intifada and masterminded the capturing of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Most analytical articles published after the Israeli assault began interpreting it in light of Operation Cast Lead, which began at the end of 2008 and continued into January 2009. Accordingly, they predicted scenarios similar to what happened before. On the political front, the Arab world — as usual — objects and condemns and asks for diplomatic and international help. Once Israel achieves all or some of its goals to its satisfaction, it will agree to withdraw and in return will enjoy some quiet for a while.
From a military perspective, the previous war developed the same way as this one has so far. Groups in Gaza launch enough rockets at Israel to make residents in southern Israel complain; the government reacts by launching air and ground military operations that are enough to destroy Gaza. This is followed by talk about reconstruction while waiting for another round of war.
But this time, the battle is taking place in dissimilar circumstances. Like in the past, it began with rockets launched by radical Islamist groups, such as Islamic jihad that is closely connected to Iran. But these rocket attacks cannot be separated from the ongoing silent war between Iran and Israel on several fronts in Syria, Lebanon and now in Palestine. The difference here is that Palestinian rockets that were primitive three years ago have now grown into a full arsenal that is far more advanced in terms of range and destructive power.
Today, they can reach the outskirts of Tel Aviv, into the cities of Ashdod, Askalan and Beir Sab’e, and can destroy a house and kill three people inside it. Today, Palestinian groups can dip into Libya’s military arsenal that collapsed and is now available after Gaddafi’s elimination, by being smuggled through Egypt — currently too distracted with the revolution and a painful and agonising transitional phase.
It is obvious that Egypt’s role has influence in its absence or presence; when absent, it is clear that it was a pivotal contributor to negotiating a ceasefire and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2009. This was possible because it was close to both parties in Tel Aviv and Gaza and had deliverables for both sides. It ignored the tunnels, opened border crossings, and guaranteed basic needs of life, health and passage of a variety of things. For Israel, peace was in place, natural gas flowed through the pipes, trade was robust, and they were both friends of the US.
But that is not the situation today.
The regime in Egypt has stronger bonds than brotherly relations with Hamas in Palestine, which has restrained Egypt’s response to the actual occupation of Sinai by armed jihadist groups that have attacked the Egyptian police and armed forces. On the other hand, the cool peace between Egypt and Israel has frozen over.
This basically means that Egypt has essentially lost its ability to handle the conflict. More ominously, it seems that within a few months of President Morsi being in office, Egypt could become party to the conflict. At least that is what extremist jihadist groups are working towards, along with corresponding fanatical groups within the Muslim Brotherhood.
Thus, there is no mediator this time. The world is distracted with other matters, especially in Europe and the US, and Israel has succeed in courting world opinion that negatively views jihadist groups solely through the prism of terrorism and sees no reason to sympathise with them. In Gaza especially, Hamas is not only classified as a terrorist group but also has no legitimacy.
After launching between 750-800 rockets at Israel since the beginning of the year, the Israeli assault on Gaza is being interpreted as a legitimate right to self defence, forgetting that Palestinian land has been occupied for decades.
Meanwhile, Israel is going to battle this time after it too underwent a military transformation after starting to create the yet incomplete anti-missile system Iron Dome, which is only effective in defending key military and strategic positions. Thus, both the Israelis and Palestinians are going into battle after regional circumstances and strategic conditions have shifted, as well as changes in their own military situations. Drawing parallels between Cast Lead and Pillar of Cloud would be unfair to the latter and inaccurate in its predictions.
Our biggest concern right now is Egypt, which has been plagued by events in Sinai. But emotions have poured towards Gaza and gathered a million people, while Sinai did not even gather 100 in support of the armed forces and to commiserate the martyrs who defend the country.