Next in Gaza, Palestinian elections or Israeli preemption?

Paul Mutter contributed this commentary — and I have a note at the end.

Ebaa Reqez, an activist who helped organized the “March 15” Movement demonstrations in 2011 that laid the groundwork for the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement I’ve been tracking this week commented on the political sectarianism that is undermining a deal that was always a tenuous proposition:

In Gaza many of the organizers support Fatah and want to end the rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, they want to oust Fatah. And they both used March 15 and afterwards to try to get what they want.

This contest of wills and patronage was clearly illustrated three weeks ago when Hamas presented its “conditions” for becoming part of a unity government, conditions that Fatah partisans – even if they were willing to defy Israeli and American pressure – would balk at because of the key ministries Hamas was demanding control over. The talks in Cairo that were supposed to mark the next step in Palestinian reconciliation are now on hold, and spokesmen from both parties are blaming each other for the collapse of talks.

Abbas’s position is extremely difficult. The West Bank’s economy and his political machine are both still heavily dependent on foreign aid, and Tel Aviv has final authority over Ramallah’s tax stream – joining with Hamas would certainly led to a freeze on some, if not all, of Fatah’s finances by Israel and the U.S.

Hamas also finds itself in a weaker position today now that it has yet again had to endure an exchange between the IDF and other militant organizations that was precipitated by the assassination of a Popular Committees leader. Hamas leader Mohammad Zahhar, who has blustered about “resistance” against Israel and made much of opposition to the Doha deal, reportedly implored the Egyptians to broker a ceasefire before things got out of hand – i.e., Israel started targeting Hamas members. Zahhar is making a bid for power as a “rejectionist” – it’s not quite clear how much of a “rejectionist” he’d be in practice when facing down the IDF.

The latest round of fighting in Gaza has emboldened those Israeli officials who desire another Operation Cast Lead, the winter 2008–9 ground and air assault by the IDF that killed hundreds of Palestinians and displaced many more in an effort to severely damage Hamas’ military capabilities. Now, arguing that Islamic Jihad is being pushed by its Iranian backers to take more active measures against Israel, Israeli officials are increasingly alluding to the “failure” of Cast Lead’s “deterrence.”

One would hope that in admitting concern over Iranian machinations in Gaza, Israeli strategists wouldtake care to avoid being goaded into escalation, but this does not appear to be the case. A proposal from the right-leaning Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies – titled “The Opportunity in Gaza” – is indicative of the case made for escalation. The authors argue that Israel ought to conduct a ground incursion into Gaza soon to “destroy most of the terrorist infrastructure and the leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other organizations,” at least in part as preparation for military against Iran soon thereafter. “Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz stated several times that a large-scale operation in Gaza is inevitable,” the authors argue, and even though they acknowledge that this effort will not finish off Hamas or any other groups (and may even lead to new ones forming), they chillingly note that “Israel will probably have to ‘mow the grass’ again,” meaning Israel should plan to bomb and invade Gaza every few years for the foreseeable future. While BESA’s influence in Israeli politics is debated (think tanks in Israel aren’t as well-established as their counterparts in the U.S.), in citing Gantz, the report is indeed representative of the preemption mentality in the IDF and Likud (the “cordon-and-swat” approach, as former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar puts it).

One also wonders what Hamas’s leaders think of such calls to arms. They’ve avoided initiating a conflict so far, but with Israeli officials calling for preemption, they have less and less to gain by holding their fighters back except a vague hope that they won’t end up fighting a losing battle soon. Plus, every death in Gaza brought about by the IAF popularizes the smaller groups Hamas seeks to rein in, much to its detriment.

I said last year that Hamas had secured a measure of initiative in the region thanks to the Arab Spring, but now, I am not so sure it can retain it. On the other side of Israel, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are hapless, and within the country, the Likud Party grows ever more bellicose. I do not think elections are in Gaza’s forecast. Though it is in the interests of only the most hardline Islamists or hawkish Zionists that escalation continue, with every new rocket fired and bomb dropped, Hamas and Israel seem to be stuck on the path that leads to a new Cast Lead within the next few years.

Ed. note: I would also factor into this the recent agreement between Hamas and Egypt supplied natural gas for Gaza’s powerplant. Hamas had paid up the initial deposit on the transaction but the Egyptians — specifically General Intelligence — have relented on delivering the gas, causing long blackouts. In the short term, Gaza’s energy dependency on Egypt gives the Egyptians leverage (at least until the Muslim Brothers decide to make it a political issue domestically). In the longer term it fits within an Israeli desire to shed responsibility for Gaza, which is why the Egyptians are now asking for the gas to be transfered via Israel rather than directly to Gaza. What this shows is that post-uprising dynamics are fluid and the beneficiaries are not necessarily obvious — as Hamas is now finding itself reorienting away from Iran and Syria and towards possibily tougher new patrons in Qatar and Egypt. — Issandr.