The Root Cause of Confrontation


The kidnapping of two IDF soldiers by Hizballah on the Israel-Lebanese border adds fuel to the flames of the already fraught situation between Israel and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza. The talk in Israel is now of wide-ranging ground and air operations into Lebanon. In order to understand the dynamics which have led to this renewed crisis, it is crucial to recall the events which preceded it, and to understand the strategic thinking underlying those events.

The Disengagement from Gaza last September was undertaken by Israel because of its conviction that no credible partner for negotiation existed on the Palestinian side. Nevertheless, embedded in Israel’s strategy of unilateralism was an assumption of a sort of base-line rationality among the Palestinian leadership. It was assumed that whatever the details, the absence of Israeli soldiers and civilians in the Strip would enable the beginnings of the construction of normal life for its residents. This in turn would lead to an obvious interest among the PA leadership, regardless of the larger differences over the diplomatic process, in preventing the escalation of tension with Israel. This assumption now appears flawed.

A massive increase in Palestinian paramilitary activity of all kinds took place immediately following the Disengagement. The increase preceded the election of Hamas on January 25th, though this development further intensified it. In the first three months of 2006, 500 Qassam rockets were fired from post-Disengagement Gaza onto the towns of the Western Negev. Israeli security officials estimated that if prior to Disengagement, perhaps 200-300 rifles were smuggled in, in the course of a month, the figure by early 2006 was probably closer to 3,000. 277 attempted attacks were recorded emanating from the Gaza Strip in December, 2005, compared to 48 in October, 2005. The Hamas-led PA openly defended the April 17 terror attack in Tel Aviv. Its spokesman referred to the bombing as a “natural result of the continued Israeli crimes.” The infiltration into Israel, and the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit should thus be understood as the culmination of a process, rather than the single causal factor precipitating Israel’s incursion into Gaza.

This decision by the various Palestinian armed factions in Gaza to busily set about turning the Strip into an armed camp at first seems counter-intuitive. It has brought no tangible gains whatsoever for the Palestinian people. Instead, the long-suffering residents of the Strip are now caught between the attacks of the armed organizations and the response of the IDF.

The actions of the PA government become comprehensible, however, when they are considered from within the framework of the strategy of the Hamas leaders of the PA. The strategic outlook of Hamas is shared by the Lebanese Hizballah organization, which has now entered the fray. The backers of this movement, in Damascus and Teheran, hold to similar views.

According to well-connected Egyptian sources, during a recent meeting between Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and a senior Egyptian official, the latter berated the Hamas leader for the apparent nihilism of Palestinian strategy. He listed the collapse in international aid following Hamas’ refusal to accept international norms regarding Israel’s existence, the suffering of the Palestinian population following Israeli reprisals for attacks, and the collapse of any hopes for reviving the infrastructure of Gaza.

The official concluded by stating exasperatedly that time was not on the side of the Palestinians. Mashaal, unmoved, calmly replied that this was not true–time was on the Palestinians’ side, and the final victory would be theirs. The final victory to which Mashaal refers is Hamas’ openly-stated strategic goal of the destruction of Israel.

This is of course the well-known view of Hizballah chairman Hassan Nasrallah, whose forces on July 12th entered the fight, and who believes that Palestine is “an occupied land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and this is the right of the entire Palestinian people, this land.” Such a statement also accurately reflects the views of the Assad regime in Damascus, which provides a home for Hamas’ leadership, and backs and finances Hizballah.

Of course, the fire-eating rhetoric of Mashaal, Nasrallah and their backers is offset by the relative feebleness of their abilities. Their intransigence can prevent a fair resolution, or even a rational managing of the conflict. But while they can inflict bloody wounds on Israel, their main victims will always be their own people, who will bear the brunt of Israel’s inevitable reprisals for attacks upon it. This coalition of rejectionist states and organizations can neither successfully develop societies nor build the militaries necessary for the realization of their strategic goals.

They can however, endeavor to keep their own side mired in poverty, failure and a culture of romanticized killing. So in the end, it is not only three unfortunate IDF soldiers who are the hostages of these men. Rather, any chance of progress toward peaceful development in the Middle East is hostage, and has been hostage too long, to their fantasies of destruction, and their continued incumbency in positions of power.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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