As news of the continued fighting between Hamas and Israel headline media around the world, we sit on the eve of another ground invasion of Gaza. If bombs and rockets continue to rain down on both sides, we can expect to see a full Israeli assault within the next 48 hours. In the run up to H-Hour, Israel is rapidly calling up, briefing, and deploying the full spectrum of its defense forces. This includes air, ground, and naval forces. Once in place, the Israelis will move to permanently cut Gaza’s border with Egypt and then make focused thrusts inside of heavily populated districts to eliminate weapons caches and domestic rocket production capabilities. The initial Israeli military thrust that cuts the border between Gaza and Egypt will be an extremely delicate operation. The potential for provoking Egypt and unintended border spillover of the fighting could have drastic consequences to include destroying the Camp David Accords. Further, unlike Cast Lead, Israel’s previous operation into Gaza, there is a high probability that Israeli forces may be again forced to occupy significant sectors of Gaza to maintain security. This will come at a high cost and a large dedication of manpower and assets Israel would prefer not to have to commit.
To conduct this type operation, the Israeli Defense Forces will likely suffer a greater number of casualties than during previous operations due to the densely populated, complex urban terrain found inside Gaza and the improved weapons and tactics of Hamas. Closely correlated with the higher Israeli casualties will be an even higher number of Palestinian lives lost in retaliation. This is horrible for both sides, but greater issues are at stake. Specifically, there is a high likelihood that Hamas militants will attempt to coordinate cross-border attacks on Israel from Egypt. By employing this tactic, the hope of Hamas militants will be to provoke an Israeli military strike inside of Egypt. This will then be immediately used as propaganda to force Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s hand. Arguably, Morsi, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, which is affiliated with Hamas, wants to look strong as a peacemaker, but not as a military threat to Israel. By Israel attacking Egypt, it will put immense pressure on Morsi to act against Israel and even more pressure on the international community to force Israel toward a ceasefire.
Iran is widely seen as the puppet master in the latest Middle East violence. Sucking Israel into another military conflict with Gaza plays directly to Iran’s strategic interests. Without doubt, Iran’s ally, Syrian President Assad, needs both the international and regional pressure taken off of him as he continues to battle Sunni extremists within his border. As of now, many of the Sunni-Arab nations such as Qatar are actively supporting the rebel fighters and the international community is solidifying its opposition and demands for Assad’s removal. Iran recognizes that if Assad falls, they will lose a strategic regional ally and be significantly reduced in their ability to maintain Hezbollah as a fifth column against Israel. Further, and perhaps more important, if Syria falls, Iran knows that it will be targeted next. The combination of a safe air corridor and the inability to support Hezbollah post-collapse of Assad are exactly the pre-conditions Israel needs on its border before striking Iran. Israel in coordination with the United States has covertly worked toward this goal for years and Iran is desperate to regionally counter it. As such, the more regional chaos Iran can cause for Israel, the more Israel is bogged down within its own borders and unable to commit the military assets to attacking Iran. As a best case for Iran, Iran realizes that if Israel retaliates harshly against Hamas, it could force Sunni-Arab nations that are currently acting against Iran into a mutually supporting alliance of convenience against Israel. We already see this with the ethnically split, but Shia dominated Iraq government calling for the use of oil as a weapon against the U.S. and Israel, and Egypt threatening support to Hamas and to pull out of the Camp David Accords. This is just the strategic redirection Iran and Syria are seeking to achieve. Dangerously though, this is a serious game of brinkmanship that has the potential to rapidly spiral out of control and pull the entire region into war.
Considering the intricate nature of the events unfolding by the minute, U.S. policy must maintain the utmost discretion and delicacy moving forward. For now, the U.S. must focus on ensuring Egypt and Israel do not break from the agreements forged at Camp David and exercise the utmost restraint. By backing Morsi as a peacemaker, the U.S. could solidify his standing as a man that brings peace and stability, not war to the region. However, ill-thought out moves that stigmatize or corner Morsi as failing to support the Palestinians against Israel will backfire and force him to take an even harder line toward Israel causing further regional destabilization. Respective of Syria, Israel has shown itself measured in its response and must continue to maintain a defensive posture with Syrian harassing fires intended also to suck Israel into a greater conflict. At no point should the U.S. actively enter this conflict or be seen as picking sides. All considered, the most positive outcome for the U.S. would be a brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but for now, all indications point to greater war.
By Guiles Hendrik