The crisis now under way in Gaza represents the moment when the wave of Sunni Islamism that has been achieving triumph after triumph in the region since early 2011 finally crashes up against the Jewish state.
The form in which the crisis is playing out offers some useful early pointers regarding both the strengths and weaknesses of the emergent Sunni Islamist powers in the region.
From the historical perspective, it is now clear that the “Arab spring”—that is, the fall of decrepit Arab nationalist regimes and their replacement by Islamist ones—began not in Tunisia in early 2011, but in Gaza in the summer of 2007. The expulsion of Fatah and the PLO from the Gaza Strip, and their defeat at the hands of the Islamists of Hamas, set the prototype in miniature for what has followed in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen.
The Hamas rulers of Gaza understand this point well. They regard themselves as part of an historic process of an Islamist advance. The swift and stunning rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular led to a sharp change in the movement’s assessment of the balances of forces and what was possible at this moment in its long struggle against Israel.
This change at the level of strategic perspective led in recent months to changes in tactics. In the first years after Operation Cast Lead, Hamas made some efforts to prevent Islamic Jihad and the smaller Salafi organizations from firing at Israel and bringing down retribution. The movement focused on rearming and improving its capabilities. Hamas’s own fighters were rarely responsible for the rockets.
In the course of 2012, this changed. Believing it had its fellow Muslim Brothers in Egypt at its back, Hamas began to allow freer rein to the smaller groups, and to participate in actions against Israel along the border.
The Kornet missile attack on an IDF jeep patrolling the Israeli side of the border on November 10 was the sharpest expression yet of Hamas’s attempt to take advantage of what it saw as an altered balance. This action triggered the current crisis.
Hamas has miscalculated. Apparently, the movement assumed that Israel shared its perspective on the changed balance of forces and would acquiesce to Hamas’s allowing and participating in terror attacks on Israel’s south.
Instead, the Israeli authorities have clearly understood Hamas’s intentions, and have responded with a large scale operation with a notably limited aim—namely, to restore ‘deterrence’; that is, to disabuse the Hamas rulers of Gaza of the notion that the current situation makes possible aggression against Israel.
But the greater Hamas miscalculation appears to have been regarding the nature and extent of the support they would receive from the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.
Ideologically, of course, the Hamas rulers of Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood rulers of Egypt are birds of a feather. This was graphically demonstrated during the visit of Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil to the Strip. Qandil’s statements, his style, even his appearance were of a piece with his hosts.
But ideology is not the only factor at work. The rulers of Egypt are presiding over a dysfunctional country of 80 million. They are entirely dependent on western aid to avoid the real prospect of hunger. Just prior to the current crisis in Gaza, Egypt had secured a commitment from the European Union for aid totaling $6.4 billion. A $4.5 billion loan is on the way from the IMF. The U.S. is committed to supplying $2 billion a year to Egypt.
But this money, of course, also buys influence. It means that the Egyptian Muslim Brothers cannot simply follow their ideological inclinations.
The result is that, as of now, the Egyptian authorities, along with Qatar and Turkey, are seeking to induce Hamas to agree to a renewed ceasefire. The Gaza leaders are rejecting Egypt’s proposals.
Hamas wants to come out with an achievement. They want a U.S.-supported guarantee that Israel will cease targeted killings, and the lifting of all economic restrictions on Gaza.
There is no chance that either Israel or the U.S. will agree to such demands. 75,000 Israeli reservists have been called up. The Israeli air force is currently working its way down a long list of quality targets—both human and infrastructural—in Gaza. Collateral damage is largely being avoided. The Iron Dome system is performing well. Israel is in no hurry.
But the stance taken by Egypt indicates something important. The emergent Sunni Islamist powers in the region differ from the Iran-led Shia bloc, which is self-financing, and which has placed itself on a collision course with the west and Israel.
The Sunni Islamists in Cairo are required by reality to have a different type of relationship with the west. Hamas, in trying to impose new rules of engagement in the wake of the Sunni Islamist advance, failed to calculate this. The result is that the rulers of Gaza are now facing the unattractive alternatives of agreeing to a return to an improved version of the status quo ante, or facing the prospect of a continued Israeli devastation of their capabilities in Gaza.