TOPICS > Politics

Shaky Cease-fire, Political Dynamics Led to Burst of Israeli-Hamas Violence

December 30, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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Gulf leaders are set to meet Wednesday in Cairo for an Arab League Summit amid increased international pressure on Israel to stop air strikes in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Two analysts probe both sides of the conflict.
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JEFFREY BROWN: As we’ve seen, the Gaza war has been accompanied by statements and declarations from Hamas, Israel, and other governments in the region.

For analysis of all this, we turn once again to Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, a Middle East satellite news channel. He’s also a senior correspondent for An-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper.

And David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Well, I want to ask you both, why now? Start with you, Hisham Melhem. What are the internal dynamics driving this? Start with the Hamas side.

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, Al Arabiya: This was like a Greek tragedy. Everybody knew that, by the end of the cease-fire expiration date, that they will be — that we are sliding towards the abyss.

One can speculate only on why Hamas did that. They said that they are not going to renew the informal cease-fire because I think they wanted to improve the terms of any kind of a renewed cease-fire. They are feeling the effects of the tight Israeli siege that has been imposed on Gaza.

You have deteriorating humanitarian conditions there. Unemployment is more than 42 percent. Almost two-thirds of the Palestinians there are living dependent on aid from relief agency. So there is that domestic pressure on Hamas. Hamas wants to prove that it is in control, that it can force the Israelis to change the terms of the — of the siege.

And also the Israelis are preparing for elections, so they felt that they have to enhance their position vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority, led by President Abbas in the West Bank. So the economic pressure, the humanitarian pressure…

JEFFREY BROWN: And the politics?

HISHAM MELHEM: … and the politics of it compelled them to challenge the Israelis. And they felt — maybe they miscalculated — that the Israelis cannot embark on a serious invasion of — reinvasion of Gaza, they may embark on a series of aerial attacks and that they could absorb that.

And I think they are correct in the sense that there is no military solution to this. And in the end, they probably end up being enhanced, if they win, and winning here in this context is survival of the leadership.

Hamas misjudged Israeli response

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. How do you see the -- start with Hamas again, the internal dynamic?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Project on the Middle East Peace Process: Well, I think Hisham's analysis is good in terms of, you know, upcoming political elections. I think they miscalculated Israel. They saw Israel coming out of the Lebanon war with Hezbollah, that Hezbollah was able to survive 34 days with Israel. They probably thought Israel deterrence had been weakened.

They may have misinterpreted that, when Israel pulled out of Gaza, they may have viewed it as a sign of Israeli weakness. And they may have felt that Israel in an election cycle, because Israel's going to the polls in February, would not dream of embarking on a campaign. And I think they completely miscalculated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, from the Israeli side, tell us about those -- the political dynamic. Do you see that as playing a role here from Israel's actions?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think there might be a byproduct of it. I really don't believe it was a motivator for one simple reason: Israel was happy to continue the cease-fire, but I think Hamas thought, as Hisham suggests, that they could have it always. They could improve the terms of the next cease-fire, get free shots at Israel, maybe even convince some other jihadi groups that they are what they call resistance, meaning involved in terrorism, and Israel won't do anything.

And Israel said, hey, you know -- Israel got out of Gaza. Israel wanted to continue the cease-fire. But after firing 200 rockets after the cease-fire was over, basically the public turned to the Israeli government and said, "Are you protecting the Israeli public or not?"

At that time, Barak -- the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak -- had a whole plan, but I think Hamas just miscalculated. They thought Israel was weak. They thought they could fire rockets indiscriminately from within civilian areas, but as soon as Israel would retaliate, they would be immune, because they would go on television and say that Israel is attacking.

JEFFREY BROWN: To what extent is the 2006, the Hezbollah and Israel war in Lebanon, is that prologue here? Or what kind of implications does it set for what we're seeing now?

HISHAM MELHEM: This war is taking place in the shadow of 2006. The Israelis felt that Hezbollah made a major dent in their strategic deterrence. You have the mightiest military machine in the Middle East, led by Israel, fighting a non-state actor. Hezbollah is the strongest non-state actor. A draw, a bloody war that destroyed Lebanon, destroyed the Lebanese economy, 1,200 Lebanese casualties, mostly civilians, and it was inconclusive, from the point of view of the mightiest military power in the Middle East.

Hezbollah has 'thrived'

JEFFREY BROWN: But Hezbollah not only survived, but has thrived?

HISHAM MELHEM: Hezbollah not only survived, it was emboldened. Iran, and Hezbollah, and Syria, and all of this coalition has been emboldened. Militarily Hezbollah today is stronger, according to Israelis, Israeli intelligence, stronger than it used to be in 2006.

And Hezbollah also translated that so-called military victory, which was nihilistic -- not military victory, per se, in the traditional sense -- translated into political gains in Lebanon when they challenged the Lebanese government back...

JEFFREY BROWN: Is a part of the government now, yes.

HISHAM MELHEM: ... in May. And I think one could argue -- we don't know how this thing was going to unfold in Gaza -- that, in the end, Israel will probably embolden Hamas at least in the short run.

Now the Palestinian Authority in West Bank is on the defensive. Arab moderate states, including Egypt, the biggest Arab country, is on the defensive. And you have Hassan Nasrallah and the so-called Arab street demonstrating.

And we are going to see a similar -- probably are going to see a similar situation unfolding along the line of 2006 in which the Arab street will force the Arab governments, who are not necessarily found of Hamas, who disapprove of Hamas' methods, and who would agree that part of the tragedy of Gaza is a result of the Israeli siege, as well as the recklessness of some policies pursued by Hamas. But in the short run, Hamas will be emboldened.

Arab reaction is complex

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, pick up on those implications. And, of course, we just heard the interview Ray did with the Egyptian ambassador, in terms of the wider resonance for this in the Middle East.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Absolutely. You know, in the Middle East, sometimes it's the nuances. You know, if you have ambassador, a government official, they're constrained by what they can say publicly.

But if you look at where some of the demonstrations are against Egypt, you look at some of the things that the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank has been saying, also blaming Hamas, and what President Mubarak said in your news summary segment.

And, you know, it's not Israel versus the Arabs the way some of the viewers of television like to see it as. No, it's really, I think, much more like Egypt, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Israel against Hamas and much of the Arab leadership. I'm not talking about the publics that watch Arab satellite television.

The leaderships are scared to death that these proxies, whether they're Hezbollah, whether they're Hamas, that these are proxies for Iran, and if they could destabilize in Lebanon and Gaza near the Egyptian border, they could do it in any of these Arab countries. So none of these Arab states are wishing Hamas well.

Now, here comes the kicker to all this, what makes it all very -- at a certain point, there is what I call diminishing returns. In other words, right now, you hold the Arabs together. Basically -- I don't want to be simplistic in saying that, you know, the Arab states are holding up Israeli flags. They're not.

But, clearly, they would like to see Hamas dealt a setback, because they feel that's Iran on the march against the Arabs. You know, Persians and Arabs, there's a lot of historic enmity.

The diminishing returns part is, if there is going to be something on the ground, like you have this place called Kanna in 2006, also 1996, but I use it as a metaphor. If there's going to be civilian casualties, the fear is the Arab states quiver and hide under the tables because of Arab satellite TV, and then the whole thing falls apart.

Israeli response disproportionate

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we just have a minute, so that's a provocative...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: And it all falls apart. And so -- and I feel that the question is, at what point can you rally the Arab states into a more lasting situation and agreement so that to compel Hamas to accept the cease-fire and maybe even have an Arab force to monitor, to stop the inflow of rockets that's coming from Egypt into Gaza?

JEFFREY BROWN: That's a very provocative idea. We have about 30 seconds, so go ahead.

HISHAM MELHEM: The recklessness of Hamas does not justify this kind of disproportionate Israeli retaliation. We're not talking about the Arab media or the Arab states. We're talking about, you know, one casualty in Israel versus 100 casualties on the Palestinian side.

There projectiles that are primitive projectiles that are fired by Hamas against Israel, they are weapons of intimidation and terror. The Israelis are firing real weapons that are killing people by the hundreds. And that is not lost on the Arabs, Arab polity, the officialdom, or the Arab people.

They may disagree with Hamas and Hezbollah the way I would do. They don't have a solution to this problem.

At the same time, they don't believe that the Israeli way is the right way. And they do believe, I think correctly, that the so-called peace process that was pursued by the United States, which was actually ignored for seven years out of eight years, and the fact that the Israelis continued their colonization, settlement activities in the West Bank, they believe at least Hamas can tell the Arabs and the moderates, what did you achieve through the so-called peace process that is sponsored by the United States? More settlements, more corpses, more weakness on the Arab side.

And that's why you have been squeezed between the nihilism of people like Hamas and Hezbollah and the others and the weaknesses and impotence of Arab states and the fact that the United States neglected the whole process completely.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. All right. Sorry, we've got to leave it there. Hisham Melhem, David Makovsky, thanks, as always.