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How Did Latest Escalation Between Israel and Hamas Begin?

November 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks to Al Arabiya's Hisham Melham and University of Haifa's Dan Schueftan about how the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas got started and what the U.S. role in the conflict should be.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The fighting triggered protests throughout the Muslim world today after Friday prayers came to an end.

In Egypt, crowds in Cairo and Alexandria waved Palestinian flags and chanted anti-Israeli slogans. Thousands of people also turned out in Yemen to denounce the Israeli offensive. And in Turkey, a one-time Israeli ally, people in Istanbul called for the death of the Jewish state.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the conflict, we are joined by Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya, and Dan Schueftan, director of NationalSecurityStudiesCenter at the University of Haifa and a visiting professor this year at GeorgetownUniversity.

Gentlemen, one thing I think a lot of people, myself included, are wondering, how did this flare up seemingly so quickly?

Dan Schueftan?

DAN SCHUEFTAN,University of Haifa: Well, since Hamas took over, we had for a while 1,000 rockets per year, approximately.

Then came Israeli Operation Cast Lead, and it went down dramatically, to a very small number of rockets every year. Last year again, we came to about 1,000 rockets against Israel. And this intensified in recent weeks, to the point where Israel had to take action.

Israel was saying for about two weeks — I mean, people here were dealing with the elections and other things. But it was saying it must lead to a point where either it stops or we will have to take action.

When it didn’t stop, Israel took action.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hisham, what do you think happened to build it up?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: We have never seen quiet on the border, even from 2008 until now.

And in the few days leading to the Israeli decision to take on, assassinate a major military leader of Hamas, there were skirmishes and there were casualties on both sides. So this is really not a total surprise.

But what happened, this confrontation is taking place against changing internal regional dynamics. This is the first.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the much larger picture.

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. The much larger picture is that this is the firstconfrontation, serious confrontations, after the changes in Egypt and the changes within the Hamas leadership, the growing empowerment that Hamas feels it has in Gaza, at the expense of the marginalized Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

You have the emir of visiting Hamas in Gaza. You have the Egyptian prime minister visiting today.

JEFFREY BROWN: The kind of thing we would never have seen, and we did never see.

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. Now Hamas is getting direct financial support from Qatar. There’s political support from Turkey and from Egypt.

On the Israeli side, you have upcoming election, you have the Israeli prime minister saying, essentially, our deterrence should be — we should remind the Palestinians once again, or Hamas, of our deterrence, that we have a long hand. And that is why the decision came to escalate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when you think about the calculation for both sides, in Israel, the international reproach came quickly and will come if this — will come even more.

DAN SCHUEFTAN: No, at the moment, there is very wide support for the Israeli operation. I mean, the president of the United States went as far as saying that Hamas must stop the fire first.

There is an understanding in Europe. Now, of course, the usual suspects…

JEFFREY BROWN: I meant in the region. I’m sorry. You are right. You are right. DAN SCHUEFTAN: Oh, in the region. The region is hostile to Israel and it is becoming more hostile to Israel. And that’s exactly the point that Hamas was banking on, the assumption that the new regime in Egypt, also Muslim brothers, and Hamas is also — it’s the Palestinian Muslim brothers.

So they assume that Israel will be afraid of clashing with Egypt and therefore Israel will not respond, even when a million Israelis have to sit in shelters because their cities are being bombarded by rockets before the Israeli action.

I’m not speaking after. For months and months, you have had a million Israelis under threat in Israeli cities, and there was pressure inside Israel from the population, saying hey, you know, this is impossible. More than a million Israelis can’t suffer for so long.

So the government was told by the Israeli population that it must do it. And in spite of the fact that they knew it would be suspected of doing it because of the elections, and the Palestinians believed that, because of the elections, Israel will not do it, the government had to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you think about the potential for escalation, though, can either side win this? I mean, what are they after?

HISHAM MELHEM: The grim reality of this conflict, particularly in Hamas and Israel, is that both sides, even when they bloody each other, even when they end up with many body bags and casualties, mostly civilian Palestinians, both of them in a crazy, surreal way will claim victory.

This is not going to change the political reality. Even if the Israelis invade Gaza, as they did in 2008, when they inflicted and killed 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, there was no political solution. Today, the only thing that is still changing, as I said, there is a regional strategic dynamics that are changing and domestic dynamics, especially with the Palestinians, that are changing, the American position is still the same.

And the Americans say, we cannot talk to Hamas, and therefore we’re not doing anything, except giving the Israelis tacit approval and support. At the end of the day, this administration will need Egypt, will need Turkey, will need someone to talk to Hamas.

Otherwise, the Israelis can buy themselves a few months of respite, a year or two, and then again that grim reality will face us again, and will present us with the same problem.

And that’s why this crisis cries out for American leadership. If there is no American leadership, the tension will continue. We have the situation in Jordan that is teetering right now. We have a new transition that is going on in Egypt. You have conflagration within Syria.

The whole region is teetering and the whole region is brittle, politically and strategically. And into the mix now, the Israelis come with this major operation against Gaza. They cannot live in the region and claim that they are not going to be touched by the reverberations taking place in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see a kind of political solution? And what will the U.S. role be?

DAN SCHUEFTAN: No. I disagree with a lot of things that were said now, but in one thing, I very strongly agree.

There is no political solution. And there cannot be a political solution, because what you have in Gaza is an organization dedicated it the destruction of Israel, dedicated to killing of Jews. This is what they say openly. I mean, this is not an interpretation of what they’re saying. This is what they’re saying.

As long as Israel exists, they will fight Israel. They are committed to an anti-Semitic perception of killing Jews. It’s in their charter. It’s in their official documents. This is what they are openly saying. And they will not leave Israel alone, regardless of what is happening.

So once Israel withdrew totally from the Gaza Strip, they started shelling Israeli cities. And I also agree that whatever Israel can achieve — and it can achieve quite a lot — it achieved in Cast Lead four years of tranquility, of relative tranquility.

But all it can achieve is relative tranquility for a while, and then it will come up again because the Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a brief last word here, but you’re saying it requires American leadership, but do you do you see that happening?

HISHAM MELHEM: I don’t see it happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: No.

HISHAM MELHEM: That’s why. I don’t see it happening.

DAN SCHUEFTAN: And it can’t help anyhow.

JEFFREY BROWN It can’t help?

DAN SCHUEFTAN: No.

HISHAM MELHEM: No, look, you cannot say there is no American leadership. Otherwise, you are leaving the parties to their own devices, and there will be more conflict and more tragedies between the Palestinians and the Israelis at a time when, as I said, the whole region is teetering.

And in the end, the Israelis live in that region too. And it’s not in their long-term interests to allow the situation to fester like that. Yes, the Egyptians will maintain the peace treaty with Israel.

But you have — look what is taking place in Sinai. Throughout the region, that requires new thinking. The Israelis should get out of their traditional way of thinking that, just by military means, we can deal with this issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we have to leave it there for tonight.

Hisham Melhem, Dan Schueftan, thank you both very much.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twitter and other social media sites lit up with eyewitness accounts from the Middle East. But who should you trust? We offer answers online.