Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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The Israel-Hamas Conflict’s Unintended Consequences

by Robert M. Danin
November 19, 2012

Palestinians carry the body of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, Hamas's military mastermind, during his funeral in Gaza City on November 15, 2012 (Salem/Courtesy Reuters). Palestinians carry the body of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, Hamas's military mastermind, during his funeral in Gaza City on November 15, 2012 (Salem/Courtesy Reuters).

By Israel’s accounting, Operation Pillar of Defense has achieved many if not most of its major objectives: assassinating Hamas’ long-sought after military mastermind Ahmed Jaabari and other top officials, destroying much of Hamas’ long-range arsenal of imported Iranian-produced Fajr-5 missiles, and eliminating other significant high-value military targets. Despite this, however, a number of unintended consequences have already emerged, ranging from boosting Hamas’ prominence, undermining its isolation, further weakening the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, and diverting regional attention from Syria.

Fundamentally, the operation — an outgrowth of a rapid escalation of the past year’s episodic firing of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel and IDF strikes against limited targets — appears to have an been the unintended consequence of Hamas’ miscalculation: The organization apparently determined it could build up long-range rockets in Gaza and allow its truce with Israel to erode without incurring a significant price. Over the past year, Hamas, the de facto ruler in Gaza, allowed even more militant groups to launch mortars and rockets into southern Israel seemingly thinking that Israel’s response would be limited. The fact that its military leader, Jaabari, felt confident enough to let strict operational security lapse and leave himself vulnerable to an Israeli strike while riding in an unprotected vehicle reflects that.

But rather than marginalize Hamas, Israel’s operation so far has only enhanced the centrality of that organization. That by-product is entirely consistent with Israel’s aim — to compel Hamas to take responsibility for developments in Gaza. As in the 2009 Cast Lead operation, Israel’s goal now is not to destroy Hamas, but to compel it to behave more responsibly and keep order in Gaza. Much of the mortar fire over the past year against southern Israel has been launched by groups more radical than Hamas. By holding Hamas responsible, Israel inadvertently bolsters Hamas’ standing and legitimacy as the ultimate power-broker and arbiter in Gaza.

Yet this objective of forcing Hamas’ responsibility has unintentionally contributed to undermining Israel’s longstanding objective of keeping Hamas isolated internationally, if not regionally. With the United States, Israel, and other countries urging Egypt to rein in the Gaza leaders, Hamas’ centrality as the locus of decision-making grows rather than diminishes. This then encourages other Middle East leaders to accelerate their rush to Gaza, while skipping Ramallah, to court Hamas’ leadership.

This Qatari, Turkish, Tunisian, and Egyptian courting of Hamas has the unintended consequence of further eroding the stature of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, a Palestinian leader avowedly committed to the non-violent path. By bypassing Ramallah and President Abbas, they further marginalize the moderate leaders as the proper address for resolving problems. This still leaves the Ramallah based Palestinian Authority shouldering much of the burden for the situation in Gaza by being the largest source of sustenance for the Strip’s wage-earners. It also has the unintended consequence of boosting the diplomatic standing of Islamist supporters: Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey.

The fact that Israel has acted with considerable restraint compared to its conduct of Operation Cast Lead has created conditions boosting Hamas’ domestic popularity, at least for now. Gazans have sustained the majority of the casualties and damage so far, and don’t expect to beat the Israelis militarily. Just causing the Israelis pain — piercing the “Tel Aviv bubble” and lashing out against Israeli Jerusalem — is seen as a tactical achievement, so long as it does not incur demonstrable defeat or the populace overwhelming loss. That perception is why, in addition to taking out Hamas’ increased military capabilities in Gaza, Israel feels the need to strike a decisive psychological blow — an aim that may well prove elusive.

The current conflict will also have the further unintended effect of reinforcing President Abbas’ determination to seek non-member state status at the end of the month. In Palestinian eyes right now, it is Hamas that is seen to be taking action, not Abbas. Abbas thus no doubt feels all the more compelled to carry out his threat to resume his U.N. gambit, despite strong American, Israeli and other international opposition.

A final unintended consequence of the conflict has been to eclipse the regional and international focus on Syria, where hundreds of people have been slaughtered on a daily basis for the past year and a half. Assad will likely exploit this by ratcheting up his brutality against Syrian rebels and civilians while eyes are gazed elsewhere. While the course of Operation Pillar of Defense is still to be played out, we can be sure that it will be filled with surprises.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Lydia

    What are your thoughts on the argument that Israel is simultaneously sending a message to Iran re: its military strength and, more importantly, its ability to take out individuals with precise weapons technology?

  • Posted by Ihab ElBadawy

    Hamas is hitting effectively and with unprecedented precision the heart of Israel on constant bases for the last 6 days. I never saw the Israeli political/ foreign ministry/ war machine so vulnerable and in distress like that throughout my entire adult life. Even though they ” The Israelis” will retaliate like a wounded bully who lost his ego in front of the whole class “world” and will probably cause some heavy casualties to the Palestinian population in Gaza; yet this is one of the strong signs to the shifting of power in the Middle East for the years to come. In conclusion: The United States need to understand that it needs to adjust its narrative in how it addresses the issue with both the Israelis and the Palestinians otherwise will lose it’s moral credibility with both sides.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    There are no unintended consequences. Friends are helping friends, that’s all. Hamas and Likud (now with Yisrael Beitenu) are against two-state solution and against Arabs and Israelis living peacefully so they help each other.

    Now, as you agree,
    1. Likud will win a big election victory and moderates in Israel will be sidelined for at least few more years
    2. Hamas hold on Gaza will be stronger and people have to give them more attention.
    3. Abbas, who was working for two-state solution, will be undermined.
    4. Focus will be away from Syria and Iran (Other opponents of two-state solution).

    Do you really think these extremists care about Israeli or Palestinian lives? They are implementing God’s plan.

  • Posted by Mary

    As a child growing up I always heard of the fighting in this region.All my life I never understood all the fighting. Now,nearly 45 years later,I still don’t understand the fighting in this region.Why? These people need to stop all this senseless fighting that our God never approved of . God says love yourselves and others as I have loved you. I learned not to long ago about my ancestry.My ancestry one that I never knew about and had no choice in it. My ancestry goes back to the Arab Inquisitions ,Spanish Inquisitions and all other hunts for Jews all over the world. This happened back in the 14th century. My ancestors fled all these countries that hunted down Jews like animals for what? My ancestors fled every country. My ancestors finally ended up in Mexico and later migrated to America. I grew up as an Hispanic,American,Catholic person never to know or practice my real religion nor have any knowledge of my ancestry till now. What do you gain for all this fighting? You are fighting for land,you are fighting for dirt. You have been fighting for over 600 years for land which you may never own because should you die or your children/people get killed no one will own this land. You need to settle this using your brain not violence. Fifty years later no one will know nor remember why you are fighting. Just like I never knew why all the fighting. I see that the death of any ONE life is not worth any amount of dirt I can gain, NEVER. Education is needed not more ignorance. Does your God advocate killing? If he does then it is not God . Because the God we know does not. I feel pity for your people but someone needs to educate them with the truth. Violence is NEVER the answer.

  • Posted by Robert M. Danin

    Thank you Lydia. It seems that indeed one aspect of the operation for the IDF was to test capabilities and to test some of their new anti-rocket technology. See the New York Times today on this: http://nyti.ms/UjrMFA. Thank you for your interest and your question. Best, Robert Danin

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