July 28, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Israel, Gaza, and Regional Antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood

• Israel’s ongoing battle against Hamas is part of a wider regional war on the Muslim Brotherhood

• Most Arab states share Israel’s determination to finish the movement off once and for all, but they are unlikely to be successful

• Any reduction in the strength of Hamas is likely to be matched by a rise in the strength of more extremist groups

• Egypt’s President al-Sisi has the best chance of bringing the conflict to an end—and should be supported in doing so.

Alongside the Sunni-Shi’a battle for supremacy in the Middle East, there is another competition going on: between those who support and those who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood. While the one plays out most obviously in Syria and Iraq, the other has come to a head in Gaza.

The Israel-Palestine dispute has become an Israel-Gaza dispute, and behind any rhetorical support for Hamas, there is a widely shared regional determination to see the movement broken. Although international pressure is growing on Israel to halt its military offensive—including from the US—Israel can afford to turn a deaf ear. It has the support of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia.

Despite some supportive rhetoric and a visit to Saudi Arabia, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is also in a bad position. He seems politically exhausted by all the twists and turns he has made in search of a durable solution, and the one chance of reasserting his authority through a unity government that would have forced Hamas into a subordinate and less militant role, has now disappeared. He must now watch helplessly as protests in the West Bank undo whatever progress he had made towards a two-state solution.

But the calculation by Israel, that Hamas can be destroyed militarily rather than just weakened politically, may turn out to be wrong. Israel’s third major military intervention in Gaza since Hamas took full control in 2007 is unlikely to resolve any of the long-term economic and social problems that make this tiny strip of territory so problematic. It also seems likely that if the strength of Hamas does decline, this may lead to the growth of more extremist groups in Gaza. Although the Islamic State has said that it is too busy in Iraq and Syria to come to the aid of Gaza, there is no doubt that it will seek to build on its fledgling presence there when it can. Al-Qaeda will do the same.

Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all see the destruction of Hamas—the last Muslim Brotherhood group still standing outside Turkey—as of benefit to their internal security as well as to regional stability, but this may turn out to be a misjudgment as the humanitarian consequences of Israel’s action begin to reignite sympathy for the movement on the Arab street. Although the cheerleaders for Hamas, Iran, Turkey and Qatar, all have their difficulties with other regional powers, and so lack influence, the longer the current operation goes on, the more they will gain.

The situation therefore demands some display of regional leadership that rises above the Sunni-Shi’a divide and sees beyond the regional antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood. This will not come from Israel, nor from Palestine; nor will it come from the United Nations or the European Union; nor from the US; it can only come from the region. Iran has been mustering pro-Hamas support and appealing to the international community for help, but it can never play a central role in Arab-Israel affairs. The obvious candidate remains Egypt, despite its anti-Hamas posture. Egypt has been the traditional peace broker when things have gotten out of hand between Israel and Gaza. The situation offers President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi an opportunity to fulfill his campaign pledge to restore Egypt’s position in the region. By rising above his bilateral issues with Iran, Turkey, and Qatar, he can show that Egypt has turned a page on the divisive violence around the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Muhammad Morsi.

All the regional states have an interest in promoting this role for al-Sisi. Not only could it bring an end to the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza, but it could also help bring the region together to address the more fundamental problems of Iraq and Syria. The conflict there has shown that there exists a huge reservoir of young men ready to take up arms in support of a cause without much minding about the underlying politics. If al-Sisi can undermine the extremist narrative that all Middle East governments put the interests of the rulers before the interests of the ruled, and show sufficiently courageous leadership to bring the current crisis to an end, it will be in the interest of everyone that he does so.


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