July 14, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The New Geopolitics of Conflict in Gaza

• The status quo rules of engagement and alliances related to conflict in Gaza are being rewritten as some regional power dynamics realign less on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and more on mitigating Muslim Brotherhood-styled threats to internal stability

• There is a disconnect between broad Arab popular support for Palestinians in Gaza and some Arab governments’ objection to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, a divide that will grow as casualties mount

• In a marked break with past Gaza conflicts, Egypt and Hamas are not working in concert to achieve a cease-fire with Israel

• Egypt has declined to take an initial leading role in crafting a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian extremist groups in Gaza, and has even closed the Rafah border crossing to Gaza.

The old playbook for an outbreak of new fighting in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian extremist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) provided predictable roles for all actors:

Palestinian rocket launches would precede Israeli air strikes, with both increasing in number but only the latter increasing in effect.

Arab governments would strongly denounce Israel while strongly supporting the armed Palestinian opposition.

Egypt would quickly assume a lead role in talks with Hamas and PIJ, working out an acceptable cease-fire to present to Israel.

Upon a cease-fire, all parties claim victory, with Hamas and PIJ gaining regional support for serving as a proxy in the fight against Israel.

Due to seismic geopolitical shifts across the region in the last two years, this latest outbreak of conflict took shape according to the old playbook but has quickly veered off script.

While still wildly inaccurate, Palestinian rocket launches now include both Iranian and Syrian rockets, as well as locally-produced R160s, with ranges of 160 kilometers, distances that put much of Israel under some threat—however inaccurate and devoid of large explosive payload. There are no more incremental lines to cross.

Arab governments have called for a cease-fire and expressed support for the Palestinian people but most have not come out in support for groups such as Hamas and PIJ—a huge shift that leaves these groups without a restraining patron.

Egypt and Hamas aren’t even talking to each other, let alone working closely for a cease-fire. Egypt has closed the Rafah border crossing, though it provided humanitarian aid before doing so.

The initial pressure for a cease-fire is less than in past conflicts, as one-time Hamas supporters such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seek a dramatic weakening of the group more than a public relations victory over Israel, meaning the conflict could last for some time.

This new playbook for an old-though-still-tragic conflict comes with unpredictable roles for the usual actors. Turkey and Qatar will again seek to broker a cease-fire but other regional countries are not looking for Hamas to walk away from this latest escalation in relatively stronger shape. Hamas knows this and will be suspicious of any cease-fire negotiations in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia play a large role, which they most likely will after a period of time. Egypt will have to play a role in brokering and then maintaining a cease-fire, but its relations with Hamas are more toxic than at any time in recent history. Egypt will act but not according to the usual timeline. At this time, Saudi Arabia and Egypt do not see Hamas as an anti-Israeli force so much as an opportunistic political force, and at the same time not to suggest they are no longer concerned about Palestine.

The PIJ and Hamas’ use of longer-range missiles means that more of Israel is under threat, even if the threat is somewhat reduced because, according to some reports, the rockets are being stripped of heavy payload in order to increase range. This increased range will drive Israel to continue air strikes and limited ground operations, even as pressure builds over Palestinian causalities. The more Hamas and PIJ demonstrate long-range launch capability, regardless of the relative lack of damage and casualties, the more Israel will delay any cease-fire. In a sense, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel share a preference to dismantle Hamas, with Israel seeking to demolish the group’s military capability, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to diminish the group’s influence and support.

Online in Arab social media, the plight of civilians in Gaza is generating massive support and outrage at Israel, with a small undercurrent of resentment at Arab governments’ lack of support for Hamas and PIJ. Some extremist supporters are trying to use the issue as a wedge between Arab governments and their people—with tweets juxtaposing daily extravagant iftar (breaking Ramadan fast) feasts with the despair in Gaza, for example—but it doesn’t appear to be gaining traction. This suggests Egyptian and Saudi Arabian efforts over the last few years to portray the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas more as agents of instability than as proxies of resistance have been rather successful, even among online youth. It remains to be seen how long this perception will last in the face of continued conflict.


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