Gaza confrontation showcases new Sunni bloc

Operation Pillar of Defense makes it clear Israel-Hamas relations constitute significant front of conflict.

Morsy and Erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Morsy and Erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Operation Pillar of Defense and the means by which it was concluded have showcased the arrival of a new player in Middle East strategy and diplomacy: an alliance of Sunni Islamist states and movements, including Hamas, in which Egypt plays the central role. The birth of this Sunni Islamist bloc is the main product of the changes that swept the Arab world in 2011.
If the details which have leaked from the Egyptian- brokered cease-fire agreement that ended the current operation are correct, then the deal settles nothing. It appears, in essence, to be a cease-fire in place. An Israeli agreement to cease incursions into Gaza and assassinations will be predicated on a 100-percent Hamas application of an end to rocket fire. This, it may be said with near certainty, will not happen.
Hence, the agreement is a starting pistol for a recommencement of the low-intensity conflict that has existed between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza since the latter came into being in 2007.
It will remain to be seen whether Israel’s military actions over the past week have constituted a sufficiently harsh learning experience for the movement to adopt a more cautious policy regarding allowing rocket fire into Israel, of the type that immediately followed Cast Lead in 2008 to 2009.
Relations between Israel and the two Islamist-controlled entities that have emerged on its borders (Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon and Hamas-controlled Gaza) are by their very nature relations of war: sometimes cold war, sometimes hot war.
But the events of recent weeks also show a significant difference. Hezbollah is connected to an Iran-led regional alliance, none of whose members have anything resembling normal relations with either Israel or the West.
Hamas, by contrast, is now a junior member in an alliance led by a country that has relations with Israel and that is economically dependent on the West – Egypt.
The conflict of the past week became necessary because during the course of 2012 Hamas ceased to exercise any level of control over organizations launching rockets into Israel and began to openly engage in attacks of its own. This culminated in the attack on an IDF patrol on November 10, which began the deterioration toward conflict.
The key question at that point was how Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt would react. This was a test case; the first confrontation between Israel and Hamas-Gaza since the downfall of the Mubarak regime.
The ideological preferences of the new Egyptian regime were obvious. These were on plain view when Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil visited Gaza during the fighting. In language, style and appearance, Kandil was basically indistinguishable from his Hamas hosts. The Egyptian prime minister kissed a dead baby alongside Ismail Haniyeh and tearfully declared his support for a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem.
But whatever their natural inclinations, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders of Egypt were not in a position to simply back up their ideological confreres in Gaza.
President Mohamed Morsi restricted himself to terming Israel’s actions as “unacceptable aggression” and recalling his ambassador from Tel Aviv. At the same time, he enlisted the help of the leaders of Egypt and Qatar to bring the conflict to a swift end.
Hamas’s external leader, Khaled Mashaal, was also brought to Cairo to represent his movement.
The rise of the Brotherhood to power in Egypt gave Hamas an enormous boost. As a result, the movement was able to extricate itself from its impossible position as a guest of a Syrian regime engaged in the slaughter of Hamas’s fellow Muslim Brothers.
The movement’s effort to rewrite the rules vis-a-vis Gaza’s conflict with Israel derived from this boost of confidence. Hamas, according to reports, did not consult with Egypt prior to its escalation. It appears to have expected greater militancy from its more powerful sibling.
But while the rulers of Egypt share Hamas’s ideology, they also need Western support. Morsi rules over 85 million Egyptians and a wrecked and dysfunctional economy.
An absence of this support would mean the real prospect of hunger for the poorest parts of the population.
An upcoming grant from the EU of $6.3 billion and an IMF loan of $4.5 billion, along with ongoing US financial support, prevented the overt support for Hamas military efforts that would have been Cairo’s natural preference.
As Saudi analyst Tariq al- Homayed expressed in Sharq al- Awsat this week, “No military front has been opened, nor have relations with Tel Aviv been suspended, rather Egypt’s efforts and solutions have all been political. This is because Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi does not have many options, he truly wants a cease-fire.”
The result is an Egyptian-guaranteed cease-fire which returns the status quo ante, in which a Hamas decision to escalate will result in a corresponding escalation from Israel.
In the meantime, Israel demonstrated that it could inflict significant harm on Hamas’s human and physical infrastructures, at relatively little cost.
So while the cease-fire settles nothing between Israel and Hamas, it does settle one important point: for the moment, at least, and entirely for pragmatic reasons, Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt is prepared to play a mediator’s role, in cooperation with the West.
In retrospect, Hamas’s 2007 coup against Gaza may be said to have been the first herald of the “Islamist Spring” which has now brought Sunni Islamists to power in Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps soon in Syria. In all cases, decrepit nationalist regimes – of Fatah, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad – were challenged by popular Islamist movements.
The main result of Operation Pillar of Defense was to make clear that the relations between Israel and the Palestinian representative of this new bloc – Hamas – constitute the most significant front of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Ramallah-led West Bank Palestinian Authority was a largely invisible irrelevance over the past weeks.
The natural relations between Israel and the Sunni Islamist bloc are of conflict. The evidence resulting from Operation Pillar of Defense suggests, however, that at least for the moment this conflict can be managed – for as long as Israel remains the militarily dominant side and Egypt remains economically dependent on Western aid.