The Israeli assassination of Ahmad Jabari, Hamas’s military commander, has fueled the fire in Gaza after periods of vulnerable calm. A senior figure who had steered a comprehensive process of renewing the armed capabilities of Hamas over the last years and engineered the Shalit deal, Jabari was in negotiations with Israel regarding a new cease-fire just hours before assassination. Therefore, his killing could be seen as much a settle account as an Israeli endeavor not only to put pressure on Hamas but also on Egypt, since the Egyptian intelligence was the broker of the negotiations.
After the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, the coastal strip has experienced sporadic rounds of fighting, which culminated in the massive Israeli operation “Cast Lead” in 2008-2009. That operation paved the way for explicit agreements between Hamas and Israel under Mubarak’s intelligence auspices, in which each party committed to maintain calm in Gaza. Despite that such formula had repeatedly been violated, it guaranteed a relative quiet along the border.
However, the assassination of Jabari and its ongoing consequences would inaugurate a new political phase in Gaza and the Middle East as a whole. What seems quite different in the current round of escalation is the scope of the response of Palestinian armed factions. It is the first time Palestinian rockets hit cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv since the 1970s. Targeting those cities, which have long been far from Palestinian militants’ fire, may shed light on how the equations have been changing over the years, in a way that entails new approaches to resolve them.
Moreover, the escalation in Gaza is taking place in a different political environment in the Middle East. While “Cast Lead” was launched under the eyes of overthrown President Mubarak, today’s operation is being undertaken with Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in power. From the start of his tenure, Morsi showed commitment to Egypt’s agreements with Israel, maintaining the coordination with it in order to control Sinai and appointing a new Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv. However, the practical response of Mubarak and Morsi to the “Cast Lead” and “Pillar of Defense” operations respectively seems fairly different. The visit of the Egyptian prime minister to Gaza during the Israeli escalation signaled a new approach.
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Nevertheless, except the visit of the Egyptian prime minister and the accompanied populist rhetoric, Egypt has played the role of broker between Israel and Hamas rather than a supporter of the latter. It seems quite hard to argue that the Egyptian foreign policy in the region has changed in any significant way. The Egyptian intervention in the current crisis reflects an active engagement through which Cairo aims to contain the fighting in Gaza and entrench stability. Of course, this is the first practical test to Morsi’s leadership and its results will be significant from the perspective of the US administration. Both Washington and Israel want to make sure that the Islamists’ ascension to power in Egypt doesn’t bring profound change towards the strategic issues in the region.
The dilemma that has arisen after the current escalation in Gaza is that Hamas itself is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brothers. Over the last two years, Hamas has re-positioned itself close to a new coalition including Qatar, Turkey and Egypt instead of its historical coalition with Iran and Syria. However, while the Islamists seek, with Qatari assistance mainly, to arrange their relations with the US and other western countries, Hamas remains the only party that fights Israel.
Consequently, the success of Islamists in building solid relations with the US is bounded by their ability to incorporate Hamas in the regional system that they lead. The ceasefire in Gaza would be only a technical solution to the crisis while incorporating Hamas seems to be a political matter. What is worth mentioning in the current escalation, in addition to the American engagement in the diplomatic efforts, is the Israelis insisting on a long-term ceasefire. The last truces between Hamas and Israel were vulnerable enough to being susceptible to fall.
At the core of the current round of fighting is the aim of getting a permanent truce in place. A long-term ceasefire can be such a new approach, but we should remember that this would not be meaningful without a political content. In this regard, a long-term ceasefire may be the starting point towards a political regional deal including the Islamists in the Middle East. The political consequences of Gaza’s escalation will bring important transformations to the region. Let’s wait and see.