One of our Israeli Observers, Joel Schalit, takes a look at the Gaza crisis from a wider perspective, paying particular attention to Iranian influences over Palestinian movements.Despite the fact that for well over a year now, Israel has engaged in continuous peace talks with two of its most important neighbours - the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and, most recently, the government of Syria - it was ultimately inevitable that it would have gone to war again and risked igniting a larger regional conflict. 'They practically wrote it in the sky,' Egypt's Foreign Minister, Aboul Gheit told Haaretz on Thursday, explaining that in recent months, Israel had been sending out repeated messages that it intended to strike Hamas if it did not halt all rocket attacks on the country. 'Unfortunately, they [Hamas] served Israel the opportunity on a golden platter to hit Gaza.'
As easy as it is to blame Hamas' provocations for helping to ignite the present exchange, it would be equally wise to view Israel's campaign in greater context. Israel is not just striking Hamas. As many Israeli officials, and countless news reports have repeatedly indicated, in a manner very similar to its campaign in Lebanon two years ago, Israel is also striking back at Iran, perhaps even more so than it is attempting to degrade the Islamic organisation's missile launching capability. Though Hamas most certainly represents Palestinian national aspirations, it does so with the financial and military support of Tehran, because of Hamas' usefulness in serving as a proxy front with Israel.
While Hamas is a decidedly different organisation than Hezbollah, both religiously, and of course nationally, its utility for advancing Iranian interests has increased in recent years, in direct correlation with tensions between the United States and Iran over Iraq. In many of the same ways that Iran has used Hezbollah to pressure Israel, as an extension of its conflict with the Americans, Hamas has served a similar purpose. When Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006, its victory was viewed by many military analysts as part of a larger plan to encircle Israel by forces allied with Iran: Lebanon and Syria in the north, now ‘Hamastan', as Gaza was dubbed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, to the south.
There is no denying that such visions of an "Israel surrounded" has a certain ideological appeal to it, particularly to Israeli conservatives who believe that the only thing that stops Israel's neighbours from annihilating the Jewish state is Israel's overwhelming military superiority. Unfortunately, the US intervention in the region (under the aegis of the Bush administration), has guaranteed some validity to that vision, at least insofar as the Iranians are concerned. While Israel has developed warmer, if not official, relations with a number of influential Arab and Muslim states, this intimacy has been countered by a further deterioration of Israel's relations with Iran as a consequence of recent US policy in the region.
That Iran would find natural affinity with the Palestinians, particularly Islamist Hamas, as an old fashioned nationalist-religious liberation movement, is patently obvious. This sympathy existed well before 9/11, and the subsequent American occupations of Iranian neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it was only after the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 that Israel came to occupy the overwhelmingly exaggerated space that it does in contemporary Iranian foreign policy, far beyond any emphasis that it had under Ayatollah Khomeini, despite his support for Lebanon's Hezbollah. In fact, prior to Ahmadinejad taking power, only in 2003, Iran was even rumoured to have been considering some kind of agreement with Israel, and sending out signals to that effect.
Hence the ferocity of Israel's present campaign against Hamas. It's a reflection of how much has changed in the Middle East during the Bush era. With a new American government coming into office in three weeks, one which has repeatedly indicated, to much Israeli chagrin, that it would prefer to engage in dialogue with Iran, despite the country's ongoing nuclear weapons development programme, this was the last possible opportunity to act without restraint. Prevented from attacking Iran directly as of late - even by the Bush administration - which had, on numerous occasions, also considered encouraging such an Israeli operation, attacking Gaza was the best possible last minute compromise. It is no surprise that the outgoing US government ended up approving it.
That Israel's ongoing conflict with Hamas offered the possibility of exploiting such opportunities on behalf of much larger strategic concerns is without question. Committed to a policy of territorial closure, Israel has never succeeded in preventing Palestinian militants from launching attacks on Israeli territory in response. Though Israeli casualty numbers have remained relatively low, Palestinian forces have succeeded in striking an effective balance of fear amongst Israelis who live in the south, and have humiliated successive Israeli governments, and the Israeli military, who, for nearly a decade, have failed to eliminate the threat. In the same way that it is impossible to separate the intensity of the present campaign in Gaza from Israel's conflict with Iran, it is equally difficult to disconnect it from the sense of shame that Israeli authorities have been made to feel by this situation.
Throughout the current Israeli operation against Hamas, everyone has been asking when Hezbollah is finally going to get involved. After all, it was Israel's last campaign in Gaza, in June 2006, that led to Hezbollah ambushing an Israeli army patrol on the Lebanese border, which in turn sparked the Second Lebanon War. The fact that no such incident has taken place yet is no reassurance that it will not happen. Yet, if for some reason Hezbollah feels that it is not in a position to exert pressure, it is no guarantee that Iran won't eventually find itself the only party with the capacity to intervene on Hamas' behalf. A failure to do so, by the only other militarily capable power in the region, will have repercussions that will be felt for years to come. Though Israel may never fully triumph over Hamas, it will at least have found a way to deter, using Gaza as its example, Iran."