Interim analysis - Israel and Gaza; Sinai and Egypt

As Egypt tries to broker a ceasefire between Israel, Hamas and armed groups in Gaza, JNews takes a look at implications for the players

Sunday, 21 August, 2011 - 15:56
London, UK

Interim Analysis

Key points

  • Israel stages an air offensive on Gaza as rockets fall on southern Israel.
  • Politically, the key victim of the escalation so far (apart from civilians) is the political leadership of Hamas
  • The crisis endangers PA/Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and complicates the related Palestinian statehood bid
  • In Egypt, the crisis could redefine a divide between the SCAF interim government and the prodemocracy movement, and destabilise relations between Egypt and Israel
  • In Sinai, no leads yet on the identity of the Eilat attackers
  • Israel apparently seeks further increase of Egyptian forces in the eastern Sinai


1. Hamas

Hamas's status is compromised domestically and internationally. In the West Bank Israel has rounded up up to 200 Hamas members from several towns (mainly Hebron and Bethlehem so far). In Gaza the movement's political status is at risk.  The local armed groups opposing rapprochement with the PA and by extension with the West have the initiative, while Hamas at first lagged behind. Even within Hamas the armed wing, Ez EdDin AlQassam Brigades, declared an end to the lull before the Hamas political leadership did. The latter are still trying to find a way to calm the flames by talking to international community (including Turkey, Egypt). But basically they have already lost what they sought in the way of international acceptance following recent moves toward intra-Palestinian unity. The international community is unlikely to recognize a Palestinian reconciliation that includes Hamas when rockets are flying again. Hamas political leaders, even if they wanted to, are now unable to control the fire and Israeli analysts are repeatedly hammering in that 'Hamas is responsible. Hamas is responsible'. (in Israeli FM Lieberman's case, always a step ahead, it's 'the PA is responsible'). Hamas is currently trying to organise a ceasefire to come into force at 7pm GMT, via Egypt. If the deal successfully includes other armed groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas may yet salvage its domestic status. Whether Israel will agree to the deal is yet to be seen.

2. The Israeli offensive.

Much depends on whether Israel now decides to go forward with a Cast Lead 2 or limits itself to a slightly smaller scale attack that stops before 20 Sep (date scheduled for UN statehood discussions to begin at the UN). Last night Israel's cabinet convened to discuss this. For the meantime it seems they tend to 'limit' the escalation to airstrikes damaging infrastructure; targeted assassinations of 'Hamas' and 'other terror organisations'; rocket interception by Iron Dome; and increased coordination with Egypt in the Sinai (See e.g,7340,L-4111523,00.html) - with no land operation right now. Of course, once started, the attacks will take on their own dynamic, including public pressure in Israel to hit hard following rocket attacks (Kadima, the opposition party, is leading on this). Israeli media took Barak and Netanyahu's initial claims that the Eilat attacks originated in Gaza's PRC at face value, so there is little knowledge in the Israeli public of the political engineering behind this crisis. Instead of agreeing to a ceasefire Israeli may continue, hoping to secure delay or damage to the Palestinian statehood bid. Last night's poor showing at the weekly social protest march in Tel Aviv suggest that, at least for a while, Netanyahu's government can continue its operation with domestic support.

3. The September Palestinian statehood bid.

With Hamas' status compromised, the PA may drop/postpone the reconciliation or even delay the statehood bid - a major victory for Israel if this occurs. In any case, the statehood bid will now be heavily compromised by the renewed split of the Palestinian body politic. It will also be impacted by the scale of the current offensive and rockets attacks, and by how soon these come to an end. That said, Spain's surprising announcement today that it would support a Palestinian state and strive to reach EU consensus on the matter in the upcoming Foreign Ministers meeting on 2 September may yet play a role in changing the picture.

4. Egypt.

The new Egypt complicates matters for both Israel and Hamas. Israel may have thought it was doing a bit of manipulation when it immediately pointed the finger at Gaza after the Eilat attacks but it may not have reckoned with the full implications and complications of a) the real identity of the attackers, still unclear, and b) crossing over into Sinai and killing Egyptian soldiers and the impact of this on the Tahrir youth who are furiously demonstrating outside the embassies now. An initial probe carried out in Egypt suggests that the Egyptian officers were killed by gunfire from an Israeli helicopter near the border. Israeli officials, whose close coordination with the Egyptian military continues, don't want to destabilise public relations with Egypt and are now doing a quick rethink. Depending on who makes the decisions now in Israel and Egypt, this could now die down or turn into a serious diplomatic chill, with complex implications. It remains to be seen what the Egyptian street can do to affect this - it is unlikely they will allow "business as usual" to continue and as one tweep wrote from Cairo last night, 'seems all Tahrir is here, ironically we find unity at the Israeli embassy'. The Egyptian government's interest is now to broker a ceasefire as soon as possible in order to prevent already-deepening divisions between the pro-democracy movement and the interim military government (SCAF) from exacerbating.

5. Sinai.

No leads yet on identity of the Eilat attackers. According to Egyptian sources, three Egyptian Bedouin corpses were found along the Egy-Israel border - no identification yet. Also, the head of a suicide bomber who detonated himself after the Eilat attacks inside Egypt is reportedly at El Arish hospital, presumably for forensic purposes. There seems to have been major anger in Sinai at some of the roundups by Egyptian army recently. Representatives of SCAF met yesterday in north Sinai with local Bedouin communities to 'bury the hatchet'. Politics in the Sinai are very unclear now, to say the least. There is a risk of this developing into a swamp of low-level intervention in the border region of Sinai, Lebanon style (or like Jordan and the West Bank in 1968-69). It seems Israel would prefer Egypt to do such intervention in Sinai on its behalf, by increasing the number of Egyptian soldiers allowed into East Sinai. At most, Israel might consider retaking the Philadelphi Route between Gaza and Sinai but even this carries a cost as it involves retaking responsibility for Gaza humanitarian access.


Gaza's residents are paying the price of this complex crisis, as are southern Israeli civilians. The volatility of the 'new' Middle East is everywhere to be seen, as governments navigate between domestic interests and demands and the corresponding shift in power balance with neighboring countries.


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