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Gaza: the wider war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 January 2009

The war in Gaza moves towards the end of its third week with the Israeli military still pressing hard its military offensive. The attacks on dozens of selected targets and the incursion of Israeli troops into Gaza city itself continue, as does the flight towards any location offering physical safety of thousands among the beleaguered Palestinian population (see "Israelis strike 60 Gaza targets", BBC News, 13 January 2009).   Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 

Israel's leadership is debating intensively its next moves. In political terms it has a free hand to pursue its operation much further should it so decide, for it can rely (for the moment at least) on widespread domestic support. Most Israeli citizens see their military's campaign as a just war, and many react with consternation and not a little anger that the rest of the world does not share their view (see Ethan Bronner, "Israelis are united on war in Gaza as censure rises abroad", International Herald Tribune, 13 January 2009). By contrast, there is deep opposition among publics across much of the world, evidenced in opinion-polls and demonstrations.

The political effect of the war has been to increase Hamas's ascendancy among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank; the movement would almost certainly win a second successive Palestinian election if it were held now across both territories. Moreover, in the Arab world as a whole Hamas is seen as the vanguard of opposition to Israeli invaders and their United States backers. The regimes of several Arab countries - not least Hosni Mubarak's in Egypt - display real concern at the possible political fallout of the Gaza crisis, including encroaching Islamisation (see Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond", 12 January 2009).

Beyond the middle east there are fears of a further radicalisation of Muslims, especially among the young. The concerns expressed by establishment sources in countries such as Britain reach across the political spectrum. The humanitarian statistics and other details of the war in Gaza can be cited to support this trend: by the end of 12 January, around 905 Palestinians had been killed (of whom around 380 were women and children). The extensive and hugely graphic coverage of the costs of the conflict by the major Arab TV news channels - which are reporting virtually twenty-four hours a day from the territory - is likely to have a lasting effect.

The global strip

The Israeli government may be in a strong position to continue Operation Cast Lead, but this very fact intensifies the political dilemma surrounding the ultimate aims of the campaign that has been in evidence almost from the beginning of the air-assault on 27 December 2008. There is a reported split in the Israeli cabinet between those (including foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defence minister Ehud Barak) who want an early end to the fighting now that Hamas has been greatly weakened, and others (including prime minister Ehud Olmert) who advocate a full military operation to destroy the organisation (see Kim Sengupta & Donald Macintyre, "Israeli cabinet divided over fresh Gaza surge", Independent, 13 January 2009).

The faction that seeks an early declaration of victory argue that Hamas is as much a movement and an idea as an organisation; thus, destroying its infrastructure and even its senior personnel would not represent any sort of complete triumph. In this view, an intelligent calculation would be to use evidence of a marked decline in the number of rockets fired into Israel to declare victory in this particular phase. This would likely carry political benefits for the war's architects into campaign for the general election on 10 February 2009, while avoiding any pretence that this is the end of the matter; a completed Gaza operation can be presented as just one part of an ongoing use of military force against Israel's enemies, with more episodes likely to come.

Against this, the group that seeks to press on towards a comprehensive result believes that Hamas has already been weakened to the point where a total destruction is possible (see Jeff Barak, "Livni squanders the IDF's achievement", Jerusalem Post, 12 January 2009). The logic of this view is that "finishing" such a task and then withdrawing will leave a political and security vacuum in Gaza that is highly unlikely to be filled by compliant secularists. Thus the spectre of a long-term reoccupation of Gaza starts to appear.

The George W Bush administration now in its final week of life offers neither caution nor wise advice to its Israeli ally (a point emphasised by the circumstances of its abstention from the United Nations Security Council resolution of 8 January, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza). It sees what is happening in Gaza as an important part of its wider "war on terror", with Hamas the current principal enemy. Indeed, the tendency in much of Washington's political and media classes to see the war in these straightforward terms goes far wider - something that must be factored in to any assessment of the likely course of United States policy under Barack Obama (see Christian Brose, "The Making of George W Obama", Foreign Policy, January-February 2009). 

The implications of this view reach beyond Gaza and the Israel-Palestinian conflict towards Tehran. For according to it, the severe diminishing - if not the actual destruction - of Hamas would be both a blow to one of Iran's regional allies and a potent warning to the country's leadership of what it too may face. Here, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's advice to Hamas that the movement would lose Iranian support if it accepted an early ceasefire in Gaza is cited as further evidence of Iran's political connections with the movement and its radicalising momentum.

A political entrapment

This strategic and ideological context emphasises the enduring predicament of the Palestinians in Gaza - already deprived of so much in terms of material existence and life-chances, subjected to intense military assault, and now regarded as but one token in a larger geopolitical game (see "'The Street Smells of Death'", SpiegelOnline, 13 January 2009). 

The conflict in Gaza offers no immediate prospect of respite from these overarching realities. For whatever the course of the war in the coming days and whatever the outcome of the arguments within the Israeli cabinet, Israel's decision to use high levels of military force in Gaza will inevitably become the start of another phase of longer-term engagement in the territory. This could be reoccupation (or attempted reoccupation), or a level of persistent military action in the territory higher even than all the targeted assassinations and commando-raids since the Israeli withdrawal of August 2005.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

This prospect is anathema in particular to Hosni Mubarak's administration in Egypt and to other elite regimes across the region - but it is welcome news for al-Qaida. Since around mid-2007, the epicentre of that movement's activities has shifted 3,000 kilometres east from Iraq and the Persian Gulf back towards its originating heartland: Afghanistan and Pakistan (see "Afghanistan: the dynamic and the risk", 9 October 2008). At the same time,  important developments elsewhere - in Somalia, Algeria and Yemen, for example - continue to underwrite its international currency. In this context, the eruption of conflict in Gaza serves the useful purpose of highlighting the integrated and global nature of al-Qaida's ideological narrative and potential appeal (see Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad [C Hurst, 2005]).

The great majority of Palestinians have long eschewed al-Qaida's support for their cause, not least because most are prepared even now to live with a two-state solution with Israel. In the absence of any movement towards this outcome, however, their political entrapment continues - a condition that is of great value to the al-Qaida movement. Indeed, Osama bin Laden has frequently characterised the alliance between the United States and Israel in ideological terms as a "crusader-Zionist" assault on Islam (see "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection", 7 January 2009).

From Beirut to Gaza

The al-Qaida leader's most potent verbal attack on this connection came in a filmed address released by al-Jazeera on 29 October 2004, timed to coincide with the approaching climax of the US presidential election. At that moment he sought to speak directly to an American audience, putting his strongest emphasis on the US support for Israel during the siege of west Beirut in 1982. Israel's war in Lebanon in that year involved a protracted bombing and artillery campaign that was of an even greater intensity than is now happening in Gaza; it cost over 10,000 lives, most of them civilians.

In a significant political analogy, bin Laden drew a direct comparison between the repeated bombing of the high-rise towers of west Beirut and the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre nineteen years later. He even represented it as a motive for 9/11: "As I looked at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the aggressor in kind by destroying towers in America" (see Faisal Devji, "Osama bin Laden's message to the world", 21 December 2005).

In this light, the great advantage of the Gaza war of 2008-09 to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their associates is that it revalidates and reinvigorates the Zionist dimension of their worldview before a global audience. There is a great contrast here between the contexts of 1982 and 2008-09: the spread of al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and the other satellite news channels, as well as the internet and other new forms of communication and networking, have changed the information landscape of war. Thus the very transformations of global media that al-Qaida has exploited so skilfully and which have been so integral to its rise to influence now offer it further opportunities to disseminate its ideology in the right political circumstances.

The death and destruction in Gaza has not yet reached the level of west Beirut in 1982, but in symbolic terms the latest conflict there has already become a far greater and more immediate focus for tens of millions of people in the middle east and beyond than Lebanon a generation ago. The implications of that are both complex and uncertain, but it is certain that the Gaza war will be used repeatedly in the years to come to implant and reinforce the al-Qaida message.

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