A short armed conflict highlights vital longer-term shifts both in the military confrontation between Israel and Hamas, and in the balance of forces in the wider region.
The concentrated week-long Israel-Gaza conflict began on 14 November 2012 with Israel's killing of Hamas miltary leader Ahmed Jabari. Before then, and despite some military action on both sides, there had been some prospect of an end to hostilities across Gaza and southern Israel. The rockets that had been fired from Gaza belonged in great part to an internal struggle between a Hamas leadership that sought diplomatic progress, and more radical elements who believed that direct armed confrontation with Israel was the only correct strategy.
Jabari himself would have been a key player in managing a ceasefire with Israel, which increases the likelihood that Binyamin Netanyahu's government wanted a conflict - both to deter rocket-launches and to strengthen its hand in the general election on 22 January 2013. Jabari's death helped in the latter aim at least, but the instability caused by the violence means that there must be doubts about the durability of the ceasefire agreement that came into force on the evening of 21 November 2012.
A time of insecurity
In any event, the solidity of the ceasefire agreement will be tested in coming days and weeks. But whatever the short-term outcome, the conflict confirms that four trends are effecting fundamental changes in the region's wider power-relationship.
The first is that Israel maintains a strong claim to be the world's most militarised state. Its own arms industries, and deep links with its American counterparts, ensure that it has the military capability both to meet any conventional threat and to launch proactive operations across the region.
On 24 October 2012, for example, the Israeli air-force conducted a very long-range assault (most likely using F-15I strike-aircraft) against an arms cache at Yarmouk, outside Khartoum. The attack is reported to have destroyed some 200 tonnes of material, including rockets and other weapons believed to be heading for Sinai and then into Gaza (see David Fulghum, "Stealth Mission", Aviation Week, 5 November 2012). In its embarrassment, Sudan's government played down the raid; in its satisfaction, the Israelis saw no reason to celebrate in public - but their action is a sharp illustration of the second trend: Israel's deep worry about rockets just across its borders.
This concern might seem overblown. After all, the great majority of the rockets are crude, very short-range and wildly inaccurate. A few, specifically the Farj-5s, are longer-range; but they too are inaccurate. But it is precisely because of their indiscriminate effect that they have a strong psychological and political impact. For if hardly any rocket strikes a target, every one has the capacity to do so.
The rockets' human and physical impact in Israel is minimal in comparison to the deaths of many children and the widespread destruction of civil infrastructure in Gaza. Yet as well as causing death and damage they also induce fear and even terror across a large part of a state committed to the notion that its military prowess enables it to live in a condition of fundamental security (see "Israel's security: beyond the zero-sum", 26 August 2010). Whatever happens from now on, the rockets fired from Gaza not only engender insecurity in Israel: they change the situation.
A close alliance
The third trend is the strikingly close relationship between Israeli and United States defence forces. This has actually increased in recent years, especially since the US sought so much help from Israel during the Iraq war of 2003 (see “After Saddam, no respite” [19 December 2003], and "Between Fallujah and Palestine" [21 April 2004]).
Many of the Israeli ground-forces preparing for a possible advance into Gaza had been trained in urban warfare at the "mock Arab" town of Baladia, built by the US army corps of engineers in the Negev desert (see “A tale of two towns” [21 June 2007]). More recently, the US army has deployed uniformed troops permanently to Israel to run a powerful X-band radar-station on Mount Keren in the Negev, a system that provides early warning of missile-attack and locks into the Israeli missile-defence system (see "America, Israel, Iran: the war options", 7 September 2012)
Perhaps most revealing of all is the completion on 12 November 2012 of the largest ever US/Israel air-defence exercise, Austere Challenge 2012 - it was just two days later that Israelis launched "Operation Pillar of Defence", its air-assault on Gaza. The collaboration involved around 1,000 American personnel based in Germany and thousands more from elsewhere. Lieutenant-General Craig Franklin, commander of the US's third air force and regional air-defence commander for the US's European Command (Eucom), says:
"(The) $30 million drill, known as AC12, marked the largest in the history of US-Israeli strategic cooperation. It involved Pac-3 batteries, an Aegis cruiser, the US-operated AN/TPY-2 X-band radar deployed here and advanced communications links enabling simulated joint task force operations" (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Fire From Gaza Punctuates Israeli-U.S. Exercise", Defense News, 17 November 2012).
In all, 3,500 United States military and 2,000 Israelis took part in an operation which offers an exceptionally clear example of the intimacy of this relationship. Israel may be a very advanced regional military power, but in reality it is hugely dependent on the US, far more than will be admitted in public (see "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009).
A chance of change
The fourth trend relates much more to the status of Hamas and the manner in which regional politics is moving in its favour. In part this is a consequence of the Arab awakening. Before Tunisia and Egypt changed so dramatically, autocratic rulers would cite Israeli treatment of the Palestinians as appalling, while behind the scenes continuing to work with Israel. For the ruling elite, the Palestinian predicament was a useful way of diverting attention from domestic unrest and repression.
That is no longer possible in Egypt, where a democratically-elected president takes a rather different view. Moreover, the current anti-government unrest in Jordan casts a shadow over the future of the monarchy there. There has also been a significant change of attitude towards Gaza elsewhere in the middle east, the most notable example being the historic visit of the emir of Qatar to Gaza in October 2012.
Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, who promised substantial aid to the territory, was was the first such visit by a head of state since Hamas took power. It is possible that Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey could become guests within months (Hisham Kandi, Egypt's prime minister, made a brief trip in the midst of the conflict). Al-Thani promised $400 million in aid for road-reconstruction, new housing-complexes and medical facilities; but the real significance is that substantial funds are likely to be available for rebuilding after the Israeli attacks as part of an effort to end Hamas's political isolation. These changes may lead to increased tensions within Palestine, not least between Hamas and Fatah. They are also part of a clear trend, one that Netanyahu may privately acknowedge (or so his willingness to engage in almost direct discussions with Hamas over the ceasefire suggests).
The combination of the close relationship between Israel and the United States and the changing politics of the region puts President Obama in an unusually strong position to exert serious pressure on Israel during those first two "golden years" of his second term. If that opportunity is grasped, and enough Israelis recognise that they cannot be forever be "impregnable in their insecurity", then - for the first time in more than a decade - there will be some chance of serious progress.