Financial Mirror (Cyprus)
State of the Israeli-Gaza conflict
Gaza is militarily isolated, and the rhetorical support it used to get from the Arab world is no longer a given
The origins of the modern Arab-Israeli conflict are pretty well known.
Gaza, the narrow strip of land running to the Sinai Peninsula, was originally part of the Palestinian mandate, a British-administered area. After the establishment of Israel, a war broke out with neighbouring Arab countries. Egypt mounted an assault into the Negev Desert that was defeated by the Israelis, save for the thrust up the coast toward Tel Aviv. This was ultimately blocked by Israel, but the Egyptians were not routed. That became Gaza.
Gaza became a rallying cry for Arabs in the Middle East, who, along with the Soviet Union, supported the Palestinian cause. But after the Soviet Union fell, Moscow lost interest, and support for the Palestinian cause declined as Gaza became a unique Palestinian entity, holding and administering a Palestinian territory.
Today, Gaza is a heavily populated and extremely poor area. It is dominated by two political factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that work together. From Gaza’s point of view, it is the last organized, territorial resistance to Israel.
It does not have a conventional military capable of engaging Israeli troops on the ground, but it does have facilities for storing lots of short-range rockets able to strike a limited area around its borders. It also has a number of longer-range missiles able to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These missiles, along with the know-how to make rockets, were provided by Iran. As Arab support for the Palestinians declined, Iran filled the void. Relatedly, Iran controls a large number of rockets and missiles in Syria, as well as a very large establishment in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon – all of which constitutes part of Iran’s arc of influence into the Mediterranean.
Israel is engaged in a battle to eliminate the Iranian threat in Syria but has not tried to eliminate the threat in Lebanon; the size and distance and possible retaliatory force poses too much of a challenge. It has also refused to act decisively against Gaza, which should not be regarded simply as an Iranian puppet but as an independent actor.
And so, Iran aside, Israel is concerned about Gaza for two reasons. The first is the possibility of it waging an extended missile campaign against Israel’s heartland: the triangle of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Second, it is concerned about guerrilla attacks potentially launched from Gaza. Israel therefore periodically launches attacks against Gaza that are meant to disrupt its military capabilities rather than to occupy the strip itself.
Gaza, the final redoubt of the Palestinians, is concerned primarily with survival. Only then can it force Israel to reach some sort of accommodation with the Palestinians and with Hamas. One way to force Israel into accommodation is to pose a significant threat. Hence the missiles. This creates a political-military conundrum for Gaza. It must survive, but merely surviving does not give it any kind of leverage.
Israel has no interest in accommodating Gaza, since accommodation would leave Gaza capable of acquiring missiles and thus threaten Israel’s heartland. Israel is therefore content with the status quo, but if it had its druthers, it would prefer to occupy Gaza and disperse its citizens.
Undertaking such a broad attack is a military challenge. From the standpoint of an armoured/infantry operation, Gaza is not small. It is extremely urban and densely packed. Enemy forces can be widely placed in buildings and, being familiar with the area, can engage, withdraw and redeploy relatively easily. Gazans have sophisticated anti-tank weapons, putting tanks and armoured personnel at risk, along with the infantry. All the while, Gazans may elect to fire missiles at the Israeli heartland. While Israel would likely defeat the Gazans, the price could be far greater than Israel is willing to pay. Therefore, Gazans tend to attack with relatively short-range rockets, and Israel with rockets launched from aircraft, coupled with small-scale special operations targeted at specific targets – leadership, weapons, factories – with fast entrance and exit by the troops.
There’s a notable difference in this week’s fighting. Normally, other Arab countries issue hostile statements against Israel, but so far they have been relatively quiet. To
the contrary, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. condemned Gaza’s missile barrage against Israeli citizens. Elsewhere, a well-known preacher in the United Arab Emirates named Waseem Yousef tweeted outright support of Israel’s actions. Plenty in the Arab world took issue with both statements, of course, but the fact that they were allowed to be made by their respective governments indicates a significant shift in Arab sentiment toward events in Gaza.
At the moment, Gaza is militarily isolated, and the rhetorical support it used to get from the Arab world is no longer a given.
This creates psychological questions, and psychology is essential to warfare. The Israelis are threatening to destroy Gaza’s leadership and to change the reality of Gaza. Ultimately, this requires occupation to work. The Israeli response must appear disproportionate, and the lack of automatic support disheartening. It did not expect, I think, that the Abraham Accords would somehow lead to a break in the pro forma gestures of support. Israel’s threatening to launch a major ground offensive is likely forcing Arab governments to reassess their positions.
If the psychological shock doesn’t change the military approach, then nothing changes. Gazans have nowhere to go. Israel is afraid of settlement that leaves Gaza autonomous, and Gaza still has support from Iran, which is itself under pressure.
The Israelis are casualty adverse, and urban fighting generates casualties. An extended air attack with the most precise missiles available will still yield massive civilian casualties. Gaza is worth some bad press to Israel, but not that much.
As the conflict evolves, there are two things to watch for: missiles targeting Tel Aviv, and Israeli infantry and armour penetrating into Gaza. Protecting Tel Aviv gives Israel, with more military capability, more urgency. Hamas knows as much.