By Ahmed Meiloud
Eight days have lapsed since Israel started massive airstrikes on Gaza, with the prospect of an Egypt-brokered cease-fire raised on Tuesday and at time of press appearing uncertain. The densely populated strip has no air defence, no navy and no army to speak of. Like previous onslaughts on the strip, the Israelis have a total air and sea supremacy. Despite that advantage, the Israelis face two primary challenges: firstly, the absence of a well-defined and militarily achievable objective, and secondly, the unwillingness of the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, to surrender. These challenges have always typified how these offensives were carried out and how they ended up days or weeks later with enormous human loss for the defenceless civilians of Gaza and with little success for the Israelis.
While the military imbalance is grossly in the Israelis’ favour, allowing them to decide when and how to start aggressions, a slow but a steady rise in the sophistication of the Palestinian resistance, has meant that the Israelis have no control over when hostilities cease once ignited. The size, the efficacy and the range of Palestinian-made rocketry, while unable and unlikely to bridge the huge technical gap in the near future, have created in the minimum a psychological complex to the Israeli military and society. This rocketry has also made it difficult for the Israelis to comfortably declare victory. Since the Israelis have kept the enclave sealed, turning it into an open-air prison, and since their assaults often cause massive destruction and carnage, there are more reasons for the Palestinian factions to continue firing their rockets and progressively lesser incentives to stop.
This situation meant that with every new conflagration an intermediary was needed to broker a deal once the Israelis came to a temporary recognition that unrestrained use of their military might earn them neither rest nor reverence.
For much of the 2000s, it was the regime of Hosni Mubarak that played that role. Although it was part of the “moderate camp”, viewing with scorn Palestinian military resistance, Mubarak’s regime wanted to be seen as siding with the Palestinians, without putting in jeopardy its extensive ties with Israel. Espousing these contradictory stances, Mubarak’s regime, which acted as Israel’s main “peace” partner in the region and Gaza’s only window to the Arab world, was uniquely positioned to broker deals.
In brokering deals between the Palestinians and Israel, Mubarak’s regime was not at all altruistic. And this was perhaps why most of its intervention bore some fruit. Cairo always preferred calm between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as it gave the impression that the “peace process” was progressing. Mubarak knew that any reminder that the peace was not forthcoming and that the Palestinian suffering was far from over would undermine the credibility of the axis of “moderation” he led. A triumph of the rhetoric of the opposing camp of “resistance”, led by Syria, was potentially more dangerous to the post-Oslo accord arrangement than any rocket any one Palestinian group could acquire.
Even when it was clear that the hopes of a fair resolution to the Palestinian issue were misplaced, Mubarak sought to maintain his country’s image as the Palestinian’s bigger sister. It was not until around the turn of the decade that the Arab world has polarised to the extent that a core of opponents to military resistance across the Arab world began to show no qualm justifying Israeli assaults on both Palestinians resistance and Hezbollah. Prominent voices within Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian press would begin extensive campaigns in print and other media to change the Arabs’ perception of the Palestinian military resistance, describing it as reckless gambling that endangers civilian populations. Although this trend would continue to rise, constituting a strong component in the official apologia of the one-sided Arab peace overture to Israel, the older generation of Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, UAE were guarded in their embrace of the new trend.
During the Cast Lead offensive, Mubarak’s regime immediate reaction, that of blaming Hamas, reflected at the time the most lucid example of that trend. Despite that initial stance, Mubarak eventually intervened when the death toll rose and when his Israeli friends realised that reducing Gaza to rubble didn’t improve deterrence.
The Arab Spring and the change of leadership in Cairo would temporarily alter the rubric of Middle East politics, especially the official Arab view of the Palestinian military resistance. Although none of the regimes rising after the Arab Spring had consolidated its hold on power when the Operation Pillar of Defence began in 2012, Israel was quick to realise that something had changed in the picture.
Gaza was no longer the isolated enclave it once was, where the border crossing with Egypt was only opened to ease a major humanitarian crisis. There were no condemnations in major Arab capitals of the Palestinian firing of rockets in defence. Instead, Gaza seemed like a busy centre of diplomatic activity, and Hamas acted like a legitimate government, receiving official delegations from many parts of the Muslim world. Much of that status, and of the strong demonstration of solidarity by Arab and Muslim politicians, was possible because of the declared policy of the newly elected president Mohamed Morsi.
Despite the restive streets in Cairo, embattled Morsi quickly condemned the assault on Gaza, sent in his prime minister, Hisham Qandil (thereby forcing a temporary lull in Israeli raids), and dispatched Egyptian medical teams to help their Palestinian counterparts. In tandem, Morsi led a concerted campaign to put a quick end to the conflict before it dragged for weeks, preventing the death of many by brokering a deal between the two sides. Morsi’s initiative received applause from many around the world and was recently invoked in some press coverage as something wanting in the current crisis.
Morsi’s success in bringing the two sides to agree on an early ceasefire was not solely the result of his shrewd handling of the crisis, nor was it per se because of the strategic weight of Egypt. Much of his success was due to the two sides’ perception of what they stood to gain and lose had hostilities continued. The Israelis were surprised that Morsi was not at all shackled by the pressures of the deep state. He cleverly capitalised on the spirit of the Arab Spring to draw significant support for Gaza. More importantly, Morsi who asserted the Palestinians’ right to resist occupation appeared measured in his response. In the ace of Egypt’s vigorous diplomacy, Israel recognised it had little to gain by pressing ahead with its campaign. With Hamas receiving significant support from Egypt, and by extension, other Arab countries, it was clear that it would hold its ground.
On its part, Hamas was optimistic that a bright future lay ahead with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in power. More significantly, they stood to gain more by participating in a negotiation overseen by a friendly regime. Hamas’s trust in Morsi made them willing to accept a long-term ceasefire, judging that Egypt under his rule would continue to provide a corridor to the outside world, easing economic hardship and political isolation.
As the number of dead and injured continues to rise in the current conflict, many began to wonder whether Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s new president, could play a role similar to those of his predecessors, Morsi and Mubarak?
While Egypt’s strategic position and its traditional role suggest that he could, the political climate in Cairo had changed significantly since the ousting of Morsi in July 2013. The new environment makes Sisi ill-suited to play the role of arbiter. The main problem arises from the views of the political class, which backs Sisi, and the institutions that shape the public opinion. This class’s complex ties with the Arab oil-rich monarchies, especially the UAE, further complicate Cairo’s position as a potential intermediary.
Since the coup, Egyptian press has been waging a relentless campaign of vilification against Hamas, depicting it as a threat to Egypt’s national security. This is unprecedented. Despite the fact that Mubarak and his regime viewed Hamas as an adversary given its ties with the MB, vilifying Hamas has never become an official obsession.
Domestically, the policy of the establishment, from the 1970s to the end of Mubarak’s era, was to contain, not to try to wipe out the MB. Not only did such attempts prove counterproductive during the reign of Nasser, but also the expansion of the movement ever since – within and outside Egypt’s borders – made it costly, if not impossible to completely eradicate it.
That operational wisdom was discarded in the post-coup environment. Attempts and calls were made to decimate the Brothers, not just in Egypt but in other parts of the Arab world as well. Even before the current offensive, former Egyptian military personnel as well as media personalities loyal to the regime had urged Sisi to invade Gaza. Egypt’s reliance on the financial backing of the Saudis and the Emiratis who consider the MB globally, and not simply in Egypt, as a real threat to the continuity of their monarchies, made Egypt drift further to the extreme. It is noteworthy that Egypt’s ousted president, Morsi, is held on charges of espionage on the behest of Hamas. The nature of this case remains at best suspect.
Sisi’s need to legitimate his coup before his citizens and the desire of his sponsors to entomb, once and for all, the spirit of the Arab Spring bestowed an official aura on the anti-resistance sentiment, which began to emerge first in the 2000s. It is no longer sufficient to mock the ‘useless’ rocketry of Hamas, nor to simply blame Hamas for the deaths of Palestinians.
At the onset of the ongoing assault, many Egyptian media personalities couldn’t conceal their excitement that Israel was doing what their government should have done. Some of their views were so identical with the Israeli official line to the extent that the Israeli army’s spokesperson to Arabic media found them useful to retweet and paraphrase.
Further complicating a possible Egyptian intervention is how the Israelis and Hamas judge the timing of the current conflict.
In this new environment, where the ruling elites in several Arab countries, including Egypt, hope the Israelis would rid them of Hamas, the Israeli political and military elites believe they are before an unprecedented opportunity. There has never been a case where all its Arab neighbors publicly and secretly plead with Israel to crush an Arab group. Despite the domestic pressure to restore calm, Israel hopes that it still has a few more weeks to bomb Gaza to submission before domestic pressure rises.
Similarly, Hamas has no reason to silence its rockets unless there is a deal ensuring a partial or a complete lift of the now complete blockage of their enclave. The past year, since Sisi’s rise to power, has been particularly harsh. With no hope of a political horizon without a favorable ceasefire deal, bracing for bombs seems a more dignified alternative to starving.
In this state of affairs, it is more likely that time, not Sisi, will create the conditions for a truce. The US could broker a deal if it chooses to pressure its Israeli allies, but it has so far only given them assurances of unconditional support. Tragically, this means that Israel, which has run out of meaningful military targets, if it indeed had some, would unleash its wrath and lethal US-made technology on defenseless Gazans. It will not risk ground before flattening much of Gaza.
– Ahmed Meiloud is a PhD student at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include studying the various movements of political Islam across the Arab World, with special focus on the works of the thinkers, jurists and public intellectuals who shape the moderate strands of Islamism. (This article was first published in Middle East Eye – www.middleeasteye.net)