Five-thousand homes destroyed, more than 1300 killed, and thousands of injured – yet, Hamas is still in charge of the Gaza strip. If one follows mainstream media, which overall argue that Israel’s objective is/was to crush Hamas and free captive soldier Gilad Shalit, one would agree with Likud candidate Benyamin Netanyahu’s remarks about the conflict: “The IDF has dealt Hamas a severe blow, but unfortunately the job has not been complete.” It is becoming ever clearer that the goal of the Gaza operation was never regime change. Rather than preventing the firing of home-made rockets by Hamas, the war in Gaza was fought to coax segments of Hamas into the mainstream, re-establish the deterrence of the Israeli Army, and send a signal to Washington and Tehran alike that things have, and will not change.
TIME magazine accurately analyzes the domestic Israeli layer of the conflict when it describes how political rivals use war as an extension of politics in the run up to upcoming elections, Carl von Clausewitz-style. Yet, mainstream media heavily underestimates the true Israeli desire to firstly, regain its perceived loss of deterrence during its 2006 war against Hezbollah, and secondly divide Hamas in the context of the Cold War in the Middle East. In the words of outgoing Premier Olmert himself, “the operation proved again the power of Israel and improved its deterrence against those who threaten it.” It is no coincidence that Netanyahu, ahead in the polls thanks to his hawkish position on Hamas, hints at the deeper layers of the war in Gaza by arguing that “we cannot show any weakness in the face of the Iranian-backed Hamas terror and must act with an iron fist to defeat the enemy.”
In the grand scheme of politics in the Middle East, Fatah might be the lesser of two evils for Tel Aviv, but that doesn’t mean that Israel wants Palestinian “President” Mahmoud Abbas to gain from the bombardment of his Gazan rivals. For all the talk of weapons smuggling to Gaza, the main Iranian clout in Palestine lies in Damascus, where its Syrian ally provides space for the exiled Hamas leadership to survive, and not in Palestine itself. This is well understood by Israel. Hence, when local Hamas leaders like Abu Hashem and Bardawil call for an immediate ceasefire, thus questioning Damascus-based Hamas leader Meshaal’s insistence on issuing statements calling for battle until death in front of Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, it is evident that the Israeli’s aim with this operation is to drive a wedge within Hamas so as to weaken the influence of the exiled leadership, and therefore Iran and Syria. Remember that Ali Larijani and Saeed Jalili – the previous and current Iranian nuclear negotiator respectively – visited Damascus not long after hostilities broke out.
How is this shown in the aftermath of the Gaza war? Of the approximately 1000 tunnels dug under the Gaza-Egypt border, hundreds are still in operation, shown live on CNN. Israel is insisting on approving every single international reconstruction project in the Gaza strip on a case-by-case basis, including the import of building materials, as “such imports can be used by the Islamist group to rearm.”
On the other hand, Tel Aviv is preventing the transfer of 70 of the $80 million Abbas government wants to pay in salaries to 77,000 Palestinian Authority employees, in addititon to pensions, and welfare for the poor in Gaza. While the Arab states were unable to agree on holding a meeting on Gaza, not to mention organizing aid to the battered Gaza strip, local Hamas leaders – who were openly clashing with the exiled leadership on ending fighting – are rapidly handing out up to €4000 to each affected family. Clearly, Tel Aviv is laying the groundwork for allowing local Hamas leaders to successfully emulate Lebanese Hezbollah’s tactic of retaining local support by rapidly organizing and disbursing cash aid and reconstruction, as Arab and Western donors are hindered by bureaucracy and internal divisions.
How does Iran fit into the equation? During the Israeli onslaught in Gaza, several rockets were fired from southern Lebanon – where Palestinian militants are known to operate – towards northern Israel. With leading candidate Netanyahu framing the war as a struggle against Iran’s supposed proxy in Gaza, and warning of Tehran’s supposed satellites in Lebanon, it is too early to rule out a resumption of armed hostilities on Israel’s borders. The discourse of the empowered Israeli hardliners paves the way for Tel Aviv’s restraint in regards to the rocket attacks to be unleashed. It doesn’t matter that Hezbollah denied responsibility for the attacks, and that Iran recently signed an agreement with visiting Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on expanding the capabilities of the Lebanese Army — the force responsible for ensuring that no rockets are fired from militants. Framing national resistance movements formed in response to occupation, the case in Gaza and Lebanon alike, as simply satellites of a much bigger, more evil ‘Other’ – in this case Iran – is a fail-safe method to get votes without addressing core causes of violence.
A defiant Iran being the main foreign policy challenge of the new Administration, it is difficult to avoid linking newly inaugurated U.S. President Barack Obama to all of this. So far, Obama has appointed Hillary Clinton, whose condemnation Tehran sought in the United Nations for her remarks on obliterating Iran during the primaries, as his Secretary of State. The only thing that needs to be said about the people likely to head Obama’s Middle East team is their background. Clinton-era hawk and point man of the failed Oslo peace process Dennis Ross will probably be joined by Dan Kurtzer (former U.S. Ambassador to Israel), Martin Indyk (another former Ambassador to Israel), James Steinberg, and Dan Shapiro. Reportedly, the first foreign leader Obama called was Mahmoud Abbas, followed by Olmert, and then Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Calling all parties except the leaders currently, and most likely in the future, in control of Gaza is a continuation of President Bush’s policies of isolation in favour of constructive engagement. Ignoring the popularly elected Hamas represent continuity of eight years of failed policies, anddefinitely not change that anyone in the Middle East can believe in. This is not to mention that Obama’s previous complete silence in regards to Gaza has already sobered high hopes in the region for a departure from unpopular U.S. Middle East policies. If the new Administration is serious about engaging in constructive dialogue with Iran, it must make a sincere effort to discontinue Washington’s disastrous tendency to send mixed signals to Tehran.
Mohammad Ali Shabani is Iranian-born, brought up in Sweden, and educated in the United Kingdom. Holding a Bachelors degree in International Relations, and a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London School of Oriental & African Studies, his consistent focus has been Iran in the World. Moreover, he has conducted research at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the University of Tehran Institute of North American & European Studies, and the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic & Political Studies.