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THE GAZA ISSUE AND THE IRANIAN POLICY OF DESTABILIZATION


gaza explosion nov 18, 2012


When dealing with the latest crisis between Israel and the Gaza Strip one would be tempted to  decide before hand who is right and who is wrong, whether we should look at cause or effect and if action and reaction are justified. Merely looking at the timeline of provocations could lead us to wrong, if not superficial, judgements in an issue – as the Palestinian one is – that has been ongoing for over 60 years and in which all sides have their portion in the right and in the wrong.

The Italian Foreign Minister probably was victim of such a na´ve approach when he defined the missiles launched from Gaza as "an act of terrorism". The killing of the chief of the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, Ahmed Jabari, was instead labelled as an "elimination". Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata, probably due to his past posts as ambassador to Israel and to the United States, took a stance in a very complicated issue and could have been victim of what psychologists call "the Stockholm syndrome". His statements could be justified if the Italian FM was trying to evaluate the problem in the light of national institutional policy; he should instead have been more prudent if he meant expressing an assessment on the facts. Being a high ranking diplomat, inadvertently now a Minister, should teach how to avoid using inappropriate wording.

The same can be said for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi when, at the beginning of the crisis,  he defined Israeli operations as "an aggression against humanity". Or for Turkish PM Recep Erdogan who made similar statements. Or for Libyan Foreign Minister who has accused Israel of terrorism and of "criminal acts". Many others just like them have used the opportunity given by the conflict to express opinions rather than trying to propose or impose a solution to an endless problem.

Because in the Middle East nothing is black or white, but everything is gray. And those analysts that try to evaluate events risk having a color-blind vision of facts splashing out valuations and taking sides. To say what is right and what is wrong in a 60 years long history is an impossible task. Judging such a complex problem does not help the path of truth. If a fair judgment of facts is difficult in the Middle East, so is trying to find the crux of the agendas fueling the crisis. This is because there are so many actors at play and it is hard to understand who is contributing or gaining from instability.

Today the temporary worsening of the military conflict between Gaza and Israel cannot be attributed only to the unresolved Palestinian issue, but is the result of a world, the Arab one, that is changing, of a region swept by tensions and instability, of widespread Islamic fundamentalism, of an international community incapable of producing or imposing solutions, of Israel that under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu has not allowed any margin or room other than for shows of force. And by doing so the issue is not solved, but delayed over time with more deaths, more hate, more need for revenge and suffering.

As has happened until now, the Palestinian issue is solely the litmus test of everything else that is taking place in the region and, as has happened in the past, it could become the spark that will set the Middle Eastern powder keg alight. Several countries in the Middle East have appropriated the Palestinian issue as a flag to wave, a just cause to exploit and then use for their own purposes. Surely not to find a solution.

It wasn't a difficult prediction to think that the Syrian crisis would have spilled over its borders into other crisis zones. In the Middle Eastern Pandora's box there is a close interdependence between causes and effect and, above all, there is a strong link among the different crisis in the region that share a common denominator of instability.

When one of the political or social pieces of the puzzle on which the unstable equilibrium of the area is based on is modified, negative effects automatically hit other ongoing problems. And there are today several regional actors gaining politically from the destabilization.

We should thus ask ourselves: who has gained or lost from this new crisis before the deal brokered by Egypt and the United States on November 21 2012?

Israel: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who will face elections on January 22 2013 and is allied with the extreme right wing parties, has shown his resolve and having used the military option has surely brought him electoral consensus. The same can be said for the expansion of Jewish settlements in the areas still under negotiation with the ANP (Palestinian National Authority). Talks aim at forcing the counterpart to accept the creation of a Palestinian entity resembling the South African Bantustans. But the initial tactical gain is lost in the long period. Once again the ANP's will to negotiate has been delegitimized in favor of the most extremist stances in the Palestinian galaxy. Even worse, Hamas does not have the absolute control over Gaza anymore since radical Salafist groups as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Tawid wal Jihad, Ansar al Sunna, Jund Ansar Allah and Jaish al Islam have taken over. The latest crisis, sparked by the killing of a Hamas military commander, did not see the latter responsible for the escalation. Nevertheless, Hamas, thanks to the new clash with Israel, has gained a new international status.

There is also the issue of the asymmetrical warfare, linked to the disproportion between the Israeli military apparatus and the Palestinian one. A disproportion that determines a high toll of war victims. The operation "Cast Lead" in December 2008 ended after 20 days of war (including bombardments and the land invasion) with 1400 Palestinian deaths and 13 Israeli ones. The majority of the Palestinian victims were civilians. This time around, with only a week of conflict, there have been 156 Palestinian deaths (whom 36 children) and about 1400 wounded, opposed to 6 Israeli deaths and 250 wounded.

When Israel decides to wage a war, it often underestimates the impact the military disproportion has on global public opinion (and the vote at the UN General Assembly on November 29 2012 recognizing the Palestinian's "non member observer state" status is there to prove it) and on the resentment cultivated by those suffering from the bloodshed. This is the so-called image loss. Gaza has such a high population density that any bombardment will exceed the 3.14 rate of collateral damage in the ratio between legitimate targets and civilian deaths that is usually considered acceptable by Tel Aviv. However, the truce leaves the Palestinian issue unsolved (and none of the negotiators, UN included,  has attempted to tackle the problem).

One of the Israeli military gains on the field has been the testing of the "Iron Dome" anti-missile system (produced by the Israelis with the cooperation of US firms), that has eliminated 90% of the missiles launched from Gaza. This is a test that could be useful in case of a raid against Iran and a potential missile retaliation by the Ayatollah.

hamas
Hamas militants

Hamas: the Hamas leadership, only partly responsible for the military escalation, is once again recognized as a negotiating partner. Despite being surpassed by extremist factions, Hamas is still an essential international interlocutor. The Palestinian Authority has temporarily lost its legitimacy, silent witness of a new Palestinian drama. The ANP has regained some credibility when it turned down the US request to postpone/block the vote at the UN General Assembly (a stance backed by Hamas and that could lead to a reconciliation between the two groups). During the crisis there has been a cortege of Arabic Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Strip, including Turkish FM Ahmed Davutoglu. And this is another element in support of Hamas, whose signature on the truce has avoided offering more room to those extremist fringes undermining its leadership in Gaza. The overall picture fits the logic of the current Israeli government that will not give in to Abu Mazen's requests and actually prefers dealing with an organization, Hamas, that does not want to negotiate.

Palestinian National Authority (ANP): the prestige gained by Hamas during its last confrontation with Israel has proportionally downgraded the PLO and Abu Mazen. Fortunately, the vote allowing Palestine to become a UN observer state – a diplomatic initiative strongly pursued by the ANP – has rebalanced the relationship between the two souls in the Palestinian community: the secular and moderate (PLO) and the religious and radical (Hamas). But the ANP also faces internal dissent as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades supports Hamas' Izzedin al Qassam Brigades.

Egypt: when hostilities broke out, it wasn't clear what role Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi could have or wanted to play and, above all, which side he would have decided to pick in the attempt of brokering a deal between Hamas and Israel. Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood has instead been capable of playing a qualified negotiating role (still under US pressure, whose relevant financial contributions still support the country) that has gained them renewed credibility in the West, in Israel and in the Arab world. The circumstance could not be taken for granted following the signals coming from the new president in office in Egypt and the notoriously strong links between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Cairo has obtained a truce, it has avoided its partner Hamas a certain military defeat, it has not signed any binding agreements (and will thus continue to supply the Strip through the tunnels) and will continue to close its eyes on the arms trafficking across the Sinai (where the Iranian Fajr 5 missile came from after a triangulation from Sudan and Lebanon). Egypt will hence continue to practice what is usually called in the muslim world, but mainly in the Shiite one, as the "taqyya" (ambiguity or concealment).

Iran: the crisis in Gaza has also played in the hands of Tehran, probably the first hidden sponsor of this new situation. It is reasonable to think that the crisis could have been lead by Iran aiming to gain from the increased instability in the region. The circumstance would have been particularly appreciated if it also impacted Israeli security. For some time now there has been direct or through Hezbollah political and military tie between Hamas and Tehran. Iranian missiles in Palestinian hands confirm this. Had the crisis lasted longer, and this is what Iran hoped, it would have turned away the Israeli menace against the Iranian nuclear program and would have weakened the Jewish State. It is instead probable that the suspension of the Israeli land operations in Gaza was dictated by the need to focus on Iran and it is also possible that the United States could have convinced Tel Aviv to give up the attack in exchange for some form of military support on the Iranian front. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain why a seasoned politician like Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to suspend a military operation that had the support of 70% of Israelis.

Turkey: Recep Erdogan, who landed in Cairo when hostilities began, meant to push his neo-ottoman policy even further. However, due to his awful relationship with Netanyahu, he was not able to play any role in the mediation. Stripped of his role, the Turkish PM produced a series of statements in favor of Hamas. After the contrasts with Syria, Turkey felt the need to regain consensus in the Arab world. It is striking to note the Turkish support to operation "Cast Lead" against Gaza in 2008 and its critical attitude towards Israel today.

U.S.A.: the US mediation has had a great impact. Following the Arab Spring, this was the first test of Barack Obama's support to new Arab leaderships. During the presidential campaign Obama had been criticized for his foreign policy. But facts have proven him right. Hillary Clinton has been very effective (and this could turn out to be useful four year from now when – as it seems – she will run for the Presidency) thanks to the new diplomatic approach in Washington. The not so friendly relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama could offer the US Administration the credibility to play a role in the Palestinian issue.

THE IRANIAN PLOY

As we have underlined, the new crisis between Israel and the Gaza Strip is connected to other regional hot spots, all inevitably interconnected among them. As in a role game, in the Middle East every controversy doesn't run out in a direct confrontation, but usually involves several other actors and countries.

The far reaching hand of Iran is surely present in the Gaza crisis: not only through the supply of the Fajr 5 missiles, but also because the Jihad Islamyah – now associated to the Salafists and to people linked to Al Qaeda – is answers directly to Tehran. As previously stated, the Iranian interference in the Strip is part of a wider destabilization scheme. Iran today faces both the Israeli menace against its nuclear programme and the foreseeable loss of an historic ally such as Syria.

While attempting to divert international attention from its nuclear ambitions to other areas in turmoil and while trying to open more fronts for Israel, Tehran is applying a "the worse the better" tactic. That is, more crisis arise, more potential menaces surround Tel Aviv, the better Iranian interests and security are safeguarded.

In the Ayatollah's dangerous and destabilizing game, Gaza is only part of a wider scheme applied on the countries neighboring Israel. With the exception of Egypt and Jordan, Iran has targeted Gaza, Lebanon while supporting Syria.

wissam al hassan
Lebanese General Wissam al Hassan

On October 19 2012 in the country of the Cedars the Lebanese General Wissam al Hassan, chief of Police intelligence, was killed in an attack in Beirut after having survived a previous attempt on his life in April. Linked to Rafic Hariri (the former Lebanese PM probably killed by Syrian hit-men in an attack on February 14 2005) and to his son Saad, Hassan was renown for his hostility with regard to Syria. Wissam lead a faction uniting Sunnis and Walid Jumblatt's Druses against Damascus. Wissam al Hassan had been accused of having facilitated the transit of weapons to Syrian rebels via Lebanon. It is a plausible suspicion that there was a Syrian mandator, Hezbollah executors and  Iranian minds behind the attack on Hassan. In August Wissam al Hassan had arrested the former Minister of Information, Michel Samaha, accusing him of having smuggled large quantities of explosives into Lebanon.

To the Syrian-Iranian plot we have to had Tehran's own moves: on October 6 2012 an Iranian drone was shot down while flying over the Negev desert not far from Bersheva. It had been launched by Hezbollah over Israel. The Shiite Lebanese group has recently installed, with Iranian support, a cyber warfare central in the outskirts of Beirut. Given its variegated social and religious articulation, Lebanon is a fertile ground for anyone attempting to destabilize the region. So far, the UN mission UNIFIL in the south of Lebanon has avoided that the frictions between Hezbollah and Israel turn into a war. It is no news that the Hezbollah are totally submitted to Iranian interests, but information obtained supports the idea that, in the short term, there could be a leap forward in this relationship.

On September 16 2012 the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Mohamed Ali Jafari, has announced the deployment of the Pasdaran on Lebanese soil. They had already been identified fighting alongside Bashar al Assad's troops against the rebels in Syria. If they were to deploy in Lebanon it would mean opening a new armed front with Israel.

As far as Syria is concerned, Iran is once again interested in overlapping the crisis in Damascus with its controversy with Tel Aviv. In the early days of November mortar shots were fired from Syria against Israeli posts on the Golan heights. Their response was the launch of a Tammuz rocket. This could have simply been an accident in the context of the civil war raging in Syria. Or it could have been the deliberate attempt – with the Iranian blessing – of widening the fronts in the interest of both Damascus and Tehran:

    •     Bashar al Assad is hanging on to power on the basis that his fall could have a negative impact on the stability in the Middle East. If the Golan heights were to enter the equation, the issue of the Druse community living across the borders would be relit. And Syrian Druses support Assad.

    •    Iran, on the basis of its "the worse the better" policy, is in favor of any hotbed at the border with Israel.

AN EASY PROPHECY

At the end of the new round in the conflict between Israel and Hamas both parties claimed victory. If there is a winner, this is common sense that prevailed over vain ambition and antagonism. Hamas has declared the date of the truce as a national holiday and "victory day". This is only part of the rhetoric because wars, whether they begin or finish  or – as in this case – are postponed, only cause a series of useless deaths on both sides. Because the underlying issue, a solution for a Palestinian State, has not been solved. Fire will burn under the ashes until the next time. Tensions will grow again in the Middle East and the Palestinian problem will explode once again. The Palestinians are a flag to wave when needed by Arab regimes. Sometimes it seems as if everyone wants the issue to stay the way it his in order to continue waving that flag. Today it's Iran's turn. Before them it was  the countries of the front of the refusal. Tomorrow it could be somebody else.