By Barry Rubin
I’m going to make a prediction here that, unfortunately, I’m sure will come true. Any good analyst should be able to see this, yet few will until it happens within the next one or two years:
The Egyptian revolution and U.S. policy mistakes make a new Israel-Hamas war inevitable, and as a result it will be a lot more of an international mess.
First, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is a revolutionary Islamist movement that views itself as directed by God’s will; considers Jews to be subhuman; believes that a willingness to court suicide and welcome death and destruction will bring victory; is certain that it is going to destroy Israel; and is determined to transform Palestinian society into an Islamic utopia, no matter how many people it has to kill. It is indifferent to the well-being, or even physical survival, of the Palestinians it rules.
And not one word of that is an exaggeration.
Given this situation, there are only two ways to stop Hamas from waging war on Israel. A shorter-range solution is deterrence through strength and weakening Hamas with tough sanctions. The defeat Israel inflicted on Hamas in the 2008-2009 war and the tight sanctions in place until 2010 forced the organization to retrench and be cautious for a while.
The only longer-term solution is the overthrow of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip and the maximum possible destruction of that group’s leadership, structures, and resources.
Events in Egypt and U.S. policy, however, have at least temporarily destroyed this shorter-range solution and made impossible the longer-range one.
If Hamas is confident, it will go to war. With more and better weapons, Hamas will go to war. If it believes that the international environment is permissive–much less supportive!–it will go to war. It’s only a matter of timing.
Second, the Egyptian revolution removed a regime that defined its own and Egypt’s national interest as having an anti-Hamas policy. The Mubarak government did not maintain sanctions and an (imperfect) blockade of weapons’ shipments out of concern for Israel.
No. It did so because the Egyptian government saw revolutionary Islamism as the main threat to the country and to itself. This was not, as current U.S. officials claim, some cynically manipulated mirage to justify dictatorship. Rather, it was a very logical policy.
In addition to the direct threat of Hamas subverting Egypt in cooperation with Islamist groups in the country, the Mubarak government saw Hamas as part of a broader Iran-led strategic threat to Egypt, Sunnis, and Arabs generally.
A new government in Egypt, whether radical nationalist, Islamist, or “liberal democratic” will have the opposite view.
The Muslim Brotherhood views Hamas as its closest ally and wants it to overthrow the Palestinian Authority as well as to destroy Israel.
The nationalists support Hamas as part of the Arab struggle against Israel.
The “liberal democrats” do so because they know this is a very popular position with Egyptians and to oppose it would reduce their already tiny base of support to zero. Remember that April 6 Youth Movement, the young Facebook-using liberals who launched the revolution? Well, it engaged in two activities before that: one was to free imprisoned bloggers; the other was to end sanctions against the Hamas regime in Gaza.
And so, Hamas knows that it now has an ally, rather than an enemy, at its back. Moreover, there is no incentive in Egypt–or among its nationalist and Islamist-sympathetic officers–to block arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. As a result, Hamas is stronger and more confident, and hence arrogant and reckless. It is better able to launch rockets, mortars, and cross-border attacks, and far more eager to do so. Hamas is also able to get longer-range missiles and other new types of weapons.
As for U.S. policy, while supporting some sanctions on Hamas and refusing to deal directly with the group, the U.S. government has not supported overthrowing the Gaza regime, though any serious assessment of U.S. interests show this should be a priority. A policy to destroy Hamas should be part of the war against Iranian hegemony in the region, revolutionary Islamism, terrorism, and instability. Even more, doing so would aid the moribund Israel-Palestinian peace process and keep the Palestinian Authority in power.
But there is no appreciation for these points in Washington. When it comes to fighting revolutionary Islamism, U.S. policy sees the Middle East as a no-try zone.
What makes matters worse, is the Obama Administration’s demand–after being shaken by a small incident in which about a half-dozen Islamist militants were killed on a ship after they attacked Israeli soldiers–to minimize sanctions. And then, out of misplaced humanitarian concern, the U.S. government deliberately, albeit indirectly, pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the Gaza Strip, thus strengthening Hamas and its popular base of support.
By such behavior, the Obama Administration is not just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic; it’s enlarging the hole below the ship’s water-line, arguing that by doing so it is moderating the ocean.
This strategy ensures that there would be a genocidal-oriented, revolutionary Islamist, subversion-spreading, anti-American, brutally repressive, anti-Christian, woman-oppressing, Iranian client regime on the Mediterranean. What’s really alarming is that the previous sentence is not in the least bit exaggerated. We’re talking about a Taliban-equivalent regime here.
Now, U.S. support for a transformation of Egypt with no idea where that would lead, has helped turn that enemy of Hamas into a Hamas ally. The Obama Administration has also supplied one more reason why revolutionary Islamists feel as if the future belongs to them, America is finished in the region, and why they should be even more bold and aggressive.
Much of the escalation of attacks on Israel now is the result of Hamas getting new weapons and escalating its use of terrorism on all levels. In addition, we are seeing no significant international action or even criticism of this behavior. On the contrary, the more terrorism Hamas commits, the more Israel is criticized in the Western media.
Terrorism works; aggression goes unpunished. Why be surprised that Hamas becomes increasingly confident and aggressive?
It is only a matter of time until Hamas once again does what it did at the end of 2008: launch a larger-scale assault on Israel. At that point, Israel will have to respond by a major attack on the Gaza Strip.
What will happen? Will Egypt remain neutral? Will its government stop the Muslim Brotherhood and other sympathizers rush arms, money, and even armed Egyptian volunteers into the Gaza Strip? Will the West blame Israel, instead of itself, for the violence? Will the United States take any productive action at all?
This crisis is inevitable, though it might take one or at most two years to happen. Yet nobody outside Israel sees–or wants to see–what’s coming.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.