The Israel-Gaza Conflict, Egypt and the United States

The violence intensifies even as Obama and Netanyahu discussed "de-escalation"


Earlier this week, the Israeli Defense Forces began an air assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, in retaliation for mortars being lobbed into Israel from the strip. Rockets have been fired from Gaza for months, intensifying over the last several weeks.  Israel and Gaza's Hamas leadership have had a tense and often violent relationship  since Hamas was voted into power in the Palestinian Authority in January 2006. Those elections, which saw Hamas trounce the long-ruling Fatah Party, were initially hailed as a step toward progress by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; her office, apparently, did not see a Hamas victory coming. Fatah refused to hand power over to Hamas, and after an internecine conflict the status quo of a Fatah-ruled West Bank and a Hamas-rules Gaza emerged. That summer Israel initiated its first military operation against the Hamas government in Gaza, followed by another in the autumn.

The situation in Gaza and the wider region has changed somewhat considerably since then. From columnist Rami Khouri of the Lebanese English-language newspaper The Daily Star:

We should note three important new dimensions of the conflict on the Arab side, about the constantly improving technical capabilities of Palestinian resistance groups, the emergence of more radical Islamist groups over time in Gaza and around the region, and the impact of public opinion and the new, legitimate, governments in power in some Arab states. All three together suggest that a shift in the strategic balance of power may be under way in the Middle East, with huge implications.

Khouri postulates that the new democratically-elected governments in places like Egypt more closely mirror the view of their populations in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Egypt, in fact, is one of only a handful of countries in the region that recognize the state of Israel, thanks to the Camp David accords negotiated in 1978 by Jimmy Carter between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (seen at home as a radical nationalist before the agreement) and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (who was hated for the deal, assassinated two years later and succeeded by Hosni Mubarak). What held together support for the Camp David Accords, of course, were payments from the U.S., to the tune of $1 billion a year in military aid to Egypt, on top of other aid, and about a total of $3 billion in aid a year to Israel. Public support for the peace deal, of course, is more popular in Israel than Egypt, which, like much of the rest of the Arab world, tends to scape goat Israel and Jews for domestic problems.

Nevertheless, for Egypt's president, the Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi, it's not as simple as backing Hamas in the current conflict. Although President Obama earlier this year admitted Egypt was no longer an ally, as such (the State Department corrected him), it still receives hefty payments from the United States. The Christian Science Monitor explains Morsi's predicament:

Egypt's Islamist president finds himself pulled in competing directions by the head and the heart. The fighting this week – the result of heavy Israeli retaliation for escalating rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel – has the Islamist Mr. Morsi in a tight spot: caught between his co-religionists across the border in Gaza, on one side, and Washington, upon which a struggling Egypt relies for economic and military assistance, on the other…

The sudden flare-up involving Gaza and its Islamist leaders is also testing US influence in a region where the Arab Awakening has deposed a number of autocratic leaders more disposed to upholding a US-led system of security and stability – including former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – in favor of Islamist-led governments.  

Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, as does Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization that governs Gaza…

Morsi has made his sympathies clear on Egyptian television, lamenting the spilling of Palestinian blood and railing against what he calls the Israeli "aggression." But privately he is apparently sounding more amenable to trying to convince Hamas to stand down, perhaps by accepting a cease-fire. Morsi has spoken by phone with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton several times this week, US officials say.

Meanwhile on the ground in Gaza, from the AP:

The image of a dead preschooler cradled by the prime ministers of Egypt and Gaza in a hospital hallway has drawn attention to the dangers Gaza's children face in this crowded urban battle zone.

Children make up half of Gaza's population of 1.6 million and seem to be everywhere in the current round of cross-border fighting between Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers.

Children loitered Friday outside a Gaza City morgue for a glance at the latest "martyrs." Others followed adults to funerals or even rushed to the site where Israeli missiles had just struck a government building and fire was still smoldering. Despite outward bravado, young boys of elementary school age said quietly that fear of airstrikes kept them awake at night.

And from Al-Jazeera:

At least nine people, seven of them schoolgirls, have been injured by an Israeli air attack in the southern Gaza Strip, sources tell Al Jazeera.

The raid on Thursday in Khan Yunis also injured a police officer, the AFP news agency reported, quoting witnesses and medics.

Israel seemed to be targeting a Palestinian fighter on a motorcycle, witnesses told Al Jazeera.

And the view from Tel Aviv, via Fox News:

Tel Avivians were caught by surprise Thursday when sirens wailed in the city for the first time in more than two decades — exhibiting a paradox of moving on despite the outrage that seemed somehow of a peace with the lovingly nurtured image of the city.

In high-rise office buildings, workers froze in silence for a few seconds before quickly and calmly walking down the stairwells to their buildings' shelters. Some murmured "I don't believe it" while reaching for their phones to call loved ones. Several mobile networks crashed from overload.

People parked their cars on the side of the Ayalon intercity highway, taking cover against concrete walls. Later, nightlife raged on.

On Friday morning, rockets were fired for a second day, catching Israelis lounging in their favorite cafes and restaurants.

"Everybody just got up and went inside, there was no panic, and when it was over they went back to their plates," said Rina Kol, a schoolteacher dining near Tel Aviv's largest open-air market.

Shortly after the siren sounded, an explosion sounded in the distance. Israeli authorities would not disclose the landing site so as not to help Gaza rocket launchers improve their aim.

President Obama has been receiving updates from the Israeli government, and he and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed "de-escalation" late today even as Israel appears poised for a ground invasion.

More updates on the conflict at Reason 24/7.