Something extremely important and exceedingly dangerous is unfolding in a most explosive part of the globe, but it is receiving only minimal attention by the media and by world leaders. An outbreak of violence in Southern Israel, Gaza, and along the Egyptian border, triggered by a recent attack against Israelis civilians, could easily escalate into much more serious fighting.
A new war between Israelis and Palestinians right now would have immediate, horrific repercussions for the people who live there. It would also have potentially disastrous consequences for those who want freedom and democracy in the Middle East, as well as those in the West who would like to see a moderate Arab world emerge from the regional wave of popular uprisings.
It began on Aug. 18, when an attack against an Israeli passenger bus — terrorism by any definition— killed eight Israelis, four of them members of the same family.
Israel immediately shot back, killing the head of a group called the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). The attack left dead four PRC members and a young boy who was with them. Since then, Palestinians have fired more than 160 rockets into Israeli cities. At least one Palestinian missile landed in Egypt, injuring an Egyptian woman. Israel has fired back, targeting other militant leaders. More civilians have died on both sides. As always, Palestinians are aiming — and occasionally hitting — civilian targets. Israelis are aiming at militant targets, but innocent civilians are also getting killed by Israeli fire.
A truce accepted by Israel and Hamas has not held. With every missile launched from Gaza, with hundreds of thousands of anxious Israelis rushing into shelters, there is more pressure on Israel to launch a larger offensive. Somebody clearly wants to provoke a war between Israelis and Palestinians.
The key question is: Who would benefit from war at this moment? The answer is long and troubling.
The list of potential beneficiaries of a Palestinian-Israeli war includes Syria’s Bashar Assad, the Iranian regime, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah in Lebanon, possibly Hamas in Gaza, and certainly radical Islamists all over the Arab world. The list of losers from a new war includes, first of all, the civilian populations of Israel and Gaza. Other losers would include those fighting to overthrow the regime in Syria, along with pro-democracy forces all over the Middle East and their supporters in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
The last thing Israel wants now is another war. Israel is worried about relations with Egypt, about Palestinian plans for a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations, and about the turmoil in surrounding countries. It would have much to lose and little to gain in a major conflict.
Relations with Egypt reached a new low in the aftermath of the bus attack, when Israeli forces pursuing the militants — some of whom were wearing Egyptian army uniforms — apparently killed several Egyptian policemen. Israel, eager to preserve ties, has offered to carry out a joint investigation with Cairo.
As Egypt moves through its political transition, the views of the “street” carry much more weight. In case of war, the inevitable images of Israeli bombs slamming into Gaza would create pressure for authorities to allow Egyptian volunteers to fight alongside Palestinians. It is likely that Hezbollah would also attack from Lebanon, and Syria, too, would be tempted to join in.
For Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood and the even more radical political forces in the country, an Israeli-Palestinian war would come as a fantastic gift, especially as the country gears up for elections.
An Egyptian newspaper reports that some of the men who launched the Aug. 18 attacks were, in fact, Egyptian citizens.
Syria’s dictator would also welcome a war. The pictures of the fighting would grab the world’s attention by the lapels and leave the Syrian opposition, whose members Assad is slaughtering, weak and forgotten. Similarly, Iran and Hezbollah, whose key ally in Damascus is in danger, would rejoice in a new war
For Hamas, a war would be a double-edged sword. A massive Israeli onslaught in Gaza could be devastating, but it would also rally support for its side and away from the rival Fatah. Hamas may prefer to avoid the risk.
The world’s media tend to ignore or minimize the important Palestinian rockets crashing on Israeli cities, even when they kill civilians, as the recent ones have done. But this is a critical story. We should all pay close attention. World leaders should intensify efforts to bring an end to the violence, particularly at this pivotal moment in history.