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Israel's Latest War With Hamas

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR
November 19, 2012

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The latest fighting between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip has been brewing for quite some time, says Steven A. Cook, a CFR Middle East expert. "Regardless of the immediate cause for this fighting, this is something that it seems Hamas and Israel have been preparing for a long time," he says. "Hamas and other militant factions are armed quite well with these rockets, and Israelis have been increasingly concerned about the erosion of their deterrence." Cook says the Egyptians are trying "to deescalate the current crisis, but thus far, efforts have obviously not been successful."

The fighting in Gaza has been going on for a week now. It started with rockets being fired from Gaza into southern Israel, and the Israelis have responded with air attacks. What triggered this fighting, the most significant since Israel's invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009?

As with everything in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this is a matter of controversy. The Israelis point to the fact that there had been an increased number of rocket attacks beginning in October after the emir of Qatar visited the Gaza strip. And it's important to understand that although there had been a cease-fire since 2009, there have been periodic rocket attacks and retaliations.

Last Wednesday, the Israelis assassinated Ahmed al Jabari, who was the Hamas military leader. The irony [is] that Jabari was not only the military leader [who] planned attacks against the Israelis, but also an interlocutor with the Egyptians and the Israelis about maintaining the kind of wild and wary cease-fire that had existed for the better part of the four years in between Israel's Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009 and what we're seeing right now.

[T]his kind of conflict, given the status quo in Gaza, was likely to happen, whether now or sometime in the future.

Regardless of the immediate cause for this fighting, it seems that Hamas and Israel have been preparing for [this] a long time. Hamas and other militant factions are armed quite well with these rockets, and Israelis have been increasingly concerned about the erosion of their deterrence, as Hamas and other militant organizations restocked their weapons over the course of these years. So this kind of conflict, given the status quo in Gaza, was likely to happen, whether now or sometime in the future.

There have been talks in Cairo about working out a cease-fire. Are the Egyptians really putting their energy into this?

It seems so. The Egyptians seem to have, through diplomacy and the work of their intelligence service, which has long held the Israel-Palestine file, been working to try to hammer out some sort of cease-fire. There were rumors that they were 90 percent of the way there, but the diplomatic action has really been in Egypt. Initially, the Israelis seemed wary of this, saying the Egyptians can be helpful, and this was on the heels of the Egyptian prime minister's visit to Gaza and the full-throated rhetorical support for the Palestinians coming from both Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and President Mohamed Morsi. But at the same time, behind the scenes, the Egyptians are trying to be as constructive as they possibly can, which, in the broader abstract about U.S. relations with the region, is a good thing.

But of course, there are no guarantees. Rumors of an impending cease-fire have existed for a couple of days, and we see escalation increases of air strikes and rocket attacks. So the answer to your question is: Yes, the Egyptians have been deeply engaged in trying to find a way to deescalate the current crisis, but thus far, efforts have obviously not been successful.

Many observers were expecting by now an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, but despite highly publicized preparations along the border, nothing has happened. Can we assume that's on hold for a while?

Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009 was not a great experience for the Israelis. I think that operationally, they were successful, but it was a significant black eye for them internationally. Remember the Goldstone report emerged from that, and it served to further undermine Israel's relations with Turkey. There is some recognition that the world around the Israelis has changed.

Of course, it's [also] a risky business to go into Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on earth. Urban combat is difficult. A Hamas or other militant group's rocket would have to hit something of significant value and kill a fairly large number of Israelis in order for the Israelis to be motivated to go into Gaza in a big way. I think the call-up of reserves and the lining up of armor around Gaza is a preparation for that possibility, and it's also a way to try to rattle the Hamas leadership. But it seems like it's something that military commanders would want to avoid.

The United States is one of the few major powers that have good relations with both Israel and, to a lesser extent now, Egypt. What do you think the United States is trying to do?

The United States is working with the Israelis on how to deescalate. The United States is also working with the Egyptians – and it's the Egyptians who have the relationship with Hamas – to find ways in which to deescalate the crisis.

There are other players as well. You've had a parade of Arab foreign ministers going to Gaza, and the Turkish foreign minister is going to Gaza on Tuesday. Most of this is really for show. The action is happening in those indirect negotiations that the Egyptians are apparently handling, and the direct talks between the United States and Israel about the costs of a ground invasion, and reassurances from the administration that Israel has a right to defend itself, but that there are risks to continuing this operation in a bigger way with a ground war. The players in the diplomatic game now are the United States, Israel, Egypt, and Hamas. Now that can change quickly, for example, if the Egyptians come up empty.

Israelis have been hitting targets with air attacks and shelling, and many civilians have been reported killed, while the Palestinians have fired hundreds of rockets to little effect. What do you think of these disproportionate results?

Disproportionate has become a dirty word. There is clearly an asymmetry in capabilities. The Israelis have precision-guided munitions and F16 airplanes and drones, and all the things a modern military in the twenty-first century has. Hamas and the militant groups basically have rockets. From what I understand, these are not missiles – they don't have any internal guidance systems. So you set it up, and you shoot it, and you hope it hits something. And that clear asymmetry in technology is the result of the differences in the Israelis hitting things that they argue are of value, and the inability of the Palestinians to do this similar kind of damage to the Israelis.

Just because they happen to be ineffective doesn't make these rockets any less weapons that terrorize. They could, in fact, hit something and kill people. There was one rocket that fell on a school. Because the southern part of the country is under this threat of rocket attack, that school was empty, but you can imagine what might've happened if it had been filled.

[On the other hand] obviously, the Israeli claims to surgical strikes are clearly not as surgical as they [say], because you do have an increasing number of civilians that have been killed in the conflict

A lot of people have been speculating that Hamas has been inspired by the Arab Spring and the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. Do you think that's true?

Certainly, changes in the region have been beneficial to Hamas because Arab governments have generally changed their position on Hamas. The Egyptian government under Hosni Mubarak was hostile to Hamas. Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood isn't hostile, but prior to the violence that's going on now, there hasn't been a dramatic change, for example, in the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt, so a lot of the change has been rhetorical.

But as I said at the outset of the interview, the dynamics of the conflict between Hamas and Israel were leading us to this point. Nobody quite knew when, but we were leading to this point anyway. Whatever change is going on around the region, I think a discussion of Islamic ascendency is a little too neat, a little too pat, and it ignores some of the context about what the quality of the relations were between Hamas and the Arab countries undergoing change, as well as what was going on between Israel and Hamas.

People also speculate that Iran was trying to get Hamas to do this, to draw attention away from Iran. Is that far-fetched?

You took the words right out of my mouth. There's no publicly available evidence to suggest that's the case. I know people want to see Iran lurking around every corner, but I think that this has more to do with Israel and Hamas than it does to do with Israel, Hamas and Iran.

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