The Gaza Proxy War

According to the WaPo, President-elect Barack Obama is prudently withholding comment on the escalation in the Israel-Hamas conflict, since there’s really nothing to gain and everything to lose by wading into those waters. For some reason, I manage to avoid mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in calmer times, but feel compelled to weigh in when things get worse, which among other things helps explain why Obama’s resting up in Hawaii in anticipation of assuming the presidency, and I’m, well, not in Hawaii and not anticipating assuming the presidency anytime soon.

But without trying to offer a unified field theory or provide some sort of insight capable of bringing everyone to their senses, I’ll offer a few observations:

1. The recently expired ceasefire was something of a legal fiction. Referred to alternately as “the calm” and “the lull” by both Hamas and Israel, neither side ever fully respected its terms. Israel never relaxed the hermetic seal on Gaza, and Hamas never fully enforced the ceasefire on other militant groups within the Strip. Somehow both sides believed that a limited escalation of violence would somehow resolve that “chicken and egg” dispute, despite the fact that a “limited escalation” risks turning into “runaway escalation,” from which neither side is likely to emerge any closer to its objectives of improving the other’s respect of the original ceasefire terms. It’s possible that two wheels over the cliff could provide the necessary motivation for a real, if temporary, truce that could then be extended. That seems to be the logic, anyway, and such is the nature of the conflict that a gambler’s chance is considered an exit strategy.

2. The horrible tragedy of this conflict is that the volley of rockets coming out of Gaza and the subsequent massive Israeli air strikes in response are simply a particularly brutal language of negotiation, whose vocabulary is that of death, destruction and human suffering, and whose grammar comes in the form of mass demonstrations and global outrage. This passage from the WaPo’s coverage of reaction in the Arab world leapt out as an illustration:

The polarization appears to have ended a thaw that had taken place in the past year, Mr. Masri said. Syria had been reaching out to theWest and holding indirect peace talks with Israel. Lebanon’s political factions had reached a peace deal. Syria and Saudi Arabia had made gestures toward resolving their feud.

Now, fault lines visible during the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah have reappeared.

Anyone who had predicted the potentially game changing evolutions of 2008 in August 2006 would have been considered a lunatic. If the region teaches us one thing, it is that there is no room for fatalism. Today’s gains can be erased in the time it takes to detonate an explosive belt, and the damage done by disproportionate air campaigns can be overcome sooner than seems imaginable.

3. We know very little of what’s really going on. I recently saw the Coen brothers latest, “Burn After Reading,” and regardless of whether it’s a reality or simply a cinematic trope, walked away with this exchange, between two CIA administrators, echoing in my thoughts:

“What’s his security clearance?”
“Level three.”
“Level three? Oh. No biggee.”

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand the resonance. If you haven’t, it’s shorthand for the fact that you don’t see the bloody mess on the ground when staring down from the height of a bird’s eye view. Conversely, we don’t see the birds watching from above when we’re in the middle of a bloody mess.

I thought of that when I read this, from the WaPo as well:

An Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because hewasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said Israel has destroyed 120tunnels since the aerial campaign began. According to conservativeestimates, there were at least 200 tunnels before Israeli warplanesbegan striking.

I’d be very surprised if the WaPo has better-placed sources in the Egyptian security branches than Israel. A hundred and twenty tunnels don’t just get destroyed in five days without someone tipping the Israel Air Force off as to their location. I’ve read, too, that the strike against Gaza was greenlighted in Cairo and Riyadh.

In other words, whether we see them or not, the birds are up there, somewhere above a level three clearance, and they’re not all speaking Hebrew. The Arab-Israeli conflict has long since become the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in turn has more recently become the Israel-Hamas conflict. That is a misnomer, though, for a proxy war that responds to broader regional interests — even if they remain cloaked in shadows beyond our view — in addition to Israel’s security interests.

If the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War is any guide, this conflict could have very contradictory outcomes, whereby Hamas emerges victorious despite being severely weakened logistically, and where the way is prepared for future progress in remaking the regional architecture, in ways and areas that are impossible to foresee.

Of course, there’s always the safe bet, too, which I mentioned before: things can always get worse.

(Note: Post updated for clarity.)