Eight Questions About The Israel-Gaza Conflict We Still Don’t Have A Good Handle On.

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Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, after three days of air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, could be entering into a new phase of a larger ground invasion. While the war has been dissected six ways to Sunday, there are still gaping holes in our understanding of it, and several questions remain unanswered. Here are eight of them.

1. Was there an Israeli intelligence failure? 
There
is reason to believe that the Israelis were surprised that so many Iranian-made
Fajr-5 missiles had found their way into Gaza. Of course, the Israelis cannot
account for every single item smuggled through the tunnels connecting the Sinai
Peninsula to the Gaza Strip. And the Israelis appear to know exactly what they
are hunting for. But the existence of these rockets — which one senior Israeli
intelligence official calls “game changers” — is a red line for the
Israelis. The very fact that they made it into Gaza without being intercepted
or destroyed, and that some have subsequently been fired deep into Israeli
territory, represents a failure on some level. This could prompt an official
inquiry in Israel, where the brass put a premium on learning from mistakes.

2. Did Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt
ever have a handle on Hamas?
 In recent months, Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt, all closely
aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, have drawn closer to Hamas, which is
itself a splinter of that group. These three governments have, in one way or
another, been working to politically rehabilitate the Islamist movement and
integrate it into the new regional order of the Arab Spring. From all appearances,
Washington tacitly approved of this; it certainly did not publicly oppose it.
The assumption was that, in light of a precipitous drop in Iranian financing
and Hamas’ subsequent departure from its headquarters in Syria, the group was
perhaps prepared to evolve into a more pragmatic entity. With this recent round
of violence, and the use of Iranian long-range missiles, we can draw two broad
conclusions: Either Hamas’ new patrons are behind its latest violence, or they
were blindsided by it. If the latter, did they ever have Hamas under control?
3. Did Iran ever relinquish its
grip on Hamas?
 To put it another way, the reports of the demise of the
Axis of Resistance (Iran-Syria-Hamas) may have been greatly exaggerated. The
ties between Iran and Hamas’ military apparatus, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam
Brigades, date back to the early 1990s, when Hamas trained in Sudan with
Iranian cooperation and assistance. With the knowledge that Iranian Fajr-5
missiles made their way to Hamas, it is reasonable to wonder if Iran ever left
the scene.
4. Did the Israelis target a
cache of Fajr-5’s in Sudan?
 Speaking of Sudan, it is widely believed that the Israeli
Air Force targeted an Iranian weapons factory in Khartoum last month. Were the
Israelis targeting Fajr-5 rockets there? Sudan has long been known to serve as
a point of origin for Middle East smuggling routes delivering weapons to Gaza.
After that operation, it is possible that Israel realized that a number of
those “game-changer” missiles had already reached Gaza, suggesting
the aforementioned intelligence failure. Was Gaza part two of a two-part
operation that began in Sudan?
5. Will Hamas Upstage the PLO? Even with
an arsenal of more lethal rockets in its possession, Hamas has no way of
winning a war with Israel. If past is prologue, Hamas’ leaders know that
drawing Israel into conflict will elicit punishing reprisals. So why bother?
One plausible explanation is that the war is just as much about Hamas’ domestic
arch-rivals, the PLO, as it is about Israel. The PLO is preparing to upgrade
its mission at the United Nations later this month, and in the process,
claiming to speak for the Palestinian people as a whole. This current round of
violence steals the thunder of the PLO; has anyone even talked about the U.N.
maneuver since this round of violence erupted? It also sends a pointed message:
while the PLO concocts crafty legal schemes in New York, Hamas is doing battle
with Israel in the name of the Palestinian cause. Was this the intended
message? If so, Washington needs to be paying closer attention to what’s
happening on the ground.
6. Where’s Washington? Despite
long-standing tensions between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House has come out in full support of
the Israeli operation in Gaza, citing Israel’s right to respond to the hundreds
of rockets that Hamas and other jihadis have fired off in recent days.
Admittedly, many administration officials appear to be in Asia right now, but
the overall message is a green light for Israel. How long will this
support last? 
7. Will this impact the Israeli
elections in January?
 Netanyahu detractors charge that the Israeli leader is
using the operation in Gaza as a means of increasing voter support ahead of the
upcoming elections. In reality, Bibi is the front-runner by a wide margin, and
scarcely needs to rally the Israeli public around the flag. If anything,
military missteps could weaken his position. As a shrewd student of Israeli
politics, Bibi has undoubtedly been weighing the costs of the Gaza operation
every step of the way. The Israeli voting public will tell him how he did in
about two months’ time.
8. Can a ceasefire last? On Friday,
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, stated that the Israelis had
knocked out most of the long-range missiles they were hunting, indicating that
perhaps the primary mission had been accomplished. The Israelis say they want a
ceasefire, even as they call up 75,000 ground troops. They say it all depends
on Hamas halting the rocket fire. But even if the two primary actors agree,
will the other factions in Gaza acquiesce? The Iran-sponsored Palestinian
Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees, along with Salafi groups and
even the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — a splinter of the secular Fatah faction
under PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas — have been firing rockets on a freelance
basis. Will they continue to fire on Israel even if Hamas halts? If so, the
conflict could last a lot longer.
Credit: foreignpolicy.com

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