It was the impotence displayed by the autocratic regimes of Middle East to the Gaza crisis of 2008-09 that provided some stimulus to the Arab awakening that followed, especially in Egypt. Turkey’s strong stand against Israel at the time won it many popularity points in the Islamic world. The subsequent Marvi Marmara episode in 2010 cost Israel its defense ties with Turkey, which continues to complicate the politics of Middle East. Now, another Gaza eruption is well underway, and the pre and post-Arab Spring regimes are formulating responses not much different than before.
With Obama securely back in office, Israel, on the other hand, is feeling even more pressure to deal with the increasingly hostile security environment in the region. In the past few weeks, the country has come under fire from the Syrian forces in Golan Heights, the situation in Sinai has remained unstable, as the country was intermittent hit by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. The fresh conflict provides an opportunity for Israel to check how much the region has changed as a result of the Arab awakening and war on terror, and what to expect from states like Egypt under the control of Islamists now.
Egypt, Sudan And Gaza
In the midst of this flux and before the initiation of the current Gaza crisis, Israel had received intelligence that Sudan was being used to store and smuggle weapons from Iran to Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza via Egypt. Furthermore, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on October 16 on an unprecedented incident that would have certainly unnerved the Israelis. According to the report, an Israeli helicopter was targeted by a Soviet-made SA 7 Strela anti-aircraft missile over Gaza. The event was followed by the reported Israeli strike on the Yarmouk military complex in Khartoum on October 23.
With the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, that marked the beginning of the Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has up the ante against Mursi’s government. If the Gaza operation continues and civilian causalities increase, Egypt’s government will come under mounting pressure to react. And, it will be expected to respond by more than simply symbolic gestures, like recalling its Ambassador from Israel or sending its Prime Minister to Gaza.
As compared to the 2008 situation, Egypt will not be able to keep the Rafah border closed. If and when Israel launches a ground operation into Gaza as it has threatened, the country will come under even more public pressure. If Egyptian leadership fails to match its rhetoric with action, they risk loosing credibility swiftly and will be compared to the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Sinai-based Salafi Jihadi group, Al Salafiyya al Jihadiyya has already emphasized on Egyptian Army “If you cannot defend your brothers and your people in Gaza, at least let those who can do so and do not watch and fight them. So if you do not fight the Jews, (at least) do not be of help to them.”
On the other hand, Egypt worsening fiscal health has its hands tied down. Just before the commencement of the Israeli operation, EU had approved $6.4 billion in financial assistance to jump-start the Egyptian economy.
Turkey, Qatar, And Gaza
The situation of Turkey is also different this time compared to the 2008-09 Gaza conflict, mainly because of its preoccupation with the worsening Syrian situation. Turkey is asking NATO for the deployment of patriot missiles on its border with Syria. Despite all of this, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey have recently been trying to increase their influence with Hamas.
Prime Minister Erdogan commented on Friday that he planned to visit Gaza soon, a move opposed by the US as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated, “This visit will not be favorable to advance the cause of peace and security in the region. We urge all parties to play a constructive role to bring all parties to the negotiation table.”
On the other hand, the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani made a special trip to Gaza on October 23, the same day Israeli struck army depots in Sudan, becoming the first head of state to visit since 2007. On his six-hour trip, he announced the country will spend $400 million to rebuild Gaza. Some interpreted the move as an attempt to divide Palestinians between Hamas-controlled Gaza and West Bank under Fatah.
Reportedly, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmer commented after the emir’s visit, “Most of the money that he’s (Qatar) pouring in Gaza will go to Hamas pockets, directly or indirectly. You think that will encourage them to hold national elections?”
However, the Qatari emir’s recent statement sums up where the Gulf nations stand,
“The peace process is not working, the Quartet (the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia) is not working… We are not declaring war, we want a peaceful process… I’m not talking about war, I know our capabilities… I’m talking about standing by our Palestinian brothers,” he said.
Syria, Hamas And Gaza Crisis
The moves by Turkey and Qatar were meant to counter the leverage of Iran and to prevent exactly the kind of dreadful scenario that Egypt, Turkey, and other Gulf states are now likely to find themselves in. If the current Gaza crisis prolongs and civilian casualties mount, domestic backlash can be serious. Media reports indicate that four-way talks were held on November 17 between Mursi, Qatari emir, Erdogan, and Hamas leader Khaled Mishal in Cairo, and headway was made towards establishing another truce with Israel. From all this, the Middle East heavyweight, Saudi Arabia was curiously absent. It has also been conspicuously quiet on the recent Gaza flare-up.
It should be noted that Khaled Mishal recently left his refuge in Syria, as a consequence of Assad’s harsh tactics against the Sunni opposition, and is now based in Qatar. Major Gulf powers, Egypt, and Turkey are succeeding in moving Hamas from the axis of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. However, while these powers are supporting the jihadist in removing Assad from Syria, it remains unclear if they will provide similar assistance to Hamas against Israel. And, if Gaza crisis prolongs, this irony could very well ignite a few more Arab revolts.