The next Middle East war will probably be a reprieve of the last, a second war in Gaza, only this time even more violent and destabilizing for the entire region. The first Gaza war last January left unfinished business and a humanitarian catastrophe. The next war may be started by an Al-Qaeda-inspired Gazan faction of the global Islamic jihad against the wishes of Hamas, with Al-Qaeda one of the major beneficiaries.
Since Hamas staged its coup d etat in Gaza in 2007, it has faced opposition from even more radical Islamists who oppose any ceasefire with Israel and want to engage in jihad immediately. These groups are getting stronger, feeding on the frustration of a million and a half Gazans who see their lives becoming ever more grim and have little or no hope of a better future. The jihadis promise a better life through martyrdom. They know they cannot defeat Israel yet but they prefer to fight rather than live under siege. Some have now openly associated themselves with Al-Qaeda and its global Islamic jihadist message.
It is safe to assume that contacts are being developed between these jihadis in Gaza and the Al-Qaeda core in Pakistan. We know some volunteers from the global jihad have gone to Gaza; at least one Saudi was killed in the first war. Al-Qaeda gloried in the first Gaza war as a propaganda triumph because it demonstrated to the Islamic world that the new American president-elect, Barack Hussein Obama, was unwilling to criticize Israel when it attacked Palestinians. For Osama bin Laden this was not change you can believe in but the same old Zionist-Crusader alliance.
Another Gaza war would be another gift to Al-Qaeda. It could start this way. A jihadist cell ambushes an IDF patrol on the border of Gaza, killing several and capturing one or two. By the time the ambush takes place, let s say on the anniversary of 9/11 in September 2010, Hamas will have already done a huge prisoner deal with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu s government, exchanging dozens of Hamas killers for Gilad Shalit who was captured in a similar ambush in 2006.
The Israeli government will have to respond forcefully, especially given intense Israeli public criticism over the Shalit deal. Many in the IDF and the Shabak (Internal Security Service) will urge the prime minister to finish the job begun in January 2009. Air power will be accompanied by major ground incursions to cut off the Strip from Egypt, surround major population centers and break Hamas hold on Gazans. It may take a month or more.
Hamas will try to avoid the war by cracking down on the jihadist Al-Qaeda sympathizers. But it cannot return captured Israeli soldiers for nothing, especially after the Shalit deal. Whether Hamas wants a war or not, the jihadis will have outmaneuvered it. Many in the military wing of Hamas will probably want to fight, having spent the last year and a half preparing for another round.
The imagery of war, captured by Al-Jazeera and by Al-Sahab (the Qaeda media arm), will be awful. Even with the greatest care, war in an urban arena means terrible suffering for the innocent. In the first Gaza war, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri broadcast repeated messages calling Obama a Zionist warlord, ridiculing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for doing nothing to help Hamas, and Saudi Arabia for being a closet ally of Israel. Expect more of the same. A bloody Israeli invasion of Gaza resisted by jihadi martyrs would radicalize the Islamic world and send new recruits and new funds to the global jihad.
Should Israel succeed in breaking Hamas in the second round, a big if, what will follow? Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are not ready to take over Gaza alone – certainly not when propped up by IDF bayonets. The international community, led by Obama, will have to decide if it is prepared to take on the job of governing Gaza and providing the economic aid to get it back on its feet.
This will mean troops: NATO probably, with a UN mandate; perhaps some Egyptians and Jordanians, too. With NATO s attention focused on Afghanistan, it will be hard to find the numbers needed for a risky mission that could turn ugly, with both sides blaming the peacekeepers for any mistakes. Of course, the alternative would be Gaza 3.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the Brookings Institution. He advised Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama on the Middle East and South Asia in the National Security Council of the White House. He is the author of The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.