Attacks from Gaza on Israel have ramped up significantly in the last several days. An Israeli patrol was hit by what was thought to be a roadside bomb on Tuesday (three were wounded), near the border fence with Gaza. On Saturday, terrorists in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep with four infantrymen in it, as the patrol operated in the area of the roadside bomb attack. The four soldiers were wounded, one severely. More than 80 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel since the attack on the jeep on Saturday, 10 November. At least three Israeli civilians were injured in the rocket attacks.
Geography is beginning to rear its head again, as Israel has also sustained incursions into the Golan from Syria in recent days. On Sunday, Israel fired “warning shots” into Syria after the latest incursion, which involved mortar rounds from Syria landing in the Golan.
Egypt is seeking to broker another soon-to-be-violated ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, but on Israel’s Egyptian flank, the stakes are being raised by “non-state actors.” On Sunday, unidentified “gunmen” opened fire on an Egyptian security forces camp near the border with Israel in the northeastern Sinai. Security in the Sinai has been a major – and legitimate – concern for Egypt since before the Arab Spring began; Iranian-sponsored subversives were identified as operating there while Mubarak was still in power, and as recently as August 2012, terrorists in the Sinai attempted to use stolen Egyptian military equipment to ram structures at the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israel.
Israel has responded to the attacks from Gaza with air attacks on the terrorists’ infrastructure, as well as an immediate counter-attack against the position of the anti-tank missile launcher on Saturday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Israel won’t hesitate to launch a Gaza operation, presumably similar to Cast Lead in early 2009.
A month ago, The Israel Project published an excellent analysis pointing out that the posture of Hamas in Gaza was very much like its aggressive posture in 2008, from militarizing civilian facilities like mosques to unifying Gaza-based terror groups under its political leadership. In terms of the latter, an armed faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the missile attack on the jeep on Saturday, along with Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. It is quite possible that both groups are acting under Hamas’s operational leadership at the moment.
Changing conditions for peace
The Arab Spring has changed the factors in this dynamic since the timeframe of Operation Cast Lead, however. In January of 2009, Israel didn’t face the prospect of a significant remilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula. Today, she does. No one nation or event has created the situation that now exists, but it could be something of a Catch-22 for decision-makers in Jerusalem. Crack down on Gaza hard enough, and the resulting spillover into the Sinai will give Mohammed Morsi legitimate reasons to increase his military presence there. Yet Israel doesn’t have the option of simply allowing Hamas to ramp up its attacks on civilians across the south – or on Israeli infantry patrols, for that matter.
Could Israel get an explicit, enforceable agreement from Morsi to coordinate each and every military deployment into the Sinai, so that Israel would effectively have a veto over deployments she considered too dangerous? It doesn’t matter that those are essentially the terms of the treaty. Morsi is a new ball-game. Nothing is clear right now, partly because we don’t know how fast Morsi wants to move on his ideological designs on Jerusalem – and partly because it isn’t clear what the United States will do.
The US was the essential third leg of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace accord, and our affirmation of interest in it is the only thing that will keep it in force, at least for a time, if Egypt decides it’s better to start maneuvering around the treaty than to honor it straightforwardly. During Egypt’s turmoil in the first half of 2011, President Obama did not reaffirm that the 1979 accord was a core national security interest of the United States – a measure that would have been simple, basic statesmanship. His administration has been virtually silent on the subject.
The point here is not to assert that Obama doesn’t care about the treaty and will stand by passively as it is contravened. The point is that we don’t knowwhat he’ll do. My own assessment is that what he does will depend on how Morsi handles an effective treaty breach. If Morsi’s words meet the criteria by which Team Obama’s ideologues judge foreign actors, the US Congress may be the last stand in the United States for the principle of the 1979 accord – which could be breached by inches, with small, day-to-day tactical choices, without anyone ever announcing that that’s the intention.