Following days of rocket attacks into southern Israel, Israel launched a series of deadly airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, killing Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari amid a broader military campaign. Coming against the backdrop of warming relations between Hamas and other regional powers, the offensive is testing Israel’s relations with key U.S. allies such as Egypt, which promptly recalled its ambassador to Israel.
Mouin Rabbani, an independent Middle East analyst based in Jordan, and Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the Middle East program of the International Crisis Group based in Israel, both told Trend Lines in email interviews that Israel’s Gaza operation is likely to lead other regional powers to expand their support for the Gaza-based Hamas.
“Efforts to engage Hamas play well with public opinion in Turkey, Egypt and the wider Middle East,” said Thrall. “If, as seems likely, this operation increases public sympathy for Hamas, it will make engagement only more attractive.”
Rabbani agreed that the Israeli action will work to Hamas’ advantage. “Its external friends and allies will need to show more open and visible support for the movement under these circumstances,” he said.
“If anything, public opinion in Egypt and Turkey will compel Cairo and Ankara to go further in support of Hamas, and against Israel, than either of these governments may wish or deem prudent,” Rabbani said. “Public opinion has never been a constraining factor on governments when it comes to support of the Palestinian people,” he continued. “It is rather that governments have defied public opinion in their relations with Israel and their tepid support of the Palestinians.”
Thrall said that Hamas is “quite popular” in Egypt, where rallies for Gaza have been held since the onset of the Arab Spring.
But this latest offensive in Gaza could be a turning point for already strained relations between Israel and Egypt, with Hamas and the new Islamist leadership in Egypt poised to expand ties.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who faces a delicate balance between respecting the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and maintaining close ties with Hamas, sent his prime minister to Gaza today.
With the Muslim Brotherhood now in power in Egypt, Rabbani explained, all eyes are on Morsi to demonstrate “in word and deed that Egyptian policy toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict has changed” since the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“Arguably, Israel is also seeking to test the new Egypt with its latest assault on Gaza,” he continued, adding that Hamas will likely leverage its position to seek greater Egyptian concessions on the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
Israel’s operation is likely to contribute to the shift of internal power within Hamas toward its leaders in Gaza at the expense of its exiled leadership, which was recently forced to decamp from Damascus due to the Syrian civil war.
“The relative weight of the Gaza leadership has been on the increase, which reflects the Gaza leadership's physical control of the Gaza Strip and responsibility or governance there, the severe pressure on the West Bank leadership by Israel and the [Palestinian Authority], and also the exile leadership's loss of Damascus as a base of operations and nexus of funding for the movement,” Rabbani said. “Under the current circumstances, I would expect that the leadership in Gaza is calling the shots, on the basis of the principle that they are there and on the ground, though hardly in total isolation from other elements in the movement.”
Agreeing that Hamas’ decision-making is currently being run through Gaza, Thrall added, “Hamas has established joint operations rooms with other factions in Gaza.”
While a rift between the United States and Israel over this operation is unlikely, Thrall said, “The real source of strain will come from American and Israeli relations with Egypt, a U.S. ally that is now sending its prime minister to Gaza while rockets are being launched from there.”