The Gaza conundrum: To invade or not to invade

Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst explains the ramifications of escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

At least 98 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded since the campaign began [Reuters]

Why the escalation in Gaza now?

The pretexts for any war or violence can be seen in two ways: explicit short-term justifications, and implicit longer-term explanations. The recent escalation over Gaza can be seen within this framework as follows:

First, there are the immediate factors that are publically pronounced but strategically less significant. The usual examples cited: “We’re acting in self-defence”; “protecting our citizens”; “they’ve started it first”; “no other government would accept that rockets rain down on its people.” So far, Israel has done a far better job than the Palestinians making a case for war even when it’s the occupying power. This is reinforced by the ABC-type western news media, that shows Israel defending itself against the aggression of the besieged Palestinians, even when the evidence or images tell otherwise.

The long term, less conspicuous but strategically significant goals include: improving one’s own strategic deterrence; weakening the enemy’s military bombast; breaking out of diplomatic isolation; and reaching a more conducive ceasefire of political arrangement.

Considering that war is all too often the continuation of politics or diplomacy by other means, it’s rather expected that force would be used to accomplish what diplomacy fails to achieve. War fills the political void resulting from a deadlocked diplomatic process, otherwise still known as the “Peace Process” in Western newspeak.

All parties involved in the current escalation should know from the experience of the 2008 and 2012 wars, that the ongoing assault would lead to more of the same paralysis. And yet Benjamin Netanyahu and his Israeli coalition government believe military grandstanding could produce more favourable, albeit temporary, arrangements.

But what could Israel or the Palestinians possibly achieve by such senseless violence?

The Netanyahu government probably believes it has the most to gain for a number of reasons:

For one, Israel hopes the assault will marginalise the Palestinian national unity government between Fatah and Hamas which, to Netanyahu’s irritation, received the green light from Israel’s western backers.

Secondly, the assault helps Netanyahu maintain his coalition government. Its most extreme wing seeks to act aggressively in the occupied territories in order to expand the illegal settlements and punish Mahmoud Abbas for daring to choose the UN recognition and national unity with Hamas.

Third, the assault could help Israel break out of its diplomatic isolation after the US – its foremost international backer – blamed Israel equally if not more than the PLO for ruining the chances to reach an interim framework agreement. Now that the assault is under way, the Obama administration is stressing Israel’s “right to defend itself” and is likely to come back to help bring about a ceasefire.

Lastly, Netanyahu believes the regional landscape, especially in Egypt, provides an opportunity for an attack. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose offshoot Hamas operates in Palestine, provides Israel with a strategic opportunity to weaken this Islamist movement.

The Israeli prime minister sees the Egyptian president as a strategic ally in the so-called “war on terror” and calculates that Sisi is happy to see the Muslim Brotherhood weakened anywhere in the region, no less in next door in the Gaza Strip.

As for the Palestinians, the situation is dire and escalation costly, even for the many in Gaza, for whom it couldn’t get much worse.

However, if Hamas and the other factions endure, and Israel is unable to achieve its military objectives, the movement could see improvement in its rather poor standing among the Palestinians and in the region.

Its capacity to produce and shoot short and long range rockets that reach Israel’s main cities has already shocked and confused the Israeli military.

Secondly, a US-sponsored, Egypt-mediated ceasefire is expected to result from any standoff, which could potentially benefit Hamas and force Israel to fulfill the largely unfulfilled commitments it made during previous ceasefires and prisoner exchange agreements, or at least force it to make new commitments.

Third, Hamas calculates it could potentially benefit from direct Egyptian mediation by calming the tensions with the Sisi regime and reducing its hostility towards the movement, such as by lifting the siege on Gaza and opening of the crossings with Egypt.

And finally, Abbas is bound to lose if the escalation continues to spiral and lead to another popular uprising. He is vehemently opposed to a third Intifada and considers the security arrangements with Israel indispensable because of the stability it provides for his regime and country. However, if the confrontations end quickly, the US will once again try to pump him up as the only alternative to the senseless violence.

What future then for Israel Palestine? Will there be an invasion in Gaza?

While the escalation (and its ramifications) might help Israeli and Palestinian leaders deflect criticism for failing to achieve peace or security to their people, it ultimately won’t advance the cause of peace and security any bit.

That’s why Israeli government’s approval of calling up of 40,000 reservist troops is worrisome. It’s costly for the Israeli economy and society and further escalates the conflict. But it remains to be seen whether the stakes are politically nudging the US and Egypt to intervene diplomatically on Israel’s behalf- or military.

It’s not clear what Israel’s military objectives are if it invades. Former PM Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza because Israel wanted to separate for good from the oldest, most populated and impoverished refugee camp in the region, indeed the world. An all-out invasion and occupation of Gaza would be too costly and too stupid.

However, judging from its history in Lebanon and Gaza, the Israeli leadership is more than capable of carrying out such follies. Israel might also try tactical incursions, which also proved futile in the past.

Meanwhile, the escalation is causing more tension and violence, which in turn is bound to deepen hostilities and push peace further into the distance. The latter begins only with lifting the Israeli siege, freeing the Palestinians, and ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

As long as the occupation persists, it will continue to breed violence, instability and hatred on both sides. Considering that the entire region is in turmoil, if not falling apart, there is less will to make a regional push for real solution.

Worse yet, Israel’s western backers, who should be using their leverage to nudge Israel to lessen tension, have shown mounting indifference. This week, even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded like a State Department official.

Yes, like all states Israel does have the right to defend itself and protect its citizens. However, that right doesn’t extend to protecting its occupation and defending its settlements at any cost, including to its own citizens.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

Follow him on Twitter: @marwanbishara