With over 100 now reported killed by Israeli airstrikes, and a further 700 injured, the attack on Gaza is already starting to resemble the 2008-9 ‘Operation Cast Lead’ massacre. A ground invasion is feared, and Israeli politicians are again trotting out the usual Zionist crowd-pleasers about the need to “bomb Gaza back to the Middle Ages” (Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai) and “flatten all of Gaza” (Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad).
Yet the regional situation today is very different to what it was back then. In 2009, the ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas was strong, and Iran took concrete steps to provide military supplies to Hamas at a time when the best any other states had to offer was impotent - and generally hypocritical - ‘condemnation’. As intelligence analysts Stratfor have noted, where “the rest of the region largely avoided direct involvement…. Iran was the exception."
While the Arab regimes ostracized Hamas, Iran worked to sustain the group in its fight.” The report elaborates: “In early January 2009, in the midst of Operation Cast Lead, Israel learned that Iran was allegedly planning to deliver 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, including anti-tank guided missiles and Iranian-made Fajr-3 rockets with a 40-kilometer (25-mile) range and 45-kilogram (99-pound) warhead…The long-range Fajr rocket attacks targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the current conflict are a testament to Iran's continued effort.”
Despite having distanced themselves from the ‘resistance axis’ recently, moving their headquarters out of Damascus and voicing support for the anti-government militias in Syria, Hamas continue to rely on Iranian weapons as their most effective response to Israeli aggression. Indeed, it is precisely these Iranian weapons – the Fajr-5 missiles – that are causing such unprecedented disruptions in Israel, having reached the suburbs of Tel Aviv and forcing the city’s residents into bomb shelters for the first time since 1991. Israelis are not used to their military operations having such a direct impact on their own lives, and it is this aspect of the conflict that has led to, in what is surely a first for Israel, overwhelming Israeli opposition to a ground invasion of Gaza, with less than a third supporting such a move.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians, whilst well-equipped, are in some ways more isolated than ever. Whilst on the face of it, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ should have been good news for Hamas – who are, after all, an offshoot of the Brotherhood themselves – the seeming descent of the Arab Spring into a sectarian conflict directed against the region’s Shia Muslims has actually served to disempower Hamas’ allies, and thus leave Gaza more vulnerable to precisely the attack it is now enduring. More specifically, the ongoing destruction of Syria under the onslaught of armed gangs trained and sponsored by the West and its allies, has crippled a key Palestinian ally, and thus encouraged Israel to believe it can attack with impunity.
As Hezbollah leader Nasrallah (“the smartest guy in the Middle East”, according to former US deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage) noted in a speech last week, “Israel is taking advantage of the turmoil in Syria in its onslaught against Gaza. Today’s aggression is happening in a different context from 2008. In 2008, the Resistance Axis was more capable of extending support to Gaza and the resistance there and this was the case before 2008 and after 2008 and we can see the results of this on the ground today. One of the supply lines to Gaza has now been cut and that is Syria. It can no longer provide logistical support, although it can still take a political stand.
Israel is taking advantage of the fighting in Syria, of the reversal of priorities, of the transformation of enemies into friends and friends into enemies. It sees this as a good opportunity to restore its deterrence and to strike at missile capabilities in Gaza, which Israel is aware will be hard to replace in light of the situation in Syria.” Indeed, with the sectarian attacks taking place in Syria spilling over into Lebanon, Hezbollah itself is similarly in little position to lend the type of support to Gaza that it did in 2006, for example, by opening a second front in response to Israeli shelling of Palestinians. Stratfor again: “Hezbollah will likely be extremely cautious in deciding whether to participate in this war.
The group's fate is linked to that of the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad; should Syria fracture along sectarian lines, Lebanon is likely to descend into civil war, and Hezbollah will have to conserve its strength and resources for a battle at home against its sectarian rivals.”
If Syria does fall, therefore, we can expect to see far more Israeli massacres of the type now currently under way. Not only will Syria be knocked out of the ‘resistance axis’ altogether, and Hezbollah left without a supply line from Iran, but Iran itself will be left isolated and less able to provide the Gazans with the missiles that currently provide their only effective deterrent to a renewed Israeli occupation.
This goes some way to explaining why the Israelis have been so supportive of the Syrian rebels, with Peres and Barak both throwing their weight behind the militias. Syria’s support for Hezbollah, and the link it provides to Iran, has been a key obstacle to Israel’s ability to attack the Palestinians with impunity, and therefore to its ability to unilaterally impose a final settlement on Palestine. For now, the main obstacle to the Israeli diktat remains the Fajr-5.