The spread of conflict and violence across the Middle East is dampening widespread hopes of an “Arab Spring” that followed the peaceful ousters of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain have taken on an increasingly bitter sectarian character, especially with the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the uprising in Libya has degenerated into an all-out civil war compounded by an international no-fly zone intervention. Meanwhile, the situations in Yemen and Syria continue to deteriorate, suggesting that the relatively bloodless revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia may be more difficult to replicate than was initially hoped.
And now, with escalating violence between Israel and Palestinians — punctuated on March 23 with the bombing of a Jerusalem bus station that killed one Israeli woman — another potentially dangerous flashpoint may be emerging that could further push the region away from orderly democratic reform.
A quiet tit-for-tat war between Israel and Hamas has been brewing along the Gaza border for almost two weeks and appears very close to spiraling out of control. For the first time in many months, rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes have killed numerous Palestinians, including children and the elderly. Perhaps the most horrifying incident was the murder of an entire settler family in their beds in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, which has been widely assumed to be the work of Palestinian extremists, though Hamas denies any connection to the attack.
Even against their better judgment, Israeli politicians might again feel the need to retaliate for these attacks with a wide-scale assault on Gaza with ground forces — a replay of Operation Cast Lead, which was launched in December 2008. That conflict resulted in enormous devastation and loss of life in Gaza. The war also had extremely damaging political effects for Israel, as it led to widespread international condemnation and the Goldstone report, which accused the Israel Defense Forces of committing war crimes during the conflict.
A redux of Operation Cast Lead could have a major impact on the popular uprisings and reform movement sweeping the Arab world. The last war in Gaza created a powerful narrative in certain sections of Arab public opinion that cast the region as being the scene of a historic conflict between “the martyrs” (largely Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah and their small but vocal left-nationalist supporters), who were prepared to struggle and die against Israel and Western imperialism, and “the traitors” (pro-Western Arab governments and the Palestine Liberation Organization). Even more dangerously, it implied a corrective corollary: The “martyrs” should defeat the “traitors” and install Islamist governments, which would be supportive of “resistance” movements and take a generally hostile attitude toward the Western presence in the Middle East.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and many other Arab states is that they have not adopted this narrative or Islamist ideology, but rather have been based on patriotism, social consciousness, and demands for democracy and accountability. In Egypt in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood has wisely kept to the sidelines, understanding that the anti-government movement was secular, ecumenical, and patriotic, rather than Islamist. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood is obviously hoping to benefit from the newly opened political space and early elections, and is stealthily inching toward a more prominent role in shaping the new Egyptian order.
The Qatari-based Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has been emerging as the regional spearhead of efforts to spin the Arab reform movement in a more Islamist direction. Most notably, Qaradawi’sspeech on Feb. 18 in Tahrir Square was strikingly bold in its use of buzzwords that implied the need for an Islamist orientation to Egypt’s political future. While Qaradawi denounced “this cursed sectarianism” and was very conciliatory toward Coptic Christians, he explained the revolution in almost entirely Islamic terms. “Be on your guard against the hypocrites, who are ready to put on, every day, a new face, and to speak with a new tongue,” he warned, employing rhetoric typically used to denounce secularists and opponents of Islamist politics.
The Islamists’ attempt to carefully move toward seizing the reins of these popular movements is not limited to Egypt. The anti-government protests have been overtly Islamist in Jordan, while in Bahrain, radical Shiite Islamist opposition groups like the al-Haq party have rapidly risen to prominence.
Whatever the reason for Hamas’s obvious lack of restraint in recent weeks, it is not helping the party’s reputation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Its popularity among Palestinians continues to decline: A mid-March opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research had Hamas support at a mere 33 percent of people in Gaza and 21 percent in the West Bank. Fatah, on the other hand, enjoys 42 percent support in Gaza and 39 percent in the West Bank. Hamas’s brutal crackdown on national unity rallies in Gaza on March 15, including the killing of at least one female protester, further discredited the organization. Perhaps Hamas hopes that another confrontation with Israel would bolster its foundering domestic credentials.
Israel’s own overreaction through its excessive bombing campaign in Gaza may partly be driven by anxieties exacerbated by regional instability, but its right-wing government in Jerusalem may also see advantages to shifting attention to another violent confrontation with Islamists. Israeli leaders have made no secret of their deep distrust of the Arab reform movement and their anxiety about democratic governments in the Arab world. It’s no stretch to imagine that Israel has concluded that it is better able to live with autocratic governments than secular, ecumenical, and democratic ones. And, of course, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed any opportunity to focus on security questions and place everything else on the back burner, as happened during the short-lived direct negotiations with the PLO last year. This wouldn’t be the first time the Israeli right and Hamas rode to each other’s rescue under the guise of conflict.
Another war between Israel and Hamas would, however, likely result in a lose-lose scenario for both sides. As with the last round, it would probably yield at best short-term political benefits but no long-term strategic changes, particularly because Israel is not prepared to fully reoccupy the Gaza Strip.
Even more worrying, a new war in Gaza could join the civil war in Libya, the sectarian confrontation in Bahrain, and the looming potential disintegration of Yemen in casting a negative pallor over what ought to be the beginning of an Arab political renaissance. It could set anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments into motion that have been largely absent from the productive impulses for reform in the region. It could also add to the sense that, however inspiring the Egyptian and Tunisian experiences may have been, subsequent developments risk spreading chaos — thereby bolstering tolerance for the status quo.
The saving grace of the Arab Spring is that the movement for reform is based on domestic considerations — accountability, good governance, democracy, and human rights. Even another bloody war between Israel and Hamas cannot avert attention from those grievances for long. Arab citizens likely know that agitating for good governance and accountability isn’t a panacea for all regional ills and that it can sometimes be a bloody process, as the examples of Libya and Yemen show. Moreover, they realize that Islamism, while it has its constituency, is both divisive and a political dead end.
If Israel and Hamas believe it is in their interests to start — or find themselves unable to avoid — another mutually self-destructive conflict, it certainly won’t aid the process of Arab reform and democratization, and raises some very troubling concerns about its future. But there’s almost no chance a resurgence of the Israel-Hamas conflict can stop the reform movement dead in its tracks either.