As violence escalates between Gaza and Israel, some analysts say this is just an old, bloody pattern repeating itself yet again. But others argue the Arab Spring and the Syrian conflict have changed everything.
The situation in Gaza is brutal, desperate, and deadly, but for Husam Zomlot, Palestinian scholar, Middle East specialist, and former research fellow at Harvard University, it is definitely not a war. "A war happens between two countries and between two armies," he told Deutsche Welle from his office in Ramallah. "You can call it an onslaught, you can call it a military campaign, you can call it murder - simply because this is a war that is happening between an occupying army and an occupied people. In international law you don't call it a war, it's as simple as that."
"The situation is very anxious," he said, describing the mood on the West Bank. "There is concern about an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. The consequences of a military ground operation would really be beyond anybody's imagination. We're talking about the deaths of thousands of innocent people. We're talking about the total devastation of a very densely-populated area."
But the consequences for the region could be even worse. Even as the situation escalated in Gaza over the weekend, Israel shelled Syrian fighters across the border in response to what appeared to be stray artillery fire landing in the Golan Heights, potentially renewing old tensions.
Meanwhile, one Arab newspaper, Asharq Alawsat, speculated that the new Gaza tensions were provoked by Iran to deflect international pressure from President Bashar Assad in Syria, where dozens of people are being killed by regime forces every day.
In an editorial entitled "The solution to Gaza…return to Syria," editor-in-chief Tariq Alhomayed wrote, "Unfortunately, wars in our region have become like a race, so each war is to cover another one. In other words, these wars are nothing more than a move to escape forward."
Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po Paris who has just published a new history of Gaza, also thinks one man will be glad to see the exchange of rocket fire in Gaza. "It's very simple and very tragic, as always," he told DW. "The main winner of this crisis is Assad, because now the international community is focussed on another crisis. It's better for him because Hamas supports the revolution, so any weakening of Hamas is good news for Assad."
Temporary relief for the dictator
But Assad's gains are limited, argues Yossi Mekelberg, Middle East specialist at British think tank Chatham House. "I wouldn't say he was the big winner, but the temporary winner," he told DW. "He likes to see that tension, but it still doesn't solve his problems."
Despite the volatility between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, neither side is interested in escalating it. Indeed, Israel has no interest at all in taking a side in the Syrian conflict. "The old order was convenient for Israel - not ideal, but convenient," said Mekelberg. "Some say that it would be best if Assad can just stick around while they are dealing with other things. There is a recognition that the alternative can be Islamist, and that is of course Israel's biggest fear - being surrounded by the Muslim Brotherhood."
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is trying to broker a ceasefire in Gaza, and is enduring criticism from US politicians for favoring Hamas. But the US government itself is scrupulously keeping well clear. "I have the sense that President Obama is still recovering from a two-week hangover after the election," said Mekelberg. "For him, it's time to play the statesman - go to Burma, talk about human rights, that's more his forte. After four years, he realizes that the Middle East is very complicated. I think he or his advisors have reached the conclusion: 'either we need to change the policies to ensure success, or we are guaranteed failure. It won't go away.' "
But though the bloody holding pattern in Israel and Gaza is familiar, one vital factor has changed much in the region - the Arab Spring. "By starting the Pillar of Defense operation against Gaza, Israel is making a big leap into the unknown," Filiu said. "Not because of the military dimension, but because of the political dimension - this is unprecedented."
Zomlot believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a number of mistakes. Apart from underestimating the response of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Zomlot said Netanyahu's biggest error is misjudging the impact of the Arab rebellion. "The Arab Spring has changed governments - there is serious public pressure on each government and each head of state," he said. "There were 500 Egyptian leaders of the revolution in the streets of Gaza yesterday. The Arab Spring is a real game changer. The Israelis haven't seen the strategic shift that it has brought to the conflict."
As for the immediate crisis, Zomlot is optimistic. "I believe there are serious Egyptian efforts to reach a ceasefire, and I believe that there will be some sort of package in the very near future - hours or days," he said.
Despite Zomlot's bullishness, the optimism turns to weary pessimism in the long-term, at least for Mekelberg. "You see the increasing military capabilities of both sides. They will hurt each other worse and worse," he said. "The only way out of it is a viable political process, and if they won't do it, they will just keep inflicting pain on each other. It's the same with the whole Middle East - they move from crisis to crisis, but the underlying issues are never dealt with."
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