Feb 8th 2018
Gaza and the Golan Heights
THINGS are eerily quiet outside the caged walkway that cuts through the no-man’s-land separating Israel from Gaza. But there is increasing talk of war on both sides of the expanse, and elsewhere around Israel. “Every day there is aggression and terror [by Israel],” says Daoud Shihab of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian armed group that has fired rockets into Israel. “The situation could explode at any moment.” Some of Gaza’s leaders believe Israel will use a coming military exercise with America as cover for an attack. They put the chances of a new war at 95%, according to Al Hayat, an Arabic newspaper.
The Israelis see things differently. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), reportedly told the cabinet that Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, might start a war if life in the coastal enclave does not improve. It has been under siege by Israel and Egypt for over a decade. Tensions increased after Donald Trump, America’s president, recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6th. The IDF has responded to rocket fire from Gaza with air strikes.
There is talk of impending conflicts on Israel’s northern borders, too. On January 28th the IDF’s spokesman, Ronen Manelis, wrote an op-ed, published by Lebanese websites, in which he warned Lebanon not to allow Iran to produce precision missiles in the country. Israel has repeatedly struck Iranian arms convoys bound for Lebanon. The IDF has been training on the northern front. “As we have proven in recent years...our security red lines are clearly demarcated,” wrote General Manelis. “The choice is yours, people of Lebanon.”
The Lebanese government opposes Israeli plans to build a wall along the border, claiming it will encroach on Lebanese territory. It says it will pursue the issue in international forums, but Hizbullah, which is part of the government, has reportedly threatened to attack Israeli soldiers on the frontier. All of Lebanon will pay if Hizbullah goes to war with Israel, warns Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defence minister.
The winds blowing across Mount Avital, in the Golan Heights, carry yet more talk of war. Israeli soldiers look down into Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s forces sit one town away from rebels in old Quneitra. Bled by seven years of fighting, the Syrian army is not seen as a threat, but Israel is concerned that the forces which propped up the Assad regime are establishing strongholds in Syria. It has told Hizbullah and Iran to stay out of the area. On February 6th Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, toured Mount Avital, warning Israel’s enemies “not to test us”.
For all the bluster, no one seems eager to start shooting. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the group took over Gaza in 2006. To avoid a fourth, General Eisenkot is said to have told the cabinet to do more to ease the suffering in Gaza.
Hamas may merely be using its war talk to draw attention to Gaza’s misery. The siege and sanctions imposed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which runs the West Bank, has left the enclave short of electricity, drinking water and food. A deal between Hamas and the PA was meant to hand administrative control of Gaza to the PA, which in turn would lift the sanctions. But officials in Gaza say Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the PA, is dragging his feet. (The PA sees it the other way around.)
In the north Hizbullah would probably like to regroup, after nearly seven years of fighting in Syria. Lebanon was so badly damaged during the group’s previous war with Israel, in 2006, that Hizbullah’s leaders regret provoking it. Hizbullah is not ready for another conflict, but it is adding to its arsenal of guided missiles. The IDF may feel forced to forestall this build-up.
Mr Assad also seems more interested in consolidating his position at home than starting a new war (which he would lose). And the Iranian public is already pressing the regime in Tehran to end its foreign adventures. Israel says it will hit Iranian bases if Iran tries to entrench itself in Syria.
However, with everyone on edge, it may not take much to start a conflict. A rocket from Gaza, an air strike by Israel, a bullet from Hizbullah—any of these could ignite the next one. Bismarck famously predicted that “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” would start a European war (he was eventually proved right in 1914). In the Levant it may be some damned foolish thing on the border.