Gaza assault diverts int’l attention from Syrian war

November 25, 2012, Sunday/ 13:56:00/ GÖZDE NUR DONAT

The Syrian regime under the rule of Bashar al-Assad has benefitted from the diversion of diplomatic and media attention from their 20-month offensive against the Syrian people to the eight days of Israeli shelling in the Gaza Strip that killed 161 Palestinians, Middle East experts have claimed.

 “As the conflict between Gaza and Israel intensified into a ground war, Assad benefitted from the diversion of international attention, media reporting and diplomatic efforts,” said Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College in London.

Israel launched the Gaza offensive on Nov. 14, unleashing 1,500 air strikes on Hamas-linked targets. Israel also destroyed key symbols of Hamas power, such as the prime minister’s office, rocket launching sites and Gaza police stations.

It was the worst fighting since the Israeli invasion of Gaza four years ago, international media outlets have reported. A cease-fire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers took hold on Thursday after eight days of conflict, although deep mistrust on both sides casts doubt on how long the Egyptian-sponsored deal can last.

According to the cease-fire agreement, Israel and Hamas consent to halt “all hostilities.” For the Palestinians, that means an end to Israeli airstrikes and assassinations of wanted militants. For Israel, it brings a halt to the rocket fire and attempts at cross-border incursions from Gaza.

After a 24-hour cooling-off period, the cease-fire calls for “opening the border crossings and facilitating the movement of people and the transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movement.” That could amount to the biggest easing of Israel’s blockade of Gaza since it cut the territory off from much of the world five years ago. Hamas officials said details on the new border arrangements would have to be negotiated.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime’s brutal offensive on civilian targets has continued at full strength during the past week. Syrian-based human rights groups have reported that hundreds of civilian deaths took place under regime shelling, particularly in Aleppo and Damascus. What’s more, the analysts do not see any change in the long-term state of the Syrian crisis.

Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), maintained that there would not be any change in the posture of international actors with regard to the Syrian crisis.

“I think the hope for a change in the US position following the elections was misplaced. There’s no discernible change on the two issues of arming the rebels and creating a no-fly zone, and judging from official statements, that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future,” Badran noted in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman.

The latest assault on Gaza has prompted claims that the nationalist right in Israel is hoping to mobilize its voting base in the Jewish state, making an investment for the upcoming January elections. Turkish state officials also made similar claims in criticism directed at Israel.

“There must not be such a bloody investment in the elections,” President Abdullah Gül said last week as part of a series of public condemnations of the Israeli assault.

On the other hand, the latest Israeli assault is also seen as a sign of standing firm against the rising support that Hamas has begun to enjoy in the Middle East in countries including Egypt, Qatar and Kuwait. Hamas has long been isolated by those US ally Gulf states but is now embraced by much of the region.

Hamas is the Palestinian arm of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political group. Since taking office in June, Morsi has received Hamas leaders in Cairo and has repeatedly vowed to stand by the Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel. That is a significant break from the policy of Mubarak, who helped Israel blockade Gaza after Hamas took over the territory in 2007. Morsi has largely opened Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza for Palestinians to enter and exit.

“The Muslim Brotherhood assuming power in Egypt came as a relief to Hamas in a way. This Israeli strike could be read as a signal to Egypt saying that I [Israel] won’t make any changes in my aggressive Hamas policy,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) has claimed.

As a sign of the rising popularity of Hamas among the Gulf states, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has also made a landmark visit to Gaza last week.  Al-Thani has become the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip five years ago.

Israel, which branded Hamas as a terrorist organization for its suicide bombings and strikes on Israeli civilian targets, denounced the visit.

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