Skip to main content

This time, Gaza fighting is 'proxy war' for entire Mideast

By Josh Levs, CNN
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Gaza conflict is a proxy war for the Middle East, analysts say
  • Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are seen as supporting Israel's crackdown on Hamas
  • Turkey and Qatar support Hamas
  • Hamas is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, which threatens some governments

(CNN) -- The conflict raging in Gaza is different this time.

While Hamas' rocket attacks and Israel's military actions may look familiar, they're taking place against a whole new backdrop.

"This is unprecedented in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict," says CNN's Ali Younes, an analyst who has covered the region for decades. "Most Arab states are actively supporting Israel against the Palestinians -- and not even shy about it or doing it discreetly."

It's a "joint Arab-Israeli war consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia against other Arabs -- the Palestinians as represented by Hamas."

As the New York Times put it, "Arab leaders, viewing Hamas as worse than Israel, stay silent."

Most Arab states are actively supporting Israel.
CNN's Ali Younes, Mideast analyst

One of the outcomes of the fighting will likely be "the end of the old Arab alliance system that has, even nominally, supported the Palestinians and their goal of establishing a Palestinian state," Younes says.

"The Israel-Hamas conflict has laid bare the new divides of the Middle East," says Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's no longer the Muslims against the Jews. Now it's the extremists -- the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and their backers Iran, Qatar and Turkey -- against Israel and the more moderate Muslims including Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia."

"It's a proxy war for control or dominance in the Middle East," says CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

To understand why and what all this means, we need to begin with understanding of Hamas.

Zakaria: Gaza is 'proxy war' for Mideast

Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood

Erdogan criticizes Egypt's approach to Gaza
Is Qatar backing Hamas?
Stars face backlash over Mideast remarks
Conflicto en Gaza

Hamas, which has controlled the Palestinian government in Gaza for years, is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. To many Americans, the brotherhood is familiar for its central role in the power struggle for Egypt. But it's much larger than that.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is international, with affiliated groups in more than 70 countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE," says Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Arab Spring showed the region that uprisings can lead to the Brotherhood gaining power. So it's a threat to the governments it opposes.

"Israel's ongoing battle against Hamas is part of a wider regional war on the Muslim Brotherhood," says the Soufan Group, which tracks global security. "Most Arab states share Israel's determination to finish the movement off once and for all, but they are unlikely to be successful."

"From the perspective of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and some other Arab states, what the Israeli Prime Minister is doing is fighting this war against Hamas on their behalf so they can finish the last stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood," Younes says.

"Arab governments and official Arab media have all but adopted the Israeli view of who is a terrorist and who is not. Egyptian and Saudi-owned media are liberal in labeling the Muslim Brotherhood as 'terrorists' and describing Hamas as a 'terrorist organization.' It's a complete turnabout from the past, when Arab states fought Israel and the U.S. in the international organizations on the definition of terrorism, and who is a terrorist or a 'freedom fighter.'"

Egypt

Egypt's new President vowed during his campaign that he would finish off the Muslim Brotherhood. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former military chief, deposed Egypt's first freely elected leader, President Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood, last year following mass protests against Morsy's rule.

El-Sisi was elected officially in June.

"In Egypt you have a regime that came to power by toppling a Muslim Brotherhood government," says Trager. "It's therefore in an existential conflict with the Brotherhood. So it doesn't want to see Hamas, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, emerge stronger in a neighboring territory."

Egypt also has another reason to stand against Hamas: rising violence and instability in Sinai, the northern part of Egypt that borders Israel and Gaza. Hamas' network of tunnels includes some in and out of Egypt used to smuggle goods include weapons for attackson Israeli civilians.

It's part of a regional war on the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Soufan Group, which tracks global security

The new Egyptian government has been "cracking down aggressively since it removed the brotherhood from power," Trager says.

El-Sisi closed the border crossings between Egypt and Gaza, which has helped block Hamas militants from escaping or smuggling in more weapons during Israel's onslaught. But it also has contributed to the humanitarian crisis of people trapped in Gaza.

Egypt proposed a cease-fire, and Israel quickly accepted it -- indicating that it contained the terms Israel was looking for, analysts say. Hamas rejected it. While Egypt has worked furiously to try to broker a truce in the past, Cairo this time shows little rush to change its proposal to one much more favorable to Hamas, analysts say.

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan

The monarchies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have called on Hamas to accept the cease-fire proposal as is.

"We condemn the Israeli aggression and we support the Egyptian cease-fire proposal," Jordan's King Abdullah said last week.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are "challenged by Islamists who come to power via the ballot box rather than through royal succession," says Trager.

The Saudis and Egyptians are more scared of Islamic fundamentalism than they are of Israel.
CNN's Fareed Zakaria

"So these countries have been directly supportive of the coup in Egypt because it removed elected Islamists and therefore discredited that model."

Saudi Arabia is "leading the charge," partly through backing the coup and financing state media reports that attacked the brotherhood, says Younes.

"Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all see the destruction of Hamas as of benefit to their internal security as well as to regional stability."

"The Saudis and the Egyptians are now more scared of Islamic fundamentalism than they are of Israel," says Zakaria.

"The Saudi monarchy is more worried about the prospects of Hamas winning, which would embolden Islamists in other parts of the Middle East, and therefore potentially an Islamist opposition in Saudi Arabia."

But Hamas is not alone.

Turkey and Qatar

Turkey and Qatar remain supportive of Hamas.

Qatar supported Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government, and built "an Egypt-centric Al Jazeera network that became known for its strongly pro-Muslim Brotherhood line," says Trager.

Qatar also funds many Muslim Brotherhood figures in exile, including Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal, who is believed to have orchestrated numerous Hamas terrorist attacks.

"I think this is a case of a country with a lot of money to burn making a certain calculation in 2011 that made a lot of sense at the time: that the Brotherhood was the next big thing that was going to dominate many of the countries of the region," says Trager. "Realistically, it made sense to bet on it."

Turkey has "more of an ideological sympathy with the Brotherhood," he says.

Erdogan has tried to use the cause of the Brotherhood to bolster his own Islamist credentials.
Eric Trager, Washington Institute

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with CNN, accusing Israel of "genocide."

"Erdogan has tried to use the cause of the Brotherhood to bolster his own Islamist credentials at home," says Trager. Last year, Erdogan cracked down on mass demonstrations in his country.

Iran and Syria

Iran has long supported Hamas, supplying it with weapons. And Meshaal used to be based in Syria.

But that changed. In 2012, Meshaal left Syria as the country's civil war deepened -- a decision believed to have caused a breakdown in his relationship with Iran as well, says Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East and North Africa Country Risk and Forecasting at the global information company IHS. Tehran is aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Now, Syria -- Israel's neighbor to the north -- is locked in a brutal, multiparty civil war, with Islamist extremists hoisting severed heads onto poles. The war, believed to have killed more than 115,000 people, is just one of the many developments emphasizing how many "fault lines" there are in the region, Richard Haass, president of Council on Foreign Relations, told "CNN Tonight."

"There's fault lines within the Palestinians between Hamas and the other part of the Palestinian Authority. You have Sunnis vs. Shia. You have Iran vs. Saudi Arabia and the Arabs. You have secularists vs. people who embrace religion in the political space."

The Palestinian Authority

Paying a price for all this is another key player: Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controls the West Bank. Fatah and Hamas have long fought each other, but earlier this year made another effort at a unity government.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is in charge of the government in the West Bank, "seems politically exhausted by all the twists and turns he has made in search of a durable solution," the Soufan Gruop says. "And the one chance of reasserting his authority through a unity government that would have forced Hamas into a subordinate and less militant role has now disappeared. He must now watch helplessly as protests in the West Bank undo whatever progress he had made towards a two-state solution."

Gaza conflict by the numbers

CNN's Jethro Mullen, Brian Todd

Part of complete coverage on
Tensions in the Middle East
Here's a look at some of the most serious conflicts involving Israel and its neighbors -- conflicts that have spanned more than six decades.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
Fifty days of fighting. Thousands of rocket attacks and airstrikes. And a number of failed cease-fire agreements.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0904 GMT (1704 HKT)
19-year-old Udi Segal explains why he won't join his country's military.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 0028 GMT (0828 HKT)
The sights at the Gaza zoo couldn't be sadder, after it was nearly destroyed during recent Israel-Hamas conflict.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Both Hamas and Israel have chosen conflict over real peace negotiations again and again in the past, writes Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Mohammed Najib says Hamas' objectives also include ending its political isolation.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
With so many conflicts, on so many fronts, here's a quick look at what's happening.
July 5, 2014 -- Updated 1429 GMT (2229 HKT)
Alan Elsner: How Israel reacts will be decisive turning point for both Israelis and Palestinians.
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2059 GMT (0459 HKT)
The Israel-Gaza conflict impacts families on both sides. Karl Penhaul speaks to the family of a militant killed in Gaza.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
A sense of Egypt's historic role and the traditional animosity of their military toward Islamist radicalism have propelled Egypt to take a central role in the on-off cease-fire talks.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 2150 GMT (0550 HKT)
If the Gaza truce holds and Israel's Operation Protective Edge comes to its conclusion, some things are certain.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
CNN's Tim Lister says, to secure peace, Israel needs to offer Gazans a better future.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
Hamas must be tamed through politics, not the failed strategy of war, argues Ed Husain.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1820 GMT (0220 HKT)
Hamas' political leader, who lives in Qatar, sits down with CNN for an exclusive interview.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1043 GMT (1843 HKT)
Nafoz Mohammed is living in a cramped two-room apartment with 16 other people, hours holed up in fear.
August 3, 2014 -- Updated 0454 GMT (1254 HKT)
Karl Penhaul visits a destroyed section of Gaza and learns how the bombing has affected one student's aspirations.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 0615 GMT (1415 HKT)
The birth of a child is normally a joyous occasion, but it is tinged by sadness and anxiety in Gaza. Ian Lee reports.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Amid the Gaza conflict, experts try to figure out who's in charge of "the resistance."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
The opening was so small that CNN's Wolf Blitzer -- no physical giant -- had to bend down to climb inside.
Follow CNNArabic for the latest news and analysis from the Middle East and rest of the world.
ADVERTISEMENT