Fears are mounting that the crisis in the Middle East will escalate. The Israeli election campaign, the struggle between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah parties, and Egypt's role are all grounds for uncertainty.
Air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv for the first time since the Gulf War in 1991 on Thursday (15.11.2012). But unlike other parts of southern Israel, the city was not struck by a rocket attack. Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force bombarded targets in the Gaza Strip. Since violence escalated at least a dozen Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed.
Experts disagree over why violence has flared up now. Arab observers place the blame on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan's capital Amman, said that Netanyahu wanted to present himself as the defender of Israel ahead of parliamentary elections in January. He has always been keen to portray himself as the person capable of keeping Iran in check, and is now using another conflict to improve the public's opinion of him, al-Rantawi said.
German-Israeli relations expert Gil Yaron takes a different view. He said Netanyahu is not the driving force in the conflict but the one being forced to act.
"Many Israelis have felt abandoned by their own government and asked, 'Why aren't you doing something to stop this?'" he said, adding that two months ahead of the elections, Netanyahu does not want to be accused of ignoring the security situation in southern Israel.
Hamas is also dealing with internal strife of its own. Since the Islamists took over power in the Gaza Strip in 2006, the government has been struggling for power with rival group Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas. While Fatah controls the West Bank and is largely regarded internationally as pursuing its goals diplomatically, Hamas retains control of Gaza and relies on armed confrontation.
Palestinians have called on both political groups to show what their methods have achieved. That has pushed Hamas toward more extremist groups, including Salafists, who want to draw Hamas into a war with Israel, Yaron said, adding that this view works only as long as Israel does not differentiate among which groups are firing homemade rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
Several Hamas leaders eliminated
The Israeli Air Force escalated the conflict with the targeted killing of the Hamas military wing leader Ahmed Jabari on Wednesday. Yaron said he was convinced Jabari's death would only be a momentary setback for Hamas, pointing out that the Israeli military had killed a number of Hamas leaders in the past without crippling the organization.
Political scientist al-Rantawi said he believes Hamas is politically and militarily stronger than before and during the war in 2008 and 2009 when the Israeli army marched into Gaza.
The current attacks overshadow attempts by Abbas for Palestine to become a member of the United Nations. Fatah says Israel is using the attacks to foil Abbas' bid for UN membership. And at the same time, Fatah believes its rival Hamas, which does not support Fatah's attempt to join the UN, is torpedoing any chance Abbas had at membership.
Islamist rule in Egypt and Gaza
The latest twist to the spiral of violence also puts the role of the new Egyptian government at the center. Since the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections, Egypt has again emerged as a confident player in the Middle East.
The governments in Cairo and Gaza City have not agreed on everything, but they are politically very close. Indeed Hamas has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas expects backing from Cairo, Yaron said. "It tells itself: The Israelis will not dare to move against us with a great military action, because we enjoy the protection of Egypt. And the Israelis do not want to jeopardize their relationship [with Egypt.]" But it is doubtful whether Egypt would be actually willing to get involved in the conflict, he said.
Ground war cannot be ruled out
Israel, meanwhile, is assembling its troops and calling up reservists. Netanyahu threatens to step up its attacks if necessary. And while Yaron is convinced that the government in Jerusalem does not want a bloody ground war, he cannot rule out an escalation. "If - God forbid - a kindergarten or a school were hit by a rocket, Prime Minister Netanyahu would feel compelled to actually attack the Gaza Strip," he said, adding that this would be particularly true if rockets hit Tel Aviv.
Al-Rantawi warns that armed conflict has its own momentum. "You can fire the first shot in such a war, but you cannot be sure that that you will fire the last." Should Israel launch a ground war, it would have serious consequences for the entire region.