There should be no doubt that the next Gaza war won't resemble the 2008-2009 war, and it could start at any time.
On Thursday, April 7, an anti-tank missile fired from the Gaza Strip by a Hamas terrorist slammed into an Israeli school bus loaded with children and exploded. No one was killed, but the message was clear: Israeli citizens, even little children, aren't safe anywhere. Immediately following the attack, a barrage of mortar fire from Gaza hit near Israeli towns in the Negev. Israel responded with helicopter gunships, and in short order Hamas announced that a ceasefire would go into effect Thursday evening. Two days later, Hamas resumed firing rockets and mortar shells at Israel. That's a ceasefire Hamas-style.
If you follow events in Israel closely, you recognize the routine. First Hamas engages in indiscriminate attacks on innocent Israeli civilians. Next Israel responds. Then Hamas announces a unilateral ceasefire. Soon thereafter, the attacks resume, and Israel responds. Eventually, a full-scale war breaks out. It's as predictable as clockwork. That's how the Gaza War of 2008-2009 began, and that's how the next Gaza war will start -- only the next Gaza war will be markedly different.
Since the end of the last Gaza War, we've witnessed a flurry of activity to rearm Hamas and Hezb'allah. For example, in November 2009, Israel seized a ship carrying Iranian arms bound for Hezb'allah on Israel's northern border. According to Israel's deputy naval commander, Rani Ben Yehuda, the cargo included "dozens of containers with hundreds of tons of arms." Later reports revealed that the shipment contained more than 500 tons of weapons. (One ton equals approximately 2,205 pounds.) Just last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad admitted that he has allowed Iranian weapons to flow through Syria to Hezb'allah, and Hezb'allah chief Hassan Nasrallah has made it clear repeatedly that Hezb'allah will cooperate with Hamas if another Gaza war breaks out. Those weapons are needed for an attack on Israel.
In May 2010, the Israeli navy intercepted the "humanitarian aid" ship MV Mavi Marmara, which was bound for Gaza on Israel's eastern border. Nine terrorists posing as passengers died when they attacked Israeli commandos boarding the vessel. Ten commandos were wounded during the clash. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas called the incident "a massacre"; a host of European Union officials demanded a full inquiry; Turkey erupted in protest; Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to do his part to protect Palestinians in Gaza; and the global media launched a vigorous campaign to smear Israel. Scant attention was given to the fact that the ship's cargo contained weapons of war.
In February 2011, the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to emerge from the shadows and engage openly in political activity for the first time in 57 years. Following Mubarak's resignation, Muhammad Ghannem, a leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, told the Iranian news network Al-Alam that the Egyptian people need to prepare for war with Israel. Supplying weapons to Hamas is a step in that direction. Mubarak worked with Israel to prevent weapons from flowing into Gaza though the Sinai Peninsula, but the Brotherhood's lust for Israeli blood raises serious doubts about that arrangement as we look to the future. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries to have made peace with Israel, and the Egyptian military says the peace is intact, but that can change quickly. As the Muslim Brotherhood gains political strength in Egypt, you can bet that it will change.
In March 2011, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reached an agreement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to build an Iranian naval base in Latakia, Syria's largest port, from which Iran can operate freely in the Mediterranean Sea. Within days of the announcement, Israel intercepted a Gaza-bound ship leaving Latakia carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza. Syria is on Israel's northeast border, and the two countries have been sparring over the Golan Heights since the end of the 1967 Six Day War. Under the dictatorial regimes of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, Syria has served as field headquarters for Hamas, Hezb'allah, Islamic Jihad, and a host of other Islamist terrorist organizations brazenly committed to Israel's annihilation. Will they take part in the next Gaza war? With Assad's power diminishing and Islamist groups in Syria increasing their strength, the answer is probably "yes" -- if not directly as combatants, then as guerrilla fighters.
Since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in January 2011, Iran has stepped up its efforts to spread its version of radical Islam throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Jordan's King Abdullah, noticing a tidal shift occurring in the region and feeling the heat at home, decided it was time to make nice with Iran. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda have a presence in Jordan and close ties with Iran, but until recently, they have been kept in check. That's changing, too, and an emboldened Islamist element in Jordan could topple Abdullah's regime and/or force him to rethink Jordan's peace treaty with Israel. Will Jordan join the next Gaza war? The answer isn't an unequivocal "no."
Iran's attempts to change the balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa by picking off one country after another is evident in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Saudi Arabia as well. President Obama's missteps in response to Iran's gains caused Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to reexamine the United States' role in the region. Rather than deferring to the U.S., Abdullah sent Saudi troops into Bahrain to help quell violence there, and, according to Martin Indyk, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, the King "views President Obama as a threat to his internal security." Moderate Arab leaders feel the same way. They have every reason to believe that President Obama will not come to their aid if they need help, but Iran stands ready to assist Islamist elements throughout the region.
We're witnessing the fruition of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's plan to destroy Israel. His first step was to announce his intention to the world. Some mocked him, but he meant business. Next, he worked to undermine political regimes in every country in the region and to strengthen Islamist elements beholden to him. All the while, he has worked feverishly to develop Iran's nuclear capability. Today, Israel is surrounded: Hamas in Gaza on the west, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on the south and southwest, Hezb'allah in Lebanon on the north, a host of emerging Islamist terrorist organizations in Syria on the northeast, and on the east, a weakened monarch in Jordan attempting to restrain radical Islamists. With Ahmadinejad's unswerving support, the only step remaining is a coordinated attack on Israel.
Given its proximity to the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Israel's most populous region, Gaza is the logical place for the war to begin. From southern Lebanon, Hezb'allah has promised to join the fight, probably with an attack on Haifa, Israel's third-largest metropolitan area. Syria, Egypt, and Jordan may join the fight as well, and Israel could end up fighting a war for survival on all sides, much like the Six Day War. But things have changed markedly since 1967. The U.S. is weaker in the Middle East than it has been in decades, and Islamist groups are stronger than they have ever been. There should be no doubt that the next Gaza war won't resemble the 2008-2009 war, and it could start at any time.
Neil Snyder taught leadership and strategy at the University of Virginia for 25 years. He retired from UVA in 2004 and is currently the Ralph A. Beeton Professor Emeritus there. His blog, SnyderTalk.com, is posted daily.