Skip to main content

Why Gaza conflict risks wider war

By Michael Oren
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1545 GMT (2345 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Oren: The flare-up in Gaza could ignite a wider war
  • In 1967, conflicts in the Mideast spiraled into the Six-Day War, he says
  • Oren: Islamic Jihad, challenging Hamas for supremacy in Gaza, launched rockets into Israel
  • He says the question is whether a truce can prevent conflict from becoming conflagration

Editor's note: Michael B. Oren is the Abba Eban chair in international diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and an ambassador-in-residence at the Atlantic Council. He was formerly Israel's ambassador to the United States.

(CNN) -- Back in the mid-1960s, a Palestinian guerrilla group called Fatah -- the Conquest -- began launching cross-border attacks against Israeli civilians.

Sponsored by Syria and led by Palestinian activists, among them the young Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah aroused admiration throughout the Arab world. So much so that Egypt, then Syria's rival, formed its own group and called it the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the PLO -- which also staged attacks into Israel.

The Israelis wouldn't sit passively, though, but struck back at Fatah's Syrian hosts, who in turn shelled Israeli villages. Not to be outdone, Egypt in May 1967 evicted U.N. peacekeeping forces from the Sinai Peninsula and amassed troops along Israel's border. This precipitated an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Egypt which, within hours, ensnarled Syria and even Jordan. Six days later, Israeli troops controlled the territories, whose final status remains bitterly unresolved.

Michael Oren
Michael Oren

Recalling the background to the Six-Day War -- a conflict almost nobody wanted and even fewer anticipated -- is crucial today in the face of a frightfully similar process unfolding along Israel's southern border.

If left unchecked, the rising violence in Gaza could quickly spiral uncontrollably. Another conflagration, no more desired or foreseen than that of 1967, could once again engulf the Middle East.

Though Fatah and the PLO merged long ago and are now headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who has since forsworn terror, other Palestinian groups are vying for power. By attacking Israel, they gain credibility in the Palestinian street and prestige throughout the region.

One such group was Hamas, a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, that violently expelled Abbas' men from Gaza in 2007 and proceeded to fire thousands of rockets at Israel. Still not passive, Israel retaliated with punishing operations in Gaza in 2008 and 2012. Those blows, together with the Brotherhood's fall from power in Egypt, subdued Hamas, but now another Gaza organization has risen to challenge it.

Islamic Jihad has been firing rockets and aiming ground attacks at Israel. Characteristically, the Israelis responded with force and earlier this week killed three Islamic Jihad operatives engaged in mounting a strike. The terrorists then fired some 50 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israeli towns, spurring Israeli fighter jets to bomb 29 targets in Gaza.

(An Islamic Jihad leader told CNN on Thursday a truce had been declared, but the Israeli government has not commented.)

But Israel regards Hamas as the sovereign authority in Gaza and holds it ultimately responsible for any attacks emanating from there, even those conducted by Islamic Jihad. If the rocket fire and shelling continue, Israel is likely to retaliate against Hamas, which could be dragged, however unwillingly, into the fighting.

Islamic Jihad is funded and armed by Iran. Just last week, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a cargo ship -- the Klos-C -- carrying 400,000 bullets and 40 rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Made in Iran, the arms would have enabled Islamic Jihad to join with Hezbollah, Iran's chief proxy in Lebanon, to rocket every Israeli city. The goal is to deter Israel from striking Iran's nuclear facilities and to paralyze it with multiple existential threats.

But what if Iran -- much like Egypt in 1967 -- miscalculated? What could happen if an Israeli reprisal for Islamic Jihad's rockets results in a confrontation between Israel and Hamas?

Would Hezbollah then join the clash, unleashing its arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets against the Jewish state, and would Israeli forces have to invade Lebanon to stop them? Would Iran watch idly while its closest Middle East ally was crushed by the "Zionist enemy," or would it, too, leap into the fray?

Gaza remains a combat zone as of this writing, and rocket alert sirens are wailing in southern Israeli cities. As in previous exchanges, a de facto cease-fire might be worked out and relative calm restored to the region. Or the confrontation could widen, and what began as a skirmish could inexorably expand into war. As the example of 1967 reminds us, a single spark in the combustible Middle East can swiftly fan a flare-up into a firestorm.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Oren.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT