Skip to main content

Why Gaza conflict risks wider war

By Michael Oren
updated 11:45 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
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
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT