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The New Landscape Of Middle East Conflict


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington, Neal Conan is away. Conflict between Israel and Gaza continues for a sixth day, as Israel has responded to a barrage of rocket fire from Hamas with air strikes and missiles fired by the Israeli navy. More than 90 Palestinians have been killed and three Israelis. Israel has called up tens of thousands of reservists in case of a possible ground invasion.

The violence no doubt sounds familiar. The region's been embroiled in sporadic fighting for decades. And yet many things today are dramatically different from even four years ago, the last time Israel invaded Gaza.

After the so-called Arab Spring, there are newly elected Arab governments in the region, more beholden to public opinion. Palestinians have acquired longer-range weapons, allowing them to threaten residents of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, adding a new psychological dimension for many Israelis. All of this could profoundly impact how this latest conflict plays out and eventually gets resolved.

If you have questions about how this most recent conflict compares to prior violence in Gaza, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, on The Opinion Page, working Thanksgiving. Is it all bad? But first we begin with Ethan Bronner, who is covering the conflict for the New York Times. He joins us by phone from Jerusalem. Hi, welcome Ethan.

ETHAN BRONNER: Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So can you update us? What is the latest news coming out of the region tonight?

BRONNER: Well, you did quite a good job of updating us in terms of the numbers, the number of dead in Gaza is approaching 100. We - you know, I think that we're sort of balanced on a precipice now between two possibilities. One is a ground invasion by Israel. As you said, there are tens of thousands of troops that have been gathering near the border with Gaza, 75,000 reserve soldiers were called up in the last week.

At the same time, there have been intensive negotiations in Cairo led by the Egyptian government but with the help of Turkey and Qatar, which have both taken a strong interest in it because of their attachment to Hamas. And around now, the three main leaders of Israel, the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister, are meeting as they are going to go into a larger group among them where they try to examine the offer of a truce or ceasefire.

Both sides are making demands. Interestingly, both, I think, Hamas and Israel feel they have the upper hand, and that's never an easy situation.

LUDDEN: You mentioned Turkey and Qatar are involved in these diplomatic negotiations because of their attachment to Hamas, but it is so striking because Turkey and Qatar have longtime between friends, allies of Israel, one of, you know, the few allies in that region for Israel.

BRONNER: Yes, you're right.

LUDDEN: Things are...

BRONNER: You're right about Turkey. Qatar is a more complicated case. It's a very small and very rich place with a lot of ambitions and no clear guidelines. But it has played a role in helping to rebuilt Gaza since the '08-'09 attack, and it has hosted a number of people from Hamas, who had to leave Syria during the Syrian uprising.

And you're right about Turkey and Israel. Turkey was, of course, Israel's strongest Muslim ally until the war we just mentioned, the '08-'09 war, when Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, got very angry at Israel. You know, after all the AKP, the party that is the ruling party in Turkey, is, you know, somewhat Hamas-like. It comes from an Islamist tradition, a moderate Islamist tradition.

And it sees a younger version of itself in Gaza, and it's also upset about Palestine has been treated by Israel, and eventually the two have drifted apart.

LUDDEN: I mean, do you see - you have a long experience in the region. Do you see the changes - we have - maybe we should explain, Egypt first of all is a huge change. We had the Arab Spring uprising. There's now - the Muslim Brotherhood is in charge of the government there, an elected government, very different from the previous president, Hosni Mubarak. How does that change, in your mind, the calculations as Egypt tries to bring all sides together for a negotiated settlement here?

BRONNER: Well, I mean, what you say is absolutely right. The rise of Islamism, of course all of these countries, the Islamist tendency, the Muslim Brotherhood, was suppressed by autocratic governments. And in these uprisings of the last two years, you know, these forces have risen. I mean, this is partly of course because in these countries, the only forces that could gather themselves and organize themselves in those years were the Muslim Islamic forces because they met in mosques, and these countries are, you know, predominately, in many cases, virtually 100 percent or 90 percent Muslim.

And this is something that this region is going to have to clearly go through as it works its way through something other than dictatorship. Where it's going to go is anybody's guess, but obviously President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, who comes from a Muslim Brotherhood and feels a link to Hamas, Hamas is after the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, wanting to show solidarity with Hamas.

At the same time, I think understanding that his aid from the United States and the ability to rebuild a very broken economy in Egypt is going to depend on international legitimacy. And so he's trying to broker and walk a careful line between showing solidarity with Hamas and some of the other international forces like the United States.

LUDDEN: Can you give us a sense of - one of the other big changes people are now suddenly aware of is the increased firepower of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. We have seen in recent days rocket fall, you know, within range of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. How is Israeli public in these days?

BRONNER: Well, it has of course upset a lot of people in Israel. It is true, of course, that in the last five years, that's what the Israeli military and government have been asserting, that Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in Lebanon and the north have been gathering an arsenal of rockets that could effectively cover all over Israel.

So this has become the central focus of Israel's strategy, its long-term issues, in addition to the Iran question, which we can get to if you want in a minute. The result is that as Hamas has increased its fire, and it's not only been Hamas, and Gaza and the Sinai have been host now to a range of more extreme Salafi-based organizations that have also been shooting rockets at Israel, and Hamas has done an imperfect job of stopping them or has maybe winked at them, that's not entirely clear.

So Israel has been trying to deal with what to do about this, and at a certain point in the last weeks, they decided this is the time they're going to go in, and they also killed a military leader of Hamas, a man named Jabari, and the idea here is that Mr. Jabari was the sort of mastermind behind bringing these high-powered and long-distance rockets into Gaza.

There is a relationship in Iran in which they buy them. The most sophisticated ones are called Fajr-3 and Fajr-5. They are shipped to Sudan, and they are trucked then across the desert and across Egypt into Gaza and then brought in under the tunnels.

So these are very big. They are, you know, several thousand pounds. They're 20-feet long. And, you know, they're very destructive. Hamas and people in Gaza, you know, five, 10 years had little one- or 10-kilometer sort of homemade things. This is absolutely an enormous change. And Israel's been aware of it, but experiencing is different from being aware of it.

LUDDEN: And if people continue to go into bomb shelters, are there sirens throughout the day, or is that sporadic now?

BRONNER: Today was - it's been six days, right, since this whole thing began. It was a quite overnight, Sunday night to Monday, but in southern Israel, there were quite a lot a lot. There was fair amount of activity in Ashkelon and in Ashdod and along the border with Gaza, not anything as far as Tel Aviv today. Yesterday and the day before, there were a few.

Now another thing while we're talking about technology is Israel has also improved its technology. It has created - it has helped get involved with a system called the Iron Dome, which comes from the United States, but there is a lot of Israeli technology involved, which is an anti-missile missile system. And there are, I don't know, many batteries of them around the country, maybe 10 or 12. There are five outside of Tel Aviv.

And they - when they detect the rocket is coming at them, they shoot a rocket at it, and it blasts it in the sky and prevents it from falling. And it's been quite effective. You may remember in the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein was sending SCUDs to Israel in 1991, there were, through the Patriots, an attempt to shoot them down then, and they were a pretty big failure.

The Iron Dome is quite effective, but they can't shoot at all of them because they are also very expensive to shoot the Iron Dome.

LUDDEN: We're going to bring someone else in the conversation now. Joining us from Beirut is Rami Khouri. He is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a syndicated columnist for Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. His latest column, "What's New in the Gaza-Israeli Battle," ran on November 17. And welcome to you.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you, glad to be with you.

LUDDEN: So how, from your perch there, how do you see, you know, the post-Arab Spring dynamics in this conflict? We've been talking about the central role of Egypt and President Morsi there. We've seen such a parade of dignitaries through Gaza, which for so long was really isolated when it came to this. How do you see things changed?

KHOURI: Well, I think there are several things that have changed that are really quite significant in a context in the Middle East that is itself constantly changing and not just the Arab world but also Turkey, the right shift in Israel over many years, Iran. The whole region is changing.

And when you look at Gaza now and the fighting between Hamas and others and Gaza and the Israeli armed forces, I would notice three main things. One is the increased technical capabilities of the people in Gaza, the Palestinians, their ability to use more and more sophisticated rockets.

The second thing I think is the increased participation of the - what's called the Salafist or, you know, the militant, more fundamentalist resistance fighters who use the Islamic banner. And this is something going on all over the Middle East. These Salafists have been involved in part of the election victories in Tunisia and Egypt and other places.

LUDDEN: And you know what? I'm going to ask you to hang with us. We've just got to take a quick break, but we'll come right back to you to talk more about the new dynamics in the Middle East. We're speaking with Rami Khouri from American University in Beirut and Ethan Bronner from the New York Times. We'll also hear from Amos Harel of Haaretz newspaper later. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. As Hamas and Israel continue to trade fire in the Middle East, the death toll is rising. Around the world, international leaders are weighing in. President Obama took some time to address the conflict yesterday. He's on the road in Asia. And at a press conference in Bangkok, he reiterated American support for Israel's right to defend itself and went on to say that further escalation would seriously impede getting back on any kind of peace track toward a two-state solution.

A statement from the EU ministers today called for an end to the violence and expressed support for Egyptian efforts to bring about a cease-fire. If you have questions about how this most recent conflict compares to prior violence in Gaza, call us at 800-989-8255. Or email us talk@npr.org, and you can join our website conversation, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're joined by Ethan Bronner of the New York Times and Rami Khouri, a syndicated columnist for Lebanon's Daily Star. And Mr. Khouri, you were talking about the changes that have happened from just the most recent conflict here. I'm curious, do you think that the Palestinians basically have any more leverage now that they have much more powerful weapons in Gaza, and we have some, you know, popularly elected governments in the region? Does that given them more leverage?

KHOURI: I think so, yes. When you went to the break, the third point I was going to say is the changing situation around the Arab world, with more democratically elected legitimate governments that truly represent the public opinion of their people. So that we've seen already symbolic actions in the last four or five days, the people visiting - Arab officials, prime minister of Egypt, foreign minister of Tunisia, and others going tomorrow, visiting Gaza, symbolic actions.

But behind the symbolism is a great political reality, which is that more and more people around the Arab world are looking for ways to express their support for the Palestinians in more than just rhetoric. So this definitely gives the Palestinians an asset, a diplomatic asset.

Whether that's translated into practical matters, whether economic or military or humanitarian or otherwise remains to be seen, but clearly the environment is changing around the region, and Israel probably feels more hemmed in and surrounded, and the Palestinians probably feel a bit more buoyed by the longer-term implications of this.

LUDDEN: Ways to express their support, you said, but you've written that you don't think anyone wants to go to war with Israel. So what do you expect to see?

KHOURI: That's right. Yeah, I don't think you're going to see Israel or Jordan break their peace agreements. They might pull the ambassador back, which they already did. They'll do symbolic actions, but neither Jordan nor Egypt is going to go back to a situation of war with Israel. But neither are the Arab countries going to just acquiesce in the kind of humiliation that they have long felt they have suffered themselves, particularly in Egypt, where they see themselves as - the people see themselves as being the surrogate policemen, protecting Israel from Palestinian resistance and others.

So they want to - the leaders have to find the mechanism that allows them to be more activist in supporting the Palestinians without jeopardizing their own nationalist interests. And I think you will see in the coming days and weeks a series of actions on the humanitarian and the political and the logistical level that will definitely support the people in Gaza without rekindling active Arab-Israeli warfare.

LUDDEN: All right, let's get a caller on the line here, Todd in Cincinnati, Ohio. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TODD: Thank you, just a quick question. I guess my question to your guests are: What is Hamas' and Palestine's - what's their endgame? What's their objective? They certainly can't beat the Israelis on a battlefront. They're certainly outgunned in every stretch, but what's their objective? What are they trying to achieve by, you know, firing these missiles into Israel? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: OK, thanks, Todd. Ethan Bronner, you want to take that first?

BRONNER: Sure. I'll be happy to try. I mean, I think that the simplest answer that the Palestinians would like an end to the occupation of the areas that Israel conquered in 1967. Now, that's the official Palestinian Authority and the PLO's goal in all that's happening.

Hamas is a more complicated story because Hamas is, after all, both a national movement and part of an Islamist international movement and it doesn't accept, really, the legitimacy of Israel. You know, they are kind of at the margins, leaders who have said we could live with it if we had to, if we got everything back.

But the core ideology is really to say that everything that happened in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel was a crime and one that needs to be turned around. So you know, it's - I think that in knowing what Hamas is actually doing is a little bit unclear. It's expressing a sense of resistance to Israel's domination of their land and their sea and so on, but it's also - and it's also sort of reaching out and saying to the region, Muslim Brotherhood, governments, look, we're - we matter, and don't forget us, that we are still the core issue in this region.

But it's also seeking to gain, I think, political leverage within the Palestinian movement, too, as the Palestinian Authority finds itself sort of frustrated by the inability to get anywhere in previous negotiations with Israel.

LUDDEN: Right, Rami Khouri, we do have kind of these competing Palestinian leaderships. We've got the Palestinian Authority in control of the West Bank and then Hamas in Gaza. How do you see Hamas' end goal here?

KHOURI: Well, I would phrase it a little bit different than Ethan did. I would add to what he said, Hamas in Arabic means Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, Islamic Resistance Movement. They see themselves as a resistance movement. They're resisting the wrongs that have been done to them historically and in the present. So clearly liberating the occupied Gaza Strip, like the Hezbollah liberated southern Lebanon, is one of their aims.

But their bigger aim is to deal with the wrongs that were done to them in 1947 and '48, their refugee-hood status. They are not against dealing with Israel. They've made agreements. They've made truces. They've made prisoner exchanges. They don't recognize the legitimacy of Israel, but they recognize the reality of Israel, and they deal with it, and they make agreements and keep them.

So what they want in this clearly - I don't think there's anything unclear about Hamas' position. They've said very clearly in recent years they are willing to go along with an Arab peace plan that has been presented by the Arab League to the Israelis if the Palestinian people are given a referendum and they accept the terms of any negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis, Hamas will abide by it.

What they want is a fair settlement of the refugee-hood of the Palestinians and ending the threats that Israel poses to them in terms of tariffs and sieges, embargos, et cetera. And Gaza is under siege. Its children are malnourished and stunted because of the inability to bring in enough food. This is documented by the U.N. and Save the Children and other people. This isn't just my shooting off. This is documented international fact.

So they don't want to live with that situation anymore, and they are willing to resist. That's what they see their main mission is, but they have become more realistic and more pragmatic in recent years. They understand that long-term warfare is not an attractive option, but they don't want long-term subjugation and dehumanization to themselves, either.

LUDDEN: All right, Rami Khouri is director of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University in Beirut and a syndicated columnist for Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. You can find a link to his latest column on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And he joined us from Beirut. Mr. Khouri, thank you so very much for your time.

KHOURI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: We still have Ethan Bronner, he is a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, a national correspondent there, now, again. What is the U.S. role right now, Mr. Bronner?

BRONNER: Well, I'd say it's still the most important power broker here. It's of course the core ally for Israel. And it does provide an enormous amount of aid to the Palestinian Authority and to Egypt. So it's the main source of money for a lot of what's going on here.

In this particular endeavor, I think it's trying to play a cheerleading role, as you noted. President Obama said, you know, it has this kind of difficulty with the United States, which is that it is a very firm ally of Israel, but as Rami Khouri was saying and as you said, in a region which is shifting, certainly toward I think greater hostility toward Israel. The United States needs to kind of figure out how to walk that line, and it is also saying Israel should not continue, should not increase, accelerate what's happening militarily in Gaza, hoping for some kind of a truce. And there is active negotiation underway. In the next day or two, we'll see something. Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, just arrived in Cairo to take part in that.

LUDDEN: All right. We are not joined by phone from Tel Aviv by Amos Harel. He's the military correspondent and defense analyst at Haaretz newspaper.

Very nice of you to - welcome.

AMOS HAREL: Good afternoon.

LUDDEN: You've been a military correspondent for 12 years. How is the current dynamic different from conflicts you have covered there in the past?

HAREL: Well, it's a different version of a war or a battle that we fought before, both in Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead in 2008. More or less the same when you talk about the Israeli Air Force campaign against targets in the Gaza Strip and the fact that the Palestinian organization is now bombarding Israeli towns. The difference - one issue I might mention is, of course, the rocket power. There are more and more rockets now in the Gaza Strip, and they are hitting further away. For the first time, we've had attempts to hit both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

And very important factor from the Israeli side is the presence of the system, the interceptor system called Iron Dome, which has managed to intercept more than 300 rockets shot from Gaza. And this is the main reason why we've had hardly any casualties on the Israeli side. Three residents of a small town near Gaza were hit in the first or the second day of the military campaign, but not much more than that yet.

LUDDEN: Although it's interesting: We had a report from our correspondent there this morning, asking, you know, is the success of Iron Dome may be creating a false sense of security? I mean, how - it couldn't possibly prevent any hits, I would imagine?

HAREL: It's not how - of course, it's not a complete solution. It does not - it could not save everybody all the time. But it does at least sort of amorphous space for maneuvering for the Israeli leadership. Because the way things are done in Israel, usually there's a huge public pressure for the government to act when there are civilian casualties from terrorist attacks. This time, actually, the government has more time to deliver it because of less pressure and because of more of a sense of security. Although I wouldn't underestimate what the residents of the southern Israeli towns are going through, even when they have Iron Dome to protect them.

LUDDEN: You recently toured with some of the Israeli troops - am I right - along the Gaza border there, and raised the question of what would be gained by a ground invasion. And what did you conclude?

HAREL: This is the, you know, this is the hottest debate right now among the Israeli leadership, both the military and the government. The fact that no ceasefire has been reached before - I heard just - you're debating about the discussions about the ceasefire. But, of course, there hasn't been an agreement yet, and we're waiting for the outcome of those indirect talks between (unintelligible) Hamas and Cairo. But there are those - especially among the Israeli politicians - who are saying that we do need a ground operation, a major incursion into Gaza in order to solve this problem, or at least to hit Hamas harder and to make it pay more for its effect on Israel and to prevent it from attacking again.

LUDDEN: All right.

HAREL: But I did hear among Israeli commanders on the field some doubts about that, and there were some officers who were saying, well, we did what we can. We did assassinate the Hamas military chief. We did manage to destroy most of current Hamas' medium-range rockets, and that we should move as fast as we can to a diplomatic solution, and because we assume that there is no, you know, there is no kind of method that you can use that can actually reach a decisive victory over Hamas. And we do estimate that, in the end, we will see another round of violence within a few months after what we're going through right now.

LUDDEN: Let me just remind people, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Richard is in Wichita, Kansas. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD: Hi. One of the big concerns I've got is that whether or not this is an attempt, essentially, by Iran to use a proxy - in this case, Hamas - to distract Israel while they scramble to finish their nuclear weapon.

LUDDEN: All right. Thanks for that. Ethan Bronner, there's the Iran question.

BRONNER: Right. Well, I think that, you know, it's a smart question, but I think it's probably a little too mechanistic. I don't think it's that straightforward. Hamas is a client of Iran. Iran is certainly worried about Israel. And I think that Iranian elements in Gaza - particularly Islamic Jihad - have been particularly active in this firing of rockets in the last months. Whether it's specifically aimed at kind of diverting Israel from its focus on Iran, you know, hardly, I would say. But it's just part of the general anti-Israel agitation that Iran believes essential to its ideological goal.

LUDDEN: Amos Harel?

HAREL: I agree with Ethan. I think most of the reasons for the recent round of violence, are more local. This is a battle between Hamas and Israel. This is about Hamas feeling more secure after the Egyptian revolution; paying - trying to prove that it is still loyal to the idea of muqawama - resistance, military resistance to Israel. But I'm sure that the Iranians are somewhere here, in the background; and I feel that Iran is probably rather happy about the course of events lately.

We should also note one more thing, which is that this - you know, that during the last time, the war caused many discussions - both from the Israeli leadership, and in the international media - regarding a possible Israeli attack against Iran and might also lead, in the future, to some kind of military conflicts with Hezbollah. This is a very minimized version of what could happen if Israel deals with both Iran and Hezbollah. You cannot compare the firepower from the Gaza Strip, to what's going on in Lebanon. The fact that we're dealing with such a threat to our home front and our civilian population, we will have to deal with a much bigger threat if we reach a military conflict with either Iran, Hezbollah, or both of these parties.

LUDDEN: All right. We just have a few seconds left. Ethan Bronner, last question to you: What are you looking for, in coming days, to see where this is going?

BRONNER: Well, no, I mean, I think that this - I really feel that it's kind of a 50-50 proposition about whether we get either a truce or a ground war. I also think it's - by the way - 50-50 whether Israel attacks Iran, but that's another program. I really think that it'll - it's going to depend enormously on the demand that each side is making, and whether Egypt and the United States can - these are the main forces behind each player - can persuade them to come down a little bit, in their demands. That's what I see.

LUDDEN: All right. Thank you so much. Ethan Bronner is covering the Israel-Gaza conflict for The New York Times, and joined us from Jerusalem. We also spoke with Amos Harel, the military correspondent and defense analyst at Haaretz, co-author of "34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah and the War in Lebanon." He joined us from Tel Aviv. Thank you, both of you.

HAREL: Thank you.

BRONNER: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up, we'll turn to the Opinion Page. Target, Wal-Mart and other retailers - large and small - are opening Thanksgiving night. Of course, some employees are not happy. We'd like to hear from you. If you work on Thanksgiving, how do you make the holiday as well? I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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