Watching Gaza in flames


RIYADH — Israel's extended military offensive on Palestinian-ruled Gaza has created a dangerous new complication for the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama: a more volatile, unstable and radicalized Middle East.

Ordinary citizens as well as political analysts throughout the region say they are anguished and frightened by the surge of anger and resentment toward Israel and its perceived patron, the U.S., that have been sparked by the prolonged Israeli siege of Gaza.

The fear that Obama will face a deteriorating situation is intensified, political observers here say, by Washington's failure to caution Israel about the level of its response to Hamas attacks. There is a widely held Arab perception that these attacks are collective punishment of Palestinian citizens during a campaign that Israel says is aimed at the Hamas leadership controlling Gaza.

Arab satellite news stations, including Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, are giving non-stop coverage to the conflict, repeatedly airing heart-rending images of bloodied Palestinian civilian casualties, including hundreds of children. Some of the most powerful footage is of civilians being rushed to the hospital after an Israeli missile struck near a UN school, which occurred at the beginning of the offensive, now in its third week.  

More than 900 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, according to medical personnel and U.N. officials on the ground. Thirteen Israelis have also died: three civilians hit by rockets from Gaza and 10 soldiers, according to Reuters.

The reality and the way the images portray the conflict have prompted an emotional reaction and, as some observers believe, potentially a wider radicalization throughout the region — likely to most benefit Iran and Al Qaeda.

"The most dangerous thing," said Ahmad Al Farraj, a political analyst in Riyadh, "is that liberal people are telling me they are thinking of, or are in the process of ... going back to their Islamic roots because it's starting to be clear to everyone that this is becoming a Crusade war against Islam."

Other effects of the Gaza crisis are likely to endure after the killing has stopped. It has deepened the fault line between those prepared to deal with Israel — such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — and those critical of this stance, principally the Iran- and Syria-backed Islamist parties of Hezbullah and Hamas.

Gaza's fighting also has further strained Arab regimes' relationships with their populations. Egypt's already unpopular government has come under pressure from its people to deal more harshly with Israel, with whom it has an historic peace agreement signed at Camp David under President Jimmy Carter.

The region's extreme agitation also is apparent in hostile words from Arab officials normally known for temperate language. On Monday, the Saudi Cabinet issued a statement accusing Israel of "racist extermination" in its attacks on Gaza.

And last week, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a longtime supporter of the Arab-Israeli peace process, told a gathering of U.S. and Gulf experts in Riyadh: "The Bush administration has left you (with) a disgusting legacy and a reckless position towards the massacres and bloodshed of innocents in Gaza … . Enough is enough, today we are all Palestinians and we seek martyrdom for God and for Palestine."

Iran and Al Qaeda, both keen to win support among Arab populations, undoubtedly see advantage in the crisis, experts say.

Iran has supplied money and arms to Hamas, which has sent hundreds of rockets into Israeli towns on the border with Gaza. The aggressive military response by Israel achieved through a U.S.-backed military superiority "legitimizes Iran's claim that it's helping oppressed, occupied people," said Awadh Al Badi, a scholar at the Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

Hamas has poor relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are wary of Hamas' Islamist ideology and annoyed by its failure to support Arab peace initiatives with Israel. Hamas' official position is to seek the destruction of Israel.

As such, both Cairo and Riyadh view Tehran's support for Hamas as Iranian meddling in Arab affairs. For two weeks, they have been working assiduously in diplomatic circles to ensure that Hamas and Iran are not perceived as "winners" when the Gaza fighting ends, a Saudi source said.

Iran "cannot be seen to come out on top from this," he added.

Then there is Al Qaeda, waiting in the wings from its setback in Iraq.

"Take this from me," said political analyst Al Farraj, "for every child killed in Gaza, there will be 1,000 terrorists coming up. You are talking about free recruitment for Al Qaeda."

In a taped audio message to Gazans Jan. 6, Al Qaeda's deputy leader Ayman Al Zawahiri called Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak "the traitor who is the primary partner in your siege and murder."

Zawahiri also called Israeli air strikes "a gift from Obama before he takes office," adding: "We will never stop until we avenge the death of all who are killed, injured, widowed and orphaned in Palestine and throughout the Islamic world."

Despite this vow of revenge, Al Qaeda unlikely feels much pain over Israel's beating of Hamas, which has blocked Al Qaeda-like groups from taking root in Gaza. But the continuing Gaza crisis, with its high cost to civilians, may change that by weakening Hamas and by quickening the region's radical pulse.

"From Al Qaeda's perspective ... Israel's assault on Gaza is an unmitigated blessing," Marc Lynch, a George Washington University political science professor, wrote on his blog, Abu Aardvark. "The images flooding the Arab and world media have already discredited moderates, fueled outrage, and pushed the center of political gravity towards more hard-line and radical positions."

As a result, "a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration," Lynch concluded.