Three Channels of Middle East Radicalism: Iran's "Shia Crescent," the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Global Jihad
There is a need for a new paradigm to understand the complex of state and non-state actors in the Middle East. Hizbullah, a part of the "Shia Crescent," is an example of this new paradigm - a non-state organization supported with Iranian funds, know-how, and technology to become a powerful tool to advance Iran's policies.
Iran is the leader of the radical camp, today supporting Shia Hizbullah as well as Sunni Hamas, and even its old enemy the Taliban (with which it was on the verge of war at the end of the 1990s). Khomeini's 1979 manifesto called for the export of the Islamic revolution and the extinction of the State of Israel, viewing the United States and all the other infidel nations as the enemies of the revolution.
Iran is very much striving for regional hegemony, as seen in its push for nuclearization. Yet Iran is Persian, a people who are ideologically and historically different from the Arab world, and it poses a threat to many Arab countries. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states - the pro-Western regimes of the Arab world - all sense a threat from Iran. Yet if Iran gets its hands on nuclear weapons in the future, they may decide to join it and not fight it.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the source of another channel of radicals. This movement, established in the 1920s in Egypt, follows an extremist ideology in pursuit of its goals and it is pursuing a very long-term agenda.
The Global Jihad doesn't have the patience of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its affiliates have many forms and have been operating in Sinai and in Lebanon, where last year it fought the Lebanese army at Nahr al-Barad. The Global Jihad can also be seen in Saudi Arabia and even in Jordan. It is kind of a ghost, it lingers in the air, but it is definitely there. These are the primary generators of the radical effort in the Middle East.
Radicals vs. Pragmatists
While the Israeli-Arab conflict remains, it is mostly with the Palestinians. There are very good and stable peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. But the pressure in the Middle East is no longer only about the conflict with Israel. The entire region may now be seen according to the paradigm of two conflicting camps, the radicals versus the pragmatists. Israel needs to understand the strategy of this radical camp in order to develop its counter-strategy and bring its interests to the table.
Iran's nuclearization process is bringing a new dimension to the conflict. The process by itself is increasing regional fears. Having a nuclear weapon promotes its owner to membership in a top-tier club in the world. Having nuclear weapons is the ultimate insurance policy, and allows the possessor to promote its interests and negative policies (i.e., support of terror) more easily. This is the process we see now with Iran and that is why it's so important to stop Iran from having a nuclear weapon.
Hizbullah is a non-state entity that has become a major player, applying pressure and violence without being held responsible. Hizbullah itself does not develop technology, but it possesses advanced weapons in quantities not found in too many armies in the world, including a huge and very diverse array of missiles and rockets. For example, Hizbullah used a shore-to-sea missile that struck the Israeli naval vessel Hanit on July 14, 2006, killing four Israeli soldiers during the Second Lebanon War. Not too many countries have shore-to-sea missiles; Israel doesn't. Yet it's not that complicated for Hizbullah to bring in weapons when they are living next door to Syria.
The many Palestinian organizations also try to emulate Hizbullah - they are organizations with military capabilities but without any of the responsibilities of a country. One organization is not even responsible for the actions of another. But if the Palestinians are to have a state, the whole idea of statehood in the world includes certain responsibilities. That's why the current situation is so dangerous.
Defeating Terror in an Age of Technology and Open Societies
Two global processes have made the challenge even more complex. One is the development of technology. Hi-tech weapons that amplify and augment their damage capacity are much more common and much more mobile. Furthermore, the Internet allows the transfer of weapons-making knowledge such as how to manufacture Kassam rockets.
The second process involves the difficulties of an open, modern, sensitive, Western society such as Israel's in operating against terrorists who operate from within civilian territory against civilians on the Israeli side. Now that civilians are part of the equation, anti-terror operations become much more difficult. When we have to operate against forces that operate within a civilian environment, we have to be pinpoint precise and very sensitive to collateral damage. We are much more limited in what we can do.
It was not like this in World War II, but it is today, and we have to operate within this environment and under these constraints. At the same time, we still have to provide security for our people. Part of the strategy of the extremists is to seek to take advantage of the weakness of modern society. This is their strategy and we have to confront it.
Gaza as an Example of the New Conflict Paradigm
The process that we see in Gaza is the first appearance ever of a regime affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is building up its power and building its military capabilities, alongside the ongoing shelling of populated areas in Israeli territory. Our civilians have suffered from years of constant shelling that really makes life impossible for them. Even if we build better shelters, this is no way to raise children. This is the reality that is going on now in Gaza. Military activity is taking place all the time.
Why are the Palestinians in Gaza still shooting at Israel even after it disengaged from Gaza? A few weeks after the 2005 Israeli disengagement there was a large rally in Gaza where a number of Palestinians were killed by exploding armaments. Since no side would take responsibility, both sides blamed Israel and began firing rockets. That's how it started. Again, in May 2007, before the Hamas coup when Hamas and Fatah clashes were reaching a climax, the way for the Palestinians to abruptly halt the infighting was to begin a massive shelling of Israeli localities.
Is there a military solution for Gaza? In 2002, the IDF embarked on Operation Defensive Shield to retake the West Bank when a decision to do so was made by Israel's political echelon. It took a few years, but we managed to establish a different kind of control. The motivation of suicide bombers in the West Bank did not recede, but their capabilities did. Thus, ongoing activity in the West Bank remains necessary to maintain this situation. In Gaza, as well, the IDF will do what it is instructed to do.
The Importance of Controlling Territory
Professionally speaking, if Israel wants to prevent any high-trajectory rocket or mortar fire, it must establish good control on the ground. Compare Lebanon and Gaza to the West Bank, where Israel has control over the external perimeter and can control the entrance of weapons inside the area. In Lebanon, well-organized shipments of weapons flow across an open border with Syria. Gaza is open along the Egyptian border. The West Bank is not open and the weapons don't flow in with the same freedom.
Local arms production is a matter of know-how, but if Israeli forces are present on the ground, as they are in the West Bank, then we can stop the development and manufacture of rockets and other weapons in time.
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Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan became Head of the IDF Planning Directorate in 2006. In 2008 he was appointed Commander of the Israel Air Force. He has also served in various command and staff positions, including Director of Air Force Intelligence, and Chief of Air Staff and Deputy Commander of the Israel Air Force. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on January 15, 2008, when he still served as Head of the IDF Planning Directorate.