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Nov 21, 2012 | 21:23 GMT

Geopolitics in Flux in Israel and Gaza

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

The temptation of geopolitics is to view the map and its constraints as natural and unchanging, but that would be a mistake. Today, technology and urbanization are reshaping the borders on our maps. It is not that the chessboard we call geography is no longer relevant; rather, geography is infinitely more complex than mountains, rivers, borders and capital cities.

In the past week, Gaza's border has stayed the same, but Hamas has effectively more than doubled its size through its acquisition and use of Fajr-5 rockets. The group's ability to fire a rocket some 77 kilometers (48 miles) from Gaza toward Jerusalem has given the small, densely populated strip of land the power to do serious harm to Israel's population centers, shrinking the distance between Israel's heartland and an untenable threat. The old border is obsolete; new technology and weapons have created a new geopolitical reality.

In the past, Israel has faced limited threats from its southern neighbors and has not had to think seriously about even a minor threat from Egypt since the 1978 Camp David Accords. It was the border with Syria in the northeast that was most problematic. Hamas' new capability has changed the way Israel must view the map.

Range of Gaza Rockets

Range of Gaza Rockets

It is also not a capability that Israel can easily eliminate. Airstrikes can go only so far in eliminating rockets that have already been smuggled into Gaza, and a ground campaign would cost many casualties without the guarantee of total success. While Israel can target places likely to manufacture these rockets, as it may have done when it attacked a Yarmouk weapons facility in Khartoum on Oct. 23, it cannot wipe out all the sources of the weapons. Israel has only deployed five Iron Dome batteries, and while these have helped protect Israel from some rocket attacks, there are currently not enough of them to constitute a real defense from Hamas' rockets. Whether or not the present cycle of violence escalates into an Israeli ground invasion, Israel faces uncharted geography on the border with Gaza.

Urbanization

Urbanization has as much to do with the current conflict and Hamas' new strategic position as it acquires Fajr-5 rockets. In 1948, before Israel declared independence, the population of the Gaza Strip was at most approximately 80,000. Today, that number is closer to 1.7 million, with a population growth rate that was estimated at 3.3 percent in 2007 and a total fertility rate of 4.6 percent in 2012, and all this within just 360 square kilometers (139 square miles). The Gaza Strip is a colossal, densely packed urban sprawl. It is an area of extreme poverty, it has few viable options for generating wealth of any kind, and its neighbors have little to no incentive to help make Gaza better.

In its current geography, Hamas has more power as a stateless actor engaged in resistance against Israel than it would as the leading governing party of a state. This motivates Hamas' actions as much as its religious platform. Israel, while a much more successful state, has in the past year seen huge protests against government corruption and economic disparity, such as one on Sept. 3, 2011, wherein approximately 300,000 protesters — 4.3 percent of Israel's total population — marched in Tel Aviv. At the height of the Arab Spring, Egypt saw about the same number of protesters — only approximately 0.4 percent of its population — in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Gaza, and to a much lesser extent Israel, have growing populations living in more and more constrained space. Conflict in such close quarters is inevitable and will become only more frequent as the respective populations continue to grow.

Demography

Demography has also played an increased role in the radicalization of both sides of the conflict. The anonymity that comes from living in an urban situation can often lead to feelings of needing to maintain a personal identity, and this reaction can take many forms, such as mass protests for democracy in Egypt. It can also lead to more potent forms of extremism and nationalism. In Israel, nationalist parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu have become the kingmakers of Israeli politics, while the once-dominant Labor Party has seen its influence wane. In Gaza, dramatic population growth combined with intense poverty has created an environment ripe for radicalism, which has been one factor — though certainly not the only one — in the rise of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Technology

Social media and telecommunication have made communicating over distance easier than at any time in history, and these tools are being used in the current conflict as weapons in their own right. An Israel Defense Forces spokesman announced Operation Pillar of Defense via Twitter, then posted a picture of Hamas second-in-command Ahmed Jabari with the subtitle "eliminated." Since the beginning of hostilities, the IDF and Hamas' military arm have engaged in a war of words via Twitter, sparring with one another and using the social network to spread propaganda to legitimize their narratives.

Shrinking Geopolitical Space

The shrinking of geopolitical space is not only limited to Israel and the Gaza Strip; the phenomenon has played out in many states with an interest in the evolution of this most recent episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has constrained their ability to mediate. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once was vocal about his support of Gaza's cause, but Turkey must keep in mind its ongoing conflict with its Kurdish population — a situation made all the more unstable by events in Syria. Egypt is dependent on maintaining the 1978 Camp David Accords for many reasons, not the least of which is American aid. But perhaps most important is that Ethiopia has begun construction of a dam on the Nile River to satisfy its growing agricultural and electrical needs, which if completed would likely interrupt the flow of the Nile for several years, if not permanently. Egypt must be free to meet this and other significant challenges in the coming years, which means it cannot afford a hostile Israel to its north. And while the United States has an interest in controlling the violence in Gaza for the sake of regional stability, U.S. President Barack Obama is familiar with the phenomenon of shrinking geopolitical distance. The U.S. use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out a war against irregular forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes it difficult for him to take a critical stance against similar Israeli action in the Gaza Strip.

The media's attention to every reported cease-fire, every new tweet from the IDF or Hamas, or pictures of Iron Dome batteries knocking rockets out of the sky can distract from the most significant fact this conflict has made salient: The power of geography can be redefined by other forces. Fajr-5 rockets, Iron Dome batteries, demographic challenges and urbanization are all examples of the subtle ways geopolitics is constantly fluctuating. Whether war, cease-fire or protracted, low-level conflict comes next, there is now a new set of variables that every side must internalize. Geopolitical realities must be seen as mutable as the means of conflict evolve.

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