There is no good time for a conflict in the Middle East, but this could arguably be one of the worst in memory — and all the players know that.
Despite the rumours of a possible, Egypt-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas, there are far more concrete signs — like the tens of thousands of Israeli troops massing at Gaza's border, not to mention the continuing barrage of rockets launched by militants in Gaza into new Israeli territory — that this could go on for some time.
A ground invasion would no doubt stretch the crisis for weeks. Yet even without that, this conflict can fester, and the longer it does the more likely it is to shake up an already destabilized region.
There is so much in this fight that recalls the last one in 2008-2009. As that ended, one Barack Obama was days from being inaugurated as U.S. president. An Israeli election loomed. Both sides — Israel and Hamas — were certain another round would eventually follow.
And now, four years later, that next round has materialized. Obama is about to begin a second term (while trying to "pivot" U.S. policy away from the Middle East towards Asia), and another Israeli election is to take place in January.
But that is where the similarities end. And it seems that never before has an altercation involving cramped, wretched and neglected Gaza — and there have been many over the years — threatened to upset the peace of the entire region the way it does today.
Oil on a fire
Part of that danger stems from the simple fact that several other conflicts are going on nearby: the Syrian revolution has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives, and quite regularly spills over into Lebanon, Jordan and, recently, Turkey and Israel, drawing return fire in both cases.
There is also new tension in neighbouring Jordan, apart from Egypt, the only signatory to a peace deal with Israel. Protests there over rising fuel prices have led to novel, open calls for King Abdullah's resignation.
Then there is Egypt, still recovering from its revolution. Its Sinai region near Gaza and Israel has brought its own violent, lawless headaches.
Another part of the danger stems from the fact that the conflict is unfolding against a dramatically changed regional backdrop, including:
- Israel is now led by Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite two terms in office has never before led Israel into war. His focus has been the threat from Iran, which has sometimes put him at odds with U.S. policymakers.
- Hamas is enjoying wider support from the region than perhaps ever — from Turkey and Qatar (whose emir visited in person last month), as well as Egypt next door.
- Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is gone. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, is drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood, long a champion of Hamas (a group that traces its roots to the brotherhood).
- Despite falling out with Damascus, Hamas has evidently still been receiving weapons from Syria's ally and benefactor, Iran, and the reach of those weapons is unprecedented. The Iranian-built Fajr series of rockets are threatening Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time since the 1991 Gulf war.
There are two other important elements that have to be factored in as well.
One is that protests in several Arab countries are no longer taboo, and not as subject to regime control as they once were.
The other is that as Iran struggles against international sanctions and the Syrian regime falters (and by extension, its ally, Lebanon's Hezbollah is weakened), a violent conflict involving Israel plays right to their regional goals.
Fear of backing down
With all this in the background, the chances of the Gaza conflict spreading are very real.
Netanyahu cannot afford to seem weak on the eve of an election, and Gaza is seen in some Israeli circles as "the front line" in the fight with Iran, which makes this conflict far more significant than simply neutralizing a threat from local militants.
At the same time, this fight provides a perfect opportunity, for those in the rest of the region who would use it, to divert attention away from talk of democracy, elections and the Arab Spring, to that of violence and anti-Western rhetoric.
For example, since Syria's revolution invited such a harsh regime response, most Arab nations have sided with the rebels (although clearly not always altruistically).
But Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah has often condemned these Arab countries for encouraging the downfall of a fellow Arab regime, instead of uniting to fight Israel. And in a speech just last week, he seemed to lament that the violence in Syria next door was preventing his group from providing more support to Hamas in this current fight.
There is no question that Gazans invite the empathy of many in the Arab world. But not all see violence as the answer.
In 2009, as that conflict wore on, the Arab world was particularly roiled, upset at Israel and Egypt (for locking down the border with Gaza), but also at their own leaders for doing little to stop the civilian casualties, a plight graphically displayed for weeks on Arab networks.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, then a banned opposition group, tried repeatedly to stage protests against Israel, and against their own regime.
But Mubarak's riot police cracked down with batons and tear gas. The border remained closed but for the occasional ambulance that carried the wounded into the Egyptian border town of Al Arish.
The anger last time was so palpable that a few countries did allow limited protests in the later days of the conflict, to help ease the tension. This time, though, if the conflict goes on too long, and if civilian casualties mount, that anger may be much harder to control.
Another major consideration is that, to the extent that the Arab Spring brought some hope to the Arab people of a better, freer, more productive future, a conflict of any kind in the region poses a particular threat.
The Arab Spring protests initially had little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of those involved in fact seemed to feel that it was perhaps time their leaders focused less on that problem — stop using it as an excuse for inertia — and more on internal matters like the economy, jobs, education, political participation.
So if this conflict widens, or is unduly prolonged, or seizes the attention of the Arab world to the exclusion of all else, it could drag the region back to a narrative that many had hoped to put aside or at least approach in a fresh way.
It is why so many in the region — and beyond — hope this ends quickly.