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Friday, 2 January 2009

Carnage in Gaza: a prelude to World War III?

The main event of this last day of the outgoing year could well have been the court hearing of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the infamous journalist who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush during a news conference in Baghdad.

"This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog," yelled al-Zaidi in Arabic as he threw his first shoe toward the U.S. president. "This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq," he shouted as he threw his second shoe.

Now the incident has been overshadowed by the Gaza Strip airstrikes, launched December 27 by the Israel Defense Forces as a response to frequent Palestinian Qassam rocket and mortar fire on Israel's southern civilian communities.

The attention of the international community has remained focused on the same region, but the events taking place there are far from anecdotal. A full-blown war is on, with a large number of civilian victims.

At first glance, the conflict has affected a rather small territory in the Middle East. Yes, people are being killed there, but that happens far more often in the modern world than one would wish.

Can the Gaza Strip conflict escalate into World War III right after the holiday season? In the next few days, Israel will, most likely, launch a ground operation in order to destroy the HAMAS nest of terrorism. However, this will produce dubious results and will be followed by several terrorist acts in Israel itself. Those terrorist attacks will also require a response.

In that case, the conflict could spread to Lebanon and Syria. For many years, Moscow has been trying to involve these two Arab nations in the Middle East peace process. Israel could attack them as well in the near future. The Arab world covertly agrees that HAMAS is a dangerous radical organization that has provoked the present conflict.

However, the situation is likely to change drastically if Israel does not stop in time. For instance, the so-called "Iranian factor" could surface. Analysts say Tehran finances HAMAS and its Lebanese counterpart Hizbollah. Israel could retaliate if Iran makes at least one threatening move.

Israel Defense Forces could hit targets in Iran which may strike back. Although Tehran still has no nuclear weapons, Israel could use its own nuclear arsenal if the situation becomes really bad.

This is the worst possible scenario. Regardless of their sympathies, the concerned parties are calling on the Israeli government to stop the war and to retreat to initial positions. Next year, Israel would also be expected to attend the Moscow conference on the Middle East and to start talking peace in real earnest.

However, the negotiating positions of Israel and all other parties involved would be greatly impaired.

Israel, which does not respond to calls for a cease-fire, is behaving like the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, trying to drag the United States, its main patron, into the conflict or to solve its own problems pending the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama.

Such abnormal situations show that previous U.S. policies were completely misguided. Moreover, it was a mistake to isolate HAMAS, which clearly has the support of the Gaza Strip population.

Major powers, or the international community, to be more exact, will now have to use pressure tactics to persuade Israel to stop bombing residential areas in Gaza, to prevent HAMAS from perpetrating new terrorist acts and to persuade Iran not to scare everyone with its nuclear program.

Who else can speak firmly to Israel, Iran and HAMAS nowadays?

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