But the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees a silver lining to the sobering development at the lightly-used border post: More fodder to recruit allies in its struggle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Netanyahu and his spokesmen have been pushing the line that Hamas is indistinguishable from groups like Al Qaeda or the self-styled Islamic State, a Sunni rebel group that now holds a long stretch of territory in Iraq and meaningful pockets in Syria. The Quneitra takeover serves as yet more fodder for Israel to argue that Al Qaeda-style groups are dedicated to ultimately upending all the Arab regimes as well as destroying Israel, and thus strengthens its alliance with those who see Hamas as part of that threatening trend.
While Netanyahu reached a cease-fire agreement with Hamas yesterday, his government insists that the group is a major regional security threat.
“There is greater understanding both regionally and internationally of the threat these groups pose,” says Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “There is greater understanding of how dual-use items brought into Gaza can be used to rebuild the Hamas military machine.”
Former Israeli national security officials predict that Israel’s efforts to prevent Hamas from rebuilding in the wake of the 50-day conflict will have meaningful support from regional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Many would beg to differ with Israeli assertions that Hamas is just ISIS “in a suit and tie.” Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood; it believes in elections and modern states. The Sunni movement's primary goal is not global but national: liberating Palestine from Israeli occupation. Its prime enemy is Israel, not other Muslims whom it considers apostates. Some of Hamas's strongest allies are Shiites, whereas IS's proposition for Shiites is convert or be murdered.
And Hamas's goals and alliances are unlikely to change based on what IS or Jabhat al-Nusra are doing in Syria or Iraq. So it may be a harder sell than Israeli anticipates to convince that world that Hamas should be dealt with in the same way as those groups.
But for now, at least, Israel has some key allies who share its concerns. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has banned the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and last summer cracked down hard on the Gaza-Sinai smuggling tunnels that provided the lifeblood both for the Hamas government and the people of Gaza.
Saudi Arabia has long hated the Brotherhood and its offshoots like Hamas, which are hostile to hereditary monarchies. The Saudis, like Israel, have been happy to lump all these groups together. Earlier this year, the Kingdom branded the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nusra, and ISIS as terrorist groups.
But what practical effect this will have is uncertain, given that hostility toward Hamas from Egypt and Saudi Arabia isn't new.
For instance, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was intensely hostile to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, something that didn't prevent the group's founding in 1987 nor its rise to prominence. After Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and Fatah, its secular rival, refused to cede power, a brief civil war broke out in Gaza.
Mubarak was if anything more alarmed than Israel was by Hamas's victory, afraid that it would provide a political lift to the Muslim Brotherhood. The US military and Egypt trained about 500 Fatah loyalists in Egypt, and Israel opened the Rafah crossing into Gaza in May 2007 so the men could take the fight to Hamas. But Hamas still prevailed, seizing the weaponry in the process.
New dividing line?
But Uzi Dayan, an IDF general (res.) who formerly headed the Israeli security committee in peace talks with Jordanians, Palestinians, and Syrians, says new dividing lines are emerging in the Middle East based on opposition to terrorism as well as to Shiite Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb.
“These two new dividing lines can produce silent alliances,” he said at a foreign press briefing in Jerusalem today. Among those are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and some Gulf States.
Yaakov Amidror, who served as head of Israel’s National Security Council (NSC) during the last Gaza conflict in November 2012, says that the support of those countries could somehow help lead to Israel's goal of a demilitarized Hamas,
But the group has proven resourceful in obtaining explosives and ammunition during a 7-year-long economic blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.
A former deputy of Israel's NSC, Shaul Shay, is optimistic. He says regional and international support could bolster Israel’s positions in negotiations over Gaza’s future, to take place in a month if the cease-fire is upheld, and lead to a more sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"It’s a golden opportunity to try to go beyond the agreement with the Hamas about the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and to try to improve it into a kind of political process – of course not with Hamas but with the Palestinian Authority, which will become one of the winners of such a process,” says Dr. Shay, now at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “I hope with the backing of the US and EU, from these terrible 50 days something good can come [if] the politicians will be successful.”