EREZ, Israel -- In a small cafe not far from the border with Gaza, Israeli reserve soldiers sipped coffee Friday morning and mused about what they might face if they are ordered to invade the densely populated coastal strip that is governed by the Islamist groups Hamas.
On the television, Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was giving a speech after a three-hour visit to Gaza in which he pledged support for Hamas. “This situation cannot be tolerated,” he said, referring the Israeli bombing of targets throughout Gaza in retaliation for militants firing rockets into Israel. “The whole world has to intervene to stop the military operations on Gaza.”
Earlier in the day, Kandil had kissed the corpse of a Palestinian child – a dramatic sign of sympathy and one that was echoed in Cairo by Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi. “I say confidently that Egypt will not leave Gaza alone,” Morsi intoned in his Friday sermon delivered at Cairo’s Fatima al Sharbatli Mosque.
“Now, that’s great,” said one Israeli reservist who had fought in Gaza four years ago during Operation Cast Lead, a brutal military campaign that left 1,300 Palestinians dead. “This time when I go into Gaza, they have their big brother watching them.”
As violence escalated between Israel and Gaza on Friday, with many anticipating a weekend order to invade, a realization was growing across Israel’s political and military echelons that the Arab Spring had changed the equation in Israel’s dealings with Hamas-run Gaza: Unlike four years ago, the Hamas Authority is no longer an isolated entity, estranged from its Arab neighbors.
Four years ago, Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt’s president, quietly shut Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza at Rafah. Morsi has thrown it open 24 hours a day so that any wounded Gazan could seek treatment in Egypt.
In the wake of Kandil’s visit, Tunisia’s foreign minister announced that he, too, will visit the besieged enclave. Oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf announced that they will provide support and backing to the people of Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party has long battled with Hamas, expressed support. The largest anti-Israel demonstration in Egypt in decades drew tens of thousands into the streets of Cairo on Friday.
“Clearly, Hamas has felt emboldened by the changes in the region generally, and that has redounded to their benefit,” Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, told reporters in a telephone conference call.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry officials said the situation was “infinitely more complex” in light of the Arab Spring movements that swept across the region.
“We are not dealing with known entities in the region around us the way we used to. We are dealing with unknowns of the most dangerous kinds,” said one Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.
He said that there was worry across Israel that regimes destabilized by the Arab Spring such as Syria, Jordan and Egypt could try to focus attention on Gaza as a way of diverting attention from their own domestic woes.
Meanwhile, Israeli military officials argued that regime changes in Libya and Egypt have allowed more weapons to be smuggled into Gaza, including Fajr-5 rockets from Iran that Hamas militants have fired deep into Israel, crashing harmlessly into open areas near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but nevertheless bringing war closer to Israel’s main population centers than it has been in more than 20 years.