The Gaza War is coming at a poignant time for the Shiite world, since the opening 10 days of the first month of the Muslim year, Muharram, are a time of mourning for the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn b. Ali. The tenth of the month, called Ashura, is especially sacred. Some Shiites hold public processions and beat, whip or cut themselves in grief that Husayn was struck down by forces of evil. It is therefore a season of heightened emotionalism, in which the focus is on grieving for the weak, cut down by powerful forces of oppression.
Radical Sunni guerrillas took advantage of this season of processions to the shrines of the Prophet’s descendants to attack the gathered Shiites in Iraq. On Monday, a suicide bomber killed 40 and wounded dozens near the shrine of Imam Musa Kazim at Kadhimiya, north Baghdad. While this tactic might have made a perverted sort of sense two or three years ago, as some Sunni Arabs sought Sunni-Shiite conflict as a way of destabilizing Iraq, now that the Shiites have won the battle for Baghdad so decisively, such attacks are just petty revenge or nihilism. They no longer seem to have much political charge.
Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, are exercised about Gaza.
For the Shiite world (Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, south Lebanon, central Afghanistan and South Asia), the attack on Gaza is being read as the martyrdom of Husayn.
All the leading Shiite clerics condemned Israel and called for aid to the Gazans during the past week.
Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrullah addressed enormous crowds of Shiites in Beirut on Monday, calling Gazans’ resistance to Israel miraculous. He had earlier vehemently attacked Egypt for staying silent and essentially collaborating with Israel in repressing the Palestinians. But Nasrullah has renounced launching an attack on Israel itself.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander and members of the Bahraini parliament called Monday for an oil boycott of the West over the Gaza War.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is refusing to go down that path again. One analyst pointed out that it is easier just to raiee the price with belligerent rhetoric.
The emotionalism of the Ashura season makes it an ideal period during which vehement anti-Israeli and anti-American feeling can be foregrounded.
On Friday, two days after Ashura, there will be a huge protest in the Iranian capital of Tehran.
This whole episode may strengthen the hardliners in Iran and give the regime the excuse it needs to sideline more liberal candidates for prime minister. If Israel prolongs the campaign, there is likely to be increased networking and solidarity among Shiites across national borders. I worry that American targets are closer and easier to hit, and that they will go after the US military as a way of getting at Israel. Nor would the campaign necessarily come during the present operation; Middle Easterners have longer memories about these things than do Americans.
Remember, most Muslims see Israel as merely doing the US bidding in attacking Gaza.
Here is a round up of what the aid agencies have been saying about the situation for civilians in Gaza.
The Analysts at Jane’s Defense Weekly expect the Israeli attack on Gaza to last another 10 days or so. They do not expect it to achieve any tangible success, and therefore predict a long-term poor security situation in southern Israel.
Robert Lowe at Chatham House reviews the background of the crisis and concludes,
‘The Israeli attack offers no remedy, rather it is a symptom and cause of the open-ended Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it is seriously harming a civilian population already enduring great hardship. Israel has tried and failed to crush Hamas and other Palestinian groups before and it has no clear plan for ending the conflict with Hamas or its occupation of Palestinian territory. Israel cannot impose its will by force and one day it will need to talk to the people it is currently punishing through bombardment and blockade.’