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Deaths of teenagers could be pretext for an attack

ONCE again the respective narratives of victimhood are being played out between Israelis and Palestinians.

This time the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers and one Palestinian has provided the fuel to fire this perennial conflict that simmers day in, day out when not burning out of control.

Yesterday, the United Nations once again found itself voicing outrage and condemning both sides for the flare-up in violence, but as ever it appeared powerless to do more.

On the ground, meanwhile, events were already falling into a pattern of escalation, with Israel launching air strikes and beefing up its forces along its frontier with the Gaza Strip. It was, said the Israelis, a "defensive deployment" in response to persistent Palestinian cross-border rocket attacks.

The streets of Jerusalem were tense following an eruption of Palestinian street rioting on Wednesday and news of a delay to the funeral of the murdered ­Palestinian teenager so a post-mortem examination can be completed.

In the decades I have covered this bitter struggle between these two implacable foes, such a chain of events is depressingly familiar. While the murder of these four young teenagers from both communities is barbaric, tragic and sure to flare emotions, it does need to be set against the politics currently being played out in the region.

A good place to start is with the question of who might have been responsible for the teenagers' deaths. So far no one on either side has taken responsibility for their disappearance and killing. In the case of the three young Jewish men, the Israeli authorities are of course emphatically clear that Hamas, the Islamist group that dominates the Gaza Strip, are to blame. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister ­Benjamin Netanyahu, said as much in an interview following their deaths.

From the Palestinians' point of view, responsibility for the murder of their own youngster has been placed squarely on Jewish settlers.

"The settlers have killed and burned a little boy. They are well known," insisted Palestinian ­President Mahmoud Abbas Abbas, accusing Israel of tolerating settler violence toward Palestinians.

As ever, the Israeli authorities have not released all they know about the deaths of the three Israeli victims but the country's internal security service, the Shin Bet, did name what they say are two known Hamas operatives, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aysha, as the prime suspects.

"We are confident Hamas is behind this attack and that the operatives are Hamas," Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israel Defence Forces spokesman, is on the record as saying. "But we can't say whether they received a directive from Gaza or abroad."

Hamas has denied ­responsibility, which poses a pressing question for security analysts as to whether the act was sanctioned by Hamas or carried out by a rogue cell ­working out of Hebron, the city where the men came from. But there is another possibility too.

Ansar Beit al Maqdis, another new jihadist group that has pledged allegiance to The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) - which is currently controlling vast swathes of Syria and Iraq - says it carried out the killing of the young Israelis.

Based in Egypt, Ansar Beit al Maqdis has already conducted a number of high-profile terrorist operations including bombings and attacks. It posted its claims of responsibility for the Israeli ­killings on a Jihadist Media ­Platform that is an official forum for Isis statements.

While only time will reveal who indeed killed the young men, Israel is not likely to make any distinction over any levels of Hamas involvement.

Indeed some analysts argue that any Hamas link, no matter how tenuous, would prove very ­convenient for the Israelis, who sense an opportunity to strike again at the Gaza powerhouse of the group.

Ever since Hamas and its ­Palestinian secular rival group Fatah ended their seven-year feud last month and formed a unity government, Israel recognised a renewed threat it has been keen to neutralise.

For its part, Hamas is fairly vulnerable right now. In its Gaza stronghold efforts at governing appear to have cost it significant public backing.

According to a recent poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, if elections were held today for Palestinian Authority president, Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal would only garner a combined 15 per cent in Gaza - compared to Fatah leader Mr Abbas's 30 per cent.

As if these political woes were not enough, Hamas is also ­struggling financially. According to regional watchers for the ­influential Foreign Policy ­magazine, the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and the subsequent ­military-led crackdown on the smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza to the Egyptian Sinai has cut off its main source of revenue.

Knowing all of this and more, Israeli military strategists no doubt sense the perfect moment to turn the screw, taking advantage of Hamas under pressure.

Launching any all-out attack on Gaza without some pretext is always difficult for Israeli leaders to explain away.

Should evidence show a Hamas link to the Israeli teenagers' deaths, arguing that case would become much easier.

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