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Gaza conflict takes on a deadlier perspective

THE Gaza Strip has always been hardcore.

CONFLICT: Israel fires rockets into the Gaza Strip; and, far left, concrete piping provides an improvised bomb shelter in Kiryat Malachi; and the funeral of Hamas chief Ahmed Jabari.
CONFLICT: Israel fires rockets into the Gaza Strip; and, far left, concrete piping provides an improvised bomb shelter in Kiryat Malachi; and the funeral of Hamas chief Ahmed Jabari.

Home to the toughest Palestinian resistance and object of the Israeli military's most punitive tactics, it comes as no surprise that it was here back in 1987 that the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out in the squalor of Jabaliya refugee camp.

Back in those days and in the years that followed, from every rooftop antenna, mast or pole flew the flags of Gaza's myriad Palestinian factions. The green of Hamas, yellow of Fatah, pale blue of the Abu Rish Brigades, white of the al Aqsa Brigades and the black of Islamic Jihad. In the intervening years the respective influence and fortunes of these various groups has ebbed and flowed in Gaza.

In great part, this has had to do with the growing dominance of Hamas after its election win in 2006 and its routing from Gaza in 2007 of Fatah, the largest organisation in the PLO. Since then it has been Hamas that has largely called the shots and for that reason has found itself bearing the brunt of Israeli efforts to quell militancy in this restive coastal strip.

Far from being anything new, the events of the past few days have a profound sense of déjà-vu about them. The targeted assassination by Israel of Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas's military wing, and the response by Palestinian fighters who yesterday fired rockets into the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi killing three people, is the kind of tit-for-tat bloodletting that has become a familiar if disquieting pattern.

Always though, the bottom line to all of this is Israel's periodic need to clip the wings of Hamas even if, as recent evidence suggests, Hamas has little to gain currently through any escalation of the conflict with Israel. Time and again Hamas leaders have pointed out that responsibility for the recent surge of rocket attacks on Israel is the work of radical Islamist and fringe groups over which it has little control.

The veracity of such a claim is of course open to question, and like most things in this interminable conflict, will remain bitterly contested between those within Hamas's hierarchy and Israel's intelligence community.

What has become undeniably clear, however, is Israel's increasing nervousness over a shifting political dynamic in the region that sees Hamas stand to benefit. This, rather than rocket attacks on Israeli soil is what most likely lies behind Israel's latest attempt to neuter Hamas.

Turmoil and instability from Egypt to Syria, both of which border Israel, is giving Hamas more room to manoeuvre in the Middle East and limiting Jerusalem's options as it tries to stifle the Islamist movement's growth.

As analysts from the independent intelligence think-tank Stratfor and others point out, for some time the Israelis have wanted to see the Syrian regime crumble and thus weaken Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

But the Israelis are also now concerned that the Shia Islamist-led regional bloc, which includes Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria's Alawite-led minorities, could give way to one dominated by Sunni Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.

In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood – the world's oldest and largest Islamist movement – has become a centre of power second only to Egypt's military establishment. Already it has called on President Mohammed Morsi to re-evaluate Egypt's relationship with Israel because of the ongoing airstrikes on Gaza.

Likewise, Sunni empowerment in Syria at the expense of President Bashar al Assad would also serve to benefit Hamas, given that it maintains numerous links to Syria's state and society, and hopes to see the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (organisationally dormant since the early 1980s but with a significant latent social presence) play a key role in Syria should Assad's regime eventually fall.

In both Egypt and Syria such scenarios, should they play out, would give Hamas a powerful presence in two of Israel's major Arab neighbours.

It is within this context that Israel's latest offensive against Hamas and Gaza should be seen. According to reports cited in Israel's online Hebrew news portal Ynet, the country's Home Front Minister, Avi Dichter, has said that Gaza needs to be "reformatted".

Drawing parallels with Israel's 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, which attempted to crush Palestinian resistance in the West Bank, Mr Dichter says that the ongoing Operation Pillar of Defence in Gaza should aim to "clean it out".

Mr Dichter's views were echoed by Ynet columnist, Ron Ben-Yishai, who wrote that the goal of the current military offensive is to "restore Israel's deterrence through a series of painful attacks on top military figures and assets belonging to all the terror organisations in Gaza, with an emphasis on Hamas". Interestingly, Mr Ben-Yishai – who is said to have close ties with the security establishment – also asserted that this week's attack on Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari and other related strikes "was planned a long time ago, but it was postponed due to the election campaign". Just which election Mr Ben-Yishai was referring to – the recent US presidential or the forthcoming Israeli election scheduled for January – was not clear.

Suffice to say that in the past it has not been unknown for Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to use such military crackdowns to reaffirm his political strongman credentials.

Whatever the reason for the current timing of the Gaza attack, clearly recent geopolitical shifts in Israel's immediate neighbourhood have presented a major predicament for Mr Netanyahu. For the moment, Israel's options are limited, but no doubt its previously tried and tested pounding of Gaza will once again be a key weapon, as will its tactic of manipulating Hamas's main rival Fatah in the Palestinian territories as leverage against the Islamist group's power base in Gaza.

As for Hamas, it can take the risk of making good on the warning by its armed wing of "opening the gates of hell" or try to defuse the situation and continue to consolidate its recent regional relationship strengthening with other Arab states. Either way, dangerous days lie ahead.

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