Hamas gets bolder

2012-11-17 09:07

Post-Arab Spring Middle East unity has left Israel even more isolated.

Instead of the wedding drums that typically provide the evening soundtrack in this forlorn coastal strip, the black, still air was pierced by gunshots on Thursday as citizens fired celebratory rounds after the ruling Hamas faction announced that one of its rockets had hit an Israeli aircraft.

The Israel Defence Forces denied the hit, though footage on Hamas television and YouTube appeared convincing.

Either way, the reaction was nevertheless emblematic of the latest lopsided battle between this impoverished, intensely crowded and hemmed-in enclave and its militarily mighty neighbour to the north – as was the rat-tat-tat of gunshots being quickly overtaken by the thunder of F-16 strikes across the city.

“The mood of the people is high despite the siege, despite Israeli aggression,” said Dr Hassan Khalaf, director of Al Shifa Hospital, where many of the Palestinian dead and wounded were taken.

“To be killed while smiling or while confident or not confident, the final outcome is death,” Dr Khalaf added. “At least now we feel like we can injure the Israelis while they try to harm us.”

Nearly four years after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead killed about 1?400 Gazans in three weeks of air and ground assaults in response to repeated rocket fire, this new conflict has a decidedly different feel, and not just because Israel has said it has tried to limit its ­attacks to precision strikes.

This time, Israeli forces are fighting a newly emboldened Hamas, supported by the regional powerhouses of Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, and showing its strength compared with a weak and crisis-laden Palestinian Authority.

After months of mostly holding its fire, Hamas has responded forcefully to Israel’s killing on Wednesday of its top military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari.

It sent more than 300 rockets into Israel over 24 hours, with several penetrating the heart of Israel’s population centre around Tel Aviv.

Three civilians were killed in an apartment building 24km north of Gaza and three soldiers were wounded.

For Hamas, the goal is not necessarily a military victory, but a diplomatic one, as it tests its growing alliance with the new Islamist leadership of Egypt and other ­relationships in the Arab world and beyond.

“The conflict shows how much the region has changed since the Arab uprisings began,” said Nathan Thrall, who researches Israel and the Palestinian territories for the International Crisis Group.

“Now when Gaza is under fire, the loudest voices come not from the so-called Axis of Resistance – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – but from US allies such as Egypt and Qatar.”

One possible way out of the crisis, Mr Thrall suggested, would be a three-party deal in which Hamas vows to contain Gaza’s more extreme elements in exchange for improved trade through Rafah, the border crossing controlled by Egypt, as well as Kerem Shalom, the commercial crossing managed by Israel.

“The new X-factor is that Egypt is part of that mix,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Hamas, he said, hopes the message to Israel will be: “You don’t want to mess with us in Gaza because you’ll hurt your relationship with Cairo.”

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has so far rallied to Hamas’ side. He not only recalled his ambassador from Israel, but sent Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to “confirm Egypt’s solidarity with the people of Gaza in the face of the wanton Israeli aggression”.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, thanked Morsi in a televised speech on Thursday “for the quick and brave decisions he made”, adding: “Today’s Egypt is unlike that of yesterday.”

Coming weeks after the emir of Qatar became the first head of state to set foot in Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007, the visit of such a high-ranking Egyptian creates a dilemma for Israel.

The move prompted Israel to agree to a temporary, though flawed, ceasefire. The frail truce barely took root. Even as Prime Minister Hesham Kandil of Egypt arrived in Gaza, Israel Radio said Palestinian militants fired 25 rockets into southern Israel, with one rocket striking a house.

Thursday was the Islamic New Year, but there were no parties here. Normally traffic-clogged boulevards were empty. Marketplaces had shuttered shops and no shoppers. – Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo New York Times

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