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Israel retaliates against Gaza, but deterrence game has changed

Egypt's weakening control in the Sinai, from which militants launched attacks that killed eight Israelis yesterday, is a wild card in the policy of mutual deterrence between Israel and Hamas.

By Correspondent, Ahmed AldabbaContributor / August 19, 2011

Israeli soldiers secure the area near roads leading to the sites of several attacks in the Arava desert, near the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat, Friday, Aug. 19. On Thursday, gunmen who appear to have originated in Gaza and who crossed into southern Israel through the Egyptian desert ambushed civilian vehicles traveling on a remote road in southern Israel, killing eight people. Six were civilians, and two were members of Israeli security forces responding to the incursion.

Dan Balilty/AP


Tel Aviv; and Gaza City, Gaza

For more than two years, a policy of mutual deterrence has prevailed between Israel and Hamas along the Gaza Strip border.

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But Thursday’s militant attacks that killed eight Israelis and Israel's retaliatory air strikes on Gaza highlight a wild card that could destabilize the already precarious region.

Weakening Egyptian authority in the sparsely populated Sinai peninsula, which shares a long porous border with southern Israel, offers militants a new route of attack. That creates dilemmas for both Israel and Hamas, neither of which is looking for a major conflict now, say analysts.

"This attack was more than Hamas wanted," says Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

But both Hamas and Israel are but constrained in their ability to deter violence in the Sinai. Unlike attacks launched from Gaza – a small, densely populated territory run by Hamas – attacks launched from the Sinai are potentially harder to trace to a specific group, and thus harder to assign ultimate responsibility for.

"Israel has always wanted to deliver the same message that militant groups in Gaza can be harmed," says Talal Okal, a Gaza-based political analyst. "Now the deterrence challenge has changed. The militants from Gaza can start attacks miles away from Gaza."

Sinai security vacuum?

On Thursday, militants launched a series of attacks on Israeli vehicles near the Sinai-Israel border, not far from the southern resort city of Eilat. Eight Israelis were killed, including one soldier and a policeman. While no group took responsibility, many Israelis blamed Hamas for at least an indirect role in fostering militants who then traveled from Gaza through the Sinai to attack Israel's southern border.

"Hamas once again wants to remind the world that it can ignite violence whenever and wherever it wants," Mr. Okal says. "It has used the lawlessness and the absence of security in the Sinai to build up and train militant groups that can reach Israel easily since the borders with Gaza are heavily fortified."

Officials and analysts in both Israel and Gaza blamed the attacks on a weakening of Egyptian security in the wake of the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

"Since the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the Sinai Peninsula is suffering from a security vacuum," says Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al Azhar University.

In the wake of Egypt's revolution, Sinai could become a lawless Arab-Israeli flash point like southern Lebanon in the 1980s, says Professor Frisch of Bar Ilan University. That would give the Islamist militant Hamas rulers in Gaza reach beyond their border by allowing militants to travel into Sinai through the underground tunnels along the Gaza-Sinai border.

Hamas seen as being caught off guard


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