Why Hamas is a growing challenge for Israel
Saturday's suicide bombings at Kerem Shalom are part of a shift toward the tactics of Lebanon-based Hizbullah, presenting Israel with a new-old dilemma: invade or try to broker a cease-fire.
Even as Jimmy Carter was seeking a promise from Hamas leaders this weekend to cease rocket attacks on Israel, the militant organization launched what a top Israeli army commander called its most aggressive cross-border attempt since Palestinians took over the Gaza Strip in 2005.Skip to next paragraph
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On Saturday, militants using jeeps disguised as Israeli army vehicles approached an Israeli border crossing and detonated the vehicles in twin suicide attacks that injured 13. A senior leader promised that worse was to come if Israel, which responded with airstrikes that killed seven militants, doesn't loosen Gaza's "siege" – a 10-month economic blockade of the territory.
The uptick in border-fence attacks – Saturday's was the fourth in less than a month – increasingly suggests that Hamas is emulating the tactics of the Lebanon-based Hizbullah militant group, adding a new dimension to the conflict with Israel. A border ambush last Wednesday helped push the casualty toll this year of Israeli soldiers killed inside Gaza to eight, on pace with the annual death rate inflicted by Hizbullah in southern Lebanon in the late 1990s.
"Rocket fire was popular with the Palestinian public but frowned upon by the international community, whereas [by] drawing soldiers into Gaza and getting them into ambushes, they get the credit for killing Israel soldiers and they don't get the animus of world.... This is the next challenge for Israel."
For Israel, which responded with strikes that left 20 Palestinians dead, the decision between invasion or working toward a cease-fire in Gaza recalls similar dilemmas in southern Lebanon.
Hamas: weightier military force
Hamas, which Israel says has dispatched military officers to Hizbullah patron Iran to hone their skills, has bulked up the ranks of its fighting force and organized it into regional brigades with disciplined soldiers.
After taking control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party last year, they've bolstered their arsenal with foreign-made rockets and more antitank missiles. In the same way that Hizbullah created an elaborate network of bunkers in southern Lebanon in anticipation of an Israeli invasion, Hamas is also believed to have dug themselves in by booby-trapping Gaza refugee camps.
That's created a measure of deterrence against Israel, which realizes that the death toll of its soldiers will be high, and the number of Palestinian civilian casualties will be even higher – likely sparking international condemnation.
"[Gazans] feel that this is a serious resistance movement, not just the game of boys," says Eyad Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. "People think that Israel will think 100 times before they dare to come into Gaza.... Everything that happens now, people are reminded of Hizbullah tactics."