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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.

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In the past two weeks, Hamas militants made three attempts to infiltrate Israel: first, an attack on an Israeli fuel terminal on the border; second an ambush last Wednesday that killed three soldiers; and a firefight the next day at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, where Saturday's attack also took place.

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"I definitely see a rise in the capabilities of Hamas and a rise in the motivation, and I see an increase in the level of assistance that Hamas is getting from Iran and Hizbullah," said Danny Rothschild, a retired general, in an interview last week with Israel Radio. "Hamas is trying more and more to carry out military operations. "I assume it will continue to do this along the fence and through missile fire, as much as possible."

In addition to their combat forces, the Islamists in Gaza have also started using foreign-made Katyusha rockets, which have a longer range and a more powerful explosive than the locally manufactured Qassam rockets. The threat recalls Hizbullah's ability to rain missiles down on northern Israel that the Israel army was unable to neutralize during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

A headline in the Israeli newspaper Maariv last week described the challenge as "Lebanon syndrome."

No Gaza invasion likely soon

To be sure, Hamas has yet to attain the fighting sophistication and weapons stockpile of Hizbullah.

"In many ways they remind us of Hizbullah, but they're not Hizbullah yet," says Amos Harel, the military correspondent for Haaretz who coauthored a book on the Lebanon war. "You shouldn't exaggerate the proportion, but there is a change."

At the same time, the Israel-Hamas standoff in Gaza involves different geopolitical terrain from Lebanon. Unlike Lebanon, Israel has nearly sealed all of the borders of the Gaza Strip. Hamas's recent attacks on Israeli crossing terminals where basic foodstuffs and fuel are allowed passage is meant to focus international attention on the economic blockade, analysts say.

Israeli hawks like Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz have called on the government to order an all-out invasion of the Gaza Strip to strike at Hamas before it becomes "Hizbullah II."

"It is already too late to dismantle the Iranian outpost without a fierce fight," says Mr. Steinitz. "If Israel will continue to wait, this will soon become a much more dangerous trap, and much more costly to neutralize."

Analysts say that if Israel does decide on a Gaza invasion, it won't take place until after its 60th-anniversary celebrations in May.

On the other hand, cease-fire mediation efforts led by Egypt, and more recently by former President Carter, could avert the gradual escalation while preserving the balance of power – just as international mediation was necessary to end the Lebanon war in 2006.

"People who are fighting are always trying to learn from other fronts and other wars. Certainly Hamas is trying to imitate Hizbullah," says Hanna Sinora, codirector of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. "For the past three years, the violence has escalated to such a degree, that I believe that both sides would prefer a cease-fire if they evaluate the situation. I hope that is the case."