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Domestic politics fuels Gaza conflict

Israelis and Palestinians both face heated political contests that are adding to the volatility between Israel and Hamas after a six-month cease-fire broke down last week.

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On the Palestinian side, Hamas is locked in a dispute with the secular Fatah Party over the Jan. 9 expiration of the term of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

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The president wants to extend his term in office until the rival parties can agree to hold new elections. Hamas has said they won't recognize Mr. Abbas as president after Jan. 9.

Some observers say the renewed threat of a broader fight with Israel gives leaders in Hamas-controlled Gaza leverage in ongoing, Egyptian-brokered talks with Fatah, which controls the West Bank. "This is muscle flexing to show Fatah that Hamas can disrupt relations between Israel and the [Fatah-controlled] Palestinian Liberation Organization" by using its military arm, says Meir Javedanfar, an analyst in Tel Aviv.

"Because the more there are attacks from Gaza to Israel, the more it is difficult for Israeli leaders to justify a withdrawal. By ending the cease-fire with Israel, Hamas is hoping it can force Fatah to accept its compromise for presidential elections" as well as for other disputes, says Mr. Javedanfar.

Hamas's announcement of a day-long halt to missile strikes marked an effort to give Egypt – which brokered the initial Israeli-Hamas truce – a chance to reestablish the calm.

The renewal of the violence has also stoked concern about the scarcity of currency in Gaza. Israel, which controls the sole commercial crossings into Gaza, has blocked nearly all trade save for humanitarian supplies. Several weeks ago, Israel approved the delivery of nearly 100 million shekels, but the World Bank has warned that more cash is needed to avoid bank collapses and stem the growing black market trade in Gaza.

Even though domestic political rivalries among the Palestinians and Israelis have so far helped inflame tensions on the Gaza front, the same political tensions could, over the longer term, help keep the violence in check.

A ground invasion of Gaza and wider missile attacks on Israeli cities could hurt Livni and her incumbent Kadima Party – seen as one of the moderates who support a two-state solution to the conflict – in upcoming polls. The military hawks of Likud will likely gain even more ground if violence escalates again on the border with Gaza.

Some Palestinians say Hamas's use of force is ultimately a means to force another cease-fire agreement with Israel – but a truce that it considers more attractive than the one reached six months ago.

Hamas wants a commitment from Israel to ease restrictions on cross-border trade and the passage of people at Gaza's borders. Israel's blockade of the strip has led to vast shortages of basic goods, such as flour, and shortfalls of fuel and electricity.

At the same time, Hamas won't be able to fight Israel effectively if it doesn't mend its rift first with the Fatah Party, argued Hafez Barghouti in the Palestinian daily Al Hayat Al Jadidah.

"Hamas wants to show the Palestinian public that it can get a calm and better accords from Israel than the Palestinian Authority," he wrote. "Hamas cannot convince anybody that it is interested in the escalation with Israel because to prepare for a war you have to strengthen your internal front by uniting all forces."

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