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.
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."
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.
"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.
"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."