Israeli strikes in Gaza risk political win for Hamas

The Islamist militants in Gaza may emerge as a symbol of defiance, much as Hezbollah did in its 2006 war with Israel.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Protests widen: Palestinian protestors threw stones at Israeli troops Monday on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Baz Ratner/Reuters
On the border: Israeli tanks were poised at a staging area on Gaza's border Monday during a third day of airstrikes on Hamas positions.

After Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite militants emerged claiming victory and exalted across the Arab world. Even its harshest critics praised the group's endurance against overwhelming Israeli force. Today Hezbollah is more powerful – politically and militarily – than ever before.

As its assault on Gaza militants continues, Israel runs the risk of seeing Hamas emerge in much the same way as Hezbollah did two years ago. Already the deadly strikes have led to a burst of criticism aimed at pro-Western Middle East governments and sparked rallies supporting Hamas in the region and in Europe.

"Although very costly in terms of material and human damage, politically speaking it is strengthening Hamas because of the huge sympathy from it being targeted," says Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority labor minister. "This is being used by political Islamic parties all over the region."

So far the Israeli pummeling of Gaza has obliterated Hamas government and security buildings, pushing the death toll beyond 300. Israeli aircraft destroyed symbols of Hamas power Monday, hitting a target near the home of Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh, a security compound, and a building at Gaza's Islamic University.

Inside Israel, dozens of rockets fell on the city of Ashkelon and the town of Sderot in the morning. Those attacks killed one Arab Israeli construction worker.

On Monday, Israeli troops and tanks also began amassing on the border with Gaza and reserve soldiers were called up for a possible ground invasion, which would undoubtedly see a spike in Palestinian casualties and possibly many Israeli deaths, as well.

In the 2006 conflict in Lebanon – triggered by Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a massive aerial attack against Hezbollah's headquarters in Beirut and positions in southern Lebanon. The bombardment was followed by a ground invasion.

He declared that the campaign would continue until the battle-hardened Lebanese group was disarmed and dismantled.

But Hezbollah refused to succumb, and continued to pound northern Israel with rockets fired from hidden underground bunkers. A month later, Mr. Olmert was forced to accept a cease-fire that left Hezbollah claiming a "divine victory" and free to rebuild its arsenal. Two and a half years on, Israel estimates Hezbollah has three times the number of rockets it possessed on the eve of the 2006 war.

The conflict led to the resignations of the Israeli defense minister and the army chief of staff and hastened the collapse of Olmert's political career. This time around, however, Olmert and his cabinet colleagues have been careful not to make promises they cannot keep.

"One thing they have learned from Lebanon is to keep their mouths shut. I have never seen the Israelis so low-key and not bragging from the outset," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut who served from 1979 to 2003 with the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.

In an address Monday, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah called the Gaza conflict a "Palestinian copy" of the war that Hezbollah fought against Israel.

Sheikh Nasrallah also called on Egyptians to pressure their government to aid Hamas by opening up the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to allow humanitarian aid and goods to flow in, breaking the Israeli blockade of the coastal enclave.

Hamas, which has also called for the crossing to be opened, has increased pressure on Arab leaders by calling on them to break off ties with Israel.

In another echo of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, the fighting in Gaza is exacerbating rivalries within the Arab world. There's increasing criticism of pro-Western governments like Egypt for allegedly being complicit in the Israeli attacks. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are also coming under fire.

Moved by the graphic pictures of carnage on Arab satellite television, grass-roots groups in Arab countries are sympathizing with Hamas in Gaza rather than the positions of their governments, say observers.

"Most popular movements are lambasting the Israelis, Arab leaders, and the US, and – even more than in the Lebanon war – public opinion seems to be firmly on the side of Gaza rather than Riyadh and Cairo," wrote Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington.

In Saudi Arabia on Monday, police fired rubber bullets to break up a pro-Palestinian protest, injuring up to eight people, but a government official denied the report. Residents said between 200 and 300 people took part in the march in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province. In Athens Monday, about 300 Greek and Arab protesters waving Palestinian flags gathered outside the Israeli Embassy north of the city center for one of several rallies or demonstrations planned during the evening.

In its defense, Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Abu Gheit, blamed Hamas's missile attacks against Israel for escalating the conflict.

Similar criticism was voiced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who, in an interview with the Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, blamed Hamas for its refusal to renew a six-month ceasefire as the main reason for the fighting.

"It is not the sole reason, but it is the direct reason," he told the paper. "The pretext that was given to Israel is that there is no cease-fire, so there is aggression. If there were a cease-fire there would have been a long hesitation in starting such a fierce attack. It is true that there were various attacks in the past months, but they were bearable. We hope the 'calm' will be restored."

To be sure, there are many differences between the 2006 war and the Gaza conflict. Hezbollah was much better organized and had greater freedom of action – militarily and politically. It also had much greater freedom of movement and a network of underground tunnels in which to hide.

Palestinian militants have been able to step up their attacks on southern Israel, which they did Monday, and police reported dozens of rockets fell in the morning, primarily in the areas of Sderot and Ashkelon. The fatality in Ashkelon, a coastal city just a few miles from the Gaza border, was the first ever from a Palestinian rocket.

As Police Commander David Bitan surveyed the missile site in Ashkelon, phone calls and two-way radio messages interrupted with alerts from cities around the Gaza border region. Bitan said that the police were not surprised by the stepped up attacks, and plan for the strikes to continue.

Initial celebration in southern Israel over the Israeli assault was replaced by caution as some residents described the city as a ghost town, with people staying home from work, schools closed, and shopping malls shuttered by order of the Israeli army's home-front command.

As Arik Dustra closed his electronics shop at mid day to go home to his 16-year-old sister, he described hearing a missile touch down in a soccer stadium across the street.

"I've been a soldier for four years and I've seen similar strikes.This is like duck hunting, he said. "We felt protected by the military. I want peace, but I want to give [Hamas] a piece… I want them to feel like we feel. When there is a missile they don't know where to hide."

Nicholas Blanford contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon; material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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