The most significant volley of Gaza attacks and Israeli reprisals since last year's Operation Cast Lead raised concern over the weekend that tensions could escalate between Israel and Hamas. Meanwhile, additional rocket attacks on Monday apparently aimed toward the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat raised speculation of Hamas involvement there as well.
But Palestinian analysts say that Hamas, while a potential spoiler in peace talks that look likely to move ahead, has more of an interest in maintaining calm. Increased rocket fire from Gaza risks forfeiting the sympathy its residents – and its Hamas rulers – have garnered after Israel's fatal raid on activists challenging the Gaza blockade.
"It’s against Hamas’ interest to fire rockets," says Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank. "They are trying to cool the situation with the Israelis to win international support for the release of the [blockade]."
While Israel eased the blockade amid international furor over its fatal raid on the Mavi Mamara, the United Nations is pushing for an in-depth investigation that could increase pressure for a further opening of the blockade.
The naval blockade that the activists were challenging remains firmly in place – a precaution, Israel says, against Iranian arms shipments reaching Hamas – and badly needed building materials have yet to move freely into the territory amid Israeli fears that they will be used to bolster bunkers. Strict limitations on banking and travel remain in place.
Israel holds Hamas responsible
One rocket hit the Israeli city of Ashkelon, and a second landed near an Israeli college next to the town of Sderot – a frequent target of the rocket fire that precipitated Israel's offensive against Gaza. All told, four rockets were fired into Israel over the past week. No one was injured by the rockets, but Israel’s retaliatory attacks killed a Hamas military leader.
Though the rockets were fired by Palestinian militias not affiliated with Hamas, the Islamist movement is considered by both Palestinian and Israelis to be firmly in control of Gaza and able to enforce a moratorium on rocket fire if it desires.
"I view Hamas as being directly responsible for any attack on the State of Israel that originates in the Gaza Strip, and this is how the international community must see things,’’ said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting. "Israel reserves the right to defend its citizens."
Fresh clash could redirect criticism toward Hamas
Hamas used the uptick in violence to denounce the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who just received the backing of the Arab League to enter direct peace talks with Israel. The league's backing was meant to give President Abbas political cover to move ahead despite the fact that Israel has so far refused to meet Palestinian preconditions for such talks.
"Our people in Gaza are paying a toll for the huge error and political sin committed by the Arab Peace Initiative’s follow-up committee against the Palestinian people,’’ said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, the Palestinian news website Maan reported. "The committee has given the Israeli occupation the pretext and coverage they needed to attack our people and continue with settlement activities and displacement.’’
"Things are going their way on the political level. Hamas knows it has a lot of support internationally," says Jamil Rabah, who runs a polling research firm based in Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of the PA.
Mr. Rabah adds that Hamas realizes that a fresh clash in Gaza could redirect domestic criticism, now focused on the PA, back toward itself.
"They know that the Palestinian Authority isn’t very popular in the West Bank, so their best bet is to strengthen their grip in Gaza [and] maintain their [political] position," he says.
Reminder of Hamas veto power?
Some Israeli analysts believe that Hamas’s tolerance of the attacks is meant to signal to Israel, the US, and the Palestinian government in Ramallah that they have veto power over any agreement.
"Hamas seems left out because Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization seem headed toward direct talks, and [Hamas] wants to highlight its role as a spoiler," says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv. "It’s in order to say that ... their importance should not be overlooked."