As Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ramps up his campaign for a United Nations vote on statehood in September, the Gaza Strip is buzzing with speculation that Israel and radical Palestinian elements could derail the effort with cross-border violence.
Militants in the Hamas-run territory recently launched Qassam rockets into Israel for the first time in three months, breaking a tenuous cease-fire and drawing retaliatory attacks from Israel. Israel said yesterday that 24 rockets have been fired on its territory so far this month.
Many Gazans blame Israel for provoking the violence in a bid to torpedo not only the UN statehood bid but also a tentative reconciliation deal between Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah. The unity deal, which is hung up on final details, would end a four-year internal divide and allow the rivals to present a united front against Israel.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged President Abbas, who also heads Fatah, not to reconcile with the Islamist Hamas movement, Abbas's bitter foe and considered to be a terrorist group by the US and Israel.
“Israel will save no effort to spoil the agreement. Israel well knows the renewal of violence along the Gaza-Israel borders will hamper the Palestinian efforts for both statehood and reconciliation,” says Mukhaimar Abu Saada, a Gaza-based political analyst and writer. “This also means that Israel can no more use the internal Palestinian conflict as an excuse to avoid carrying out its obligations regarding peace talks and solving the prolonged conflict with the Palestinians.”
Who's behind the escalation?
But some analysts say influential members of Hamas’s military wing who oppose the reconciliation with Fatah might be behind the last round of violence.
“Hamas had to sign the reconciliation agreement because of popular pressure as well as losing its patron, the Syrian regime, which is now busy working to extinguish a popular revolution that aims to topple the government there,” says Atef Abu Saif, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
Now that Hamas is not coming under any pressure, says Prof. Abu Saif, there are many Hamas military commanders who are unwilling to reconcile with Fatah and are not ready to give up the fortune and power they have gained since 2007, when they took over Gaza, formerly controlled by Fatah.
“Knowing the fact that Israel cannot launch a war because of the regional developments, those Hamas commandos might have attempted to open a new front in the fight against Israel to distract from the growing calls to finalize the reconciliation pact,” he says.
Hamas officials, however, hold Israel responsible for the military escalation, accusing it of creating pretexts to carry out more attacks on Gaza.
“We have agreed on a truce, and it’s Israel who broke it, not the Palestinians. The international community should see who is attacking the other,” says Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas member of Parliament. “We will fight back if the Israelis keep targeting us.”
The limited escalation that began on July 13 and eventually left three Palestinians dead and 25 others injured comes after months of quiet along the Gaza-Israel borders. The violence erupted after seven rockets fired from Gaza landed in neighboring Israeli communities, drawing a fierce Israeli military response.
Prior to this month, the previous round of violence took place in April when Gaza militants attacked an Israeli school bus with a missile, killing an Israeli schoolboy. Israel at the time responded with several air strikes, killing at least 20 Palestinians, three children among them.
Israel says its attacks on militant targets are not meant to escalate violence with the Palestinians, but rather deter Gaza militants from sending their rockets into Israeli communities and killing civilians. Israel has also accused Hamas, which maintains an unofficial truce with the Jewish state, of not having full control over rocket throwers, despite its attempts to prevent them.
Tensions are running high over the possibility of a new Israeli offensive on the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. But not everyone thinks the situation will turn into a new war between Israel and the Palestinians, like the 22-day Operation Cast Lead that started in December 2008 with the aim of putting an end to rocket fire from Gaza. The war left 13 Israelis and more than 1,400 Palestinians dead.
Hani Habib, a political analyst and a former journalist in Gaza, says that Israel may intentionally provoke rocket attacks by Gazan militants with rocket attacks of its own and assassinations of Gazan political and militant leaders. Israel, he says, could then use the incidents to gain support from the international community.
“Such groups provide Israel with excuses to show that Gaza is a terror mob that only thinks of getting rid of the Jews,” Mr. Habib says.
“These groups will definitely respond against Israel, and this will get international support for Israel’s position."