Friday, April 8, 2011

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Israel and Hamas in a dangerous game
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - A second Gaza war in just over two years is, strictly speaking, not imminent; at least not until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to the country on Friday, following a trip to Germany and the Czech Republic. While neither side seems to want a full-scale collision (or so they say), violence is steadily rising, and the time between successive escalations is shrinking.

A public relations campaign is in full swing, and both sides are positioning for a vantage point in any blame game that would undoubtedly accompany a war. Israel's northern front is tense as well, and as the Jewish state faces unprecedented challenges following the Arab revolts practically everywhere around it, its

leaders have to make fateful choices about the use of force.

On Thursday, an advanced anti-tank missile fired from the Gaza Strip destroyed an Israeli school bus, critically wounding a 16-year old boy and moderately injuring the driver. A greater tragedy was avoided only by chance, since the driver had already dropped off the rest of the passengers and the driver and boy were the only people left in the bus. Only a few minutes earlier, one report has it, a large group of children had disembarked at a nearby community.

Israel responded with over a dozen air and artillery strikes in Gaza that killed at least five people and wounded more than 40. One of the dead was reportedly a civilian in his fifties, while the other four were Hamas militants, including a commander. The injured included an unknown number of civilians. At the same time, militants in the Strip fired around 45 mortars and short-range missiles into Israel, one of which reportedly struck a house; no casualties were reported. In a twist, another missile was intercepted before it could hit the Israeli city of Ashkelon by the domestically-developed Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. This marked the first battle test of the new system, as well as, according to analysts, the first interception of a short-range rocket in "world history."

At 11 pm local time on Thursday, Hamas, whose armed wing claimed responsibility for the school bus attack, declared a unilateral ceasefire, but the Israeli air force continued to bomb smuggling tunnels and other targets throughout the night. Israeli experts estimated that the missile was fired from a distance of four to five kilometers, and that the militants who launched it aimed at a school bus with the full intention to commit a massacre and provoke the Jewish State. A senior defense official, quoted by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, claimed that Hamas aimed to establish a "balance of terror".

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that Israeli responses would continue "in order to make clear that things like this cannot continue". Netanyahu also vowed to take "all necessary action" as soon as he returns on Friday.

The violence comes in the wake of numerous other escalations in recent days and weeks. I outlined some of what now serves as context to the current round in two articles titled Jerusalem bomb seeds gathering conflict (Asia Times Online, March 24, 2011) andFighting drowns out talking (Asia Times Online, March 23, 2011). It is a convoluted tale of several major terror attacks, including one in Jerusalem that broke a period of several years of relative calm; the interception of a ship carrying Iranian weapons, most likely for Gaza; rocket and mortar attacks from the Strip; Israeli retaliatory and pre-emptive strikes that killed dozens, including civilians; the abduction of a Gaza engineer in Ukraine; reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas; and increasing international pressure on Israel related to the Palestinian bid to achieve statehood some time this year.

The more recent developments are hardly any less diverse or difficult to interpret. On Tuesday, the Sudanese authorities accused Israel of conducting a mysterious air strike on a car in Sudan killed two people. According to most versions that have emerged so far, the dead were important arms smugglers, but there are conflicting reports of their identity and nationality. Some sources have it that both were Sudanese, perhaps working for Hamas, others claim that one was an "Arab national"; there is even speculation that one was Iranian.

According to a report in the Palestinian news agency Ma'an, "Palestinian security officials said that the target [Abdul-Latif Ashkar] in what has been alleged to be an Israeli strike on Sudan was the successor to assassinated Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh." Mabhouh was killed in Dubai last year in mysterious circumstances, and the Israeli Mossad is widely believed to be behind his assassination. He was allegedly a key figure in the Hamas arms smuggling network.

The Israeli intelligence analysis website Debka File, known for occasionally spreading wild rumors as well as legitimate intelligence leaks, speculates that the strike was a response to a plot to ship thousands of artillery shells containing mustard and nerve gas, obtained from the Libyan rebels, to Hamas and Hezbollah.

In the absence of similar reports, this information must be taken with a grain of salt, but it is indeed possible that the Libyan conflict is somehow related to this development. High-ranking American officials have also mentioned the presence of Hezbollah and other Islamic militants among the Libyan rebels. Many weapons from Libyan stockpiles are unaccounted for, and diverse groups including elements of al-Qaeda are vying to get hold of them.

Meanwhile, on Monday Israel indicted a Gaza engineer, Dirar Abu-Sisi, whom it reportedly abducted in Ukraine in February, accusing him of being a key figure in Hamas’s home-grown missile industry (“the father of missiles”). The indictment, much of which is classified, mentions that Abu-Sisi received his PhD from a Ukrainian military academy, and was mentored there by one of the leading experts on Soviet Scud missiles, from whom he “acquired extensive knowledge in missile development, control systems, propulsion and stabilization".

Abu-Sisi allegedly played a crucial role in improving the range and accuracy of Palestinian Qassam rockets, from six kilometers in 2002 to 22 kilometers in 2007. He also augmented the penetration capabilities of Palestinian anti-tank missiles, and planned further innovations such as a boost in the range of the Qassams and new mortars that could penetrate armor. After Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, he helped establish a Hamas "military academy".

Abu-Sisi and his family have insisted that he is innocent, that he was abducted in relation to the captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and that he was "framed" after the Israelis discovered he had nothing to do with that affair. Since much information on the case remains classified, and some analysts have speculated that the extraordinarily detailed indictment indicates that Israeli officials were nervous to justify the clandestine operation, it is hard to discard this argument completely. However, circumstantial evidence points against it; Israel is known to plan meticulously international operations that could hurt its ties to other countries, to cross-check all information carefully and to act only in cases where it perceives grave urgency.

In a separate development, the internal Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, announced that it had recently broken up several Hamas terror cells in Jerusalem and the West Bank. One of these was allegedly responsible for a mysterious pipe bomb hidden in a garbage bag that tore off the hand of a municipal worker earlier this year. According to the indictment, a member of the cell discarded the pipe bomb in the garbage after another member was arrested.

Other cells allegedly plotted to kidnap and murder Israeli soldiers. According to Ha'aretz:
Palestinian and Israeli security sources told Ha'aretz last month that Hamas militants in the West Bank have resumed their efforts to kill Israeli soldiers or civilians and abduct their bodies.

The sources said Hamas activists believe they cannot keep Israeli hostages out of the Shin Bet and Palestinian Authority's reach for long. So they plan to kill them, abduct and bury the bodies, then negotiate for returning them to Israel.

The Palestinian Authority and Israel have recently captured in the Ramallah region alone about five cells planning to kill Israelis and abduct their bodies.
Last Saturday, Israel conducted an air strike in Gaza that shattered a few days of calm. It killed Mohammed al-Dayah, a senior Hamas military commander, along with two other operatives, whom an Israeli spokesperson accused of "planning to kidnap Israelis over the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover." Another militant was gravely wounded.

Soon afterward, the rocket fire and the response strikes picked up. Hamas claimed that a German mediation effort to secure the release of Gilad Shalit had "failed," and promised to retaliate at a time of its own choosing. A spokesman of the Hamas military wing claimed that the school bus bombing on Thursday was the organization's response to the assassination of its commander. It is hard to avoid the observation that this is a highly controversial interpretation of tit-for-tat.

A little over a week ago, Israel gave the Washington Post detailed maps of about 1,000 Hezbollah underground military sites in

South Lebanon. According to the Post.
In releasing the map, the Israeli military appeared to be trying to preempt international criticism of any future offensive against the alleged sites, many of which are located in residential villages alongside hospitals, schools and even civilian homes ... "Our interest is to show the world that the Hezbollah organization has turned these villages into fighting zones," the senior Israeli commander said.
The release can be seen as an attempt to avoid a military confrontation by warning Hezbollah not to launch any cross-border attacks. It is very unusual, though not unprecedented, step - last summer, Israel released similar maps of just one village in South Lebanon. Arguably, a move like this is a sign of perceived urgency, since it diminishes the value of precious tactical intelligence in order to gain public relations capital.

Since Hamas and Hezbollah have been known to cooperate closely in the past, this could be interpreted as Israel's warning to Hezbollah not to interfere in the event of a Gaza intervention. It could also be related to the Libyan connection, if the latter exists. Not least, it could have been prompted by the growing instability in Lebanon and Syria, which many analysts have claimed may lead to war with Israel.

Similarly, the indictment against Dirar Abu-Sisi, as well as the pre-emptive strikes on military commanders, can be seen as a warning to Hamas. In the words of prominent Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, "the main message that apparently worries Hamas is that Israel knows much more than what is detailed in the indictment. This is apparently also the main benefit Israel gained from bringing the engineer to its territory."

Thus, two possibilities emerge: that Israel is preparing a pre-emptive strike against Hamas and, possibly, Hezbollah, or that it merely wants to avert a confrontation by building its deterrence. The Israeli government seems ambivalent about its intentions, as do the militants. According to Israeli defense sources quoted by Ha'aretz, there is a split inside Hamas, with the political leadership in Gaza seeking a ceasefire and the armed wing, under instructions from the politburo in Damascus, seeking escalation.

The situation is further complicated by political overtures and the interests of external powers. According to some analysts, Syria and Iran may be trying to provoke a showdown in Gaza in order to divert world attention from other crises (the protests in Syria; the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Bahrain).

In addition, there is a flurry of diplomatic activity coming from the Palestinian Authority, including an initiative to reconcile with Hamas (which apparently ran into a dead end, but is not yet clearly over) and a gradual movement to declare an independent Palestinian state some time later this year. There are indications of major developments related to the latter project to come at the meeting of the Quartet on the Middle East (the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia) later this month.

As I reported previously, Hamas may also have an independent interest in provoking a confrontation, in order to embarrass Egypt and to strain its ties with both Israel and the Iranian-Syrian camp. Hamas has played Egypt and Syria/Iran off of each other in the past, and arguably has little interest in the detente that is shaping up between these two sides. Additionally, a war would put pressure on the Palestinian Authority, Hamas's long-standing rival.

Recently, the United States showed suspicious signs of warming up to Israel. Israeli President Shimon Peres was met with exceptional warmth in Washington ("our task together is to deepen and broaden our friendship, our relationship," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, while Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Israel's security). Moreover, in recent days American officials spoke out against the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, which Israel seeks to avert.

After South African judge Richard Goldstone expressed regrets about his controversial report on Operation Cast Lead in the Washington Post, US officials supported Israel's position and even Israel's bid to have the report revoked (even as they voiced doubts that the latter would happen in practice). All this even as Israel expedited the approval procedure for 942 new homes beyond the Green Line. [1]

It is hard to imagine that recent tensions have disappeared in their entirety and the Obama administration has all of a sudden conducted a u-turn in its policy of pressure on the Netanyahu government - though some softening of the tone is understandable. Whether Obama likes it or not, in light of the growing instability in the Middle East, Israel may at some point in the not too distant future become the only reliable American ally in the region.

There are two more likely interpretations of the American overtures. On the one hand, it could be that Washington shares Israel's persuasion that a grave threat is shaping up against the Jewish state. In this scenario, the United States would pull out all the juicy carrots in order to reassure Israel and to hold its hand against a preemptive strike.

On the other hand, however, the Obama administration might be preparing a new round of pressure on Netanyahu, and the show of support could be part of a public relations spin of its own (a statement that it supports Israel, a prelude to a claim that it is even ready to uphold Israel's ‘true' interests against the will of its government). On closer examination, these two scenarios do not appear to be mutually exclusive.

Currently, both the political leadership of Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli government claim that they do not want a major escalation. "The army is apparently not preparing for a second Operation Cast Lead that would include a major incursion into the Strip," Israeli journalist Hanan Greenberg writes in Ynetnews. "Officials said that they wanted to avoid further escalation in the south that will disrupt the lives of residents."

At the same time, however, more attacks are possible on both sides, and there is always a chance that violence will spiral out of control. An attack inside Israel with multiple casualties could sway Israeli public opinion and force the Israeli leaders to embark on a sequel of Cast Lead. Netanyahu claimed that he was not excluding such a possibility.

Goldstone's change of heart also gave Israel a propaganda boost, and can be seen as an implicit statement of support for a new Israeli operation in Gaza. "Goldstone has paved the path for a second Gaza war," writes Israeli journalist Gideon Levy.

In an analysis published on Sunday, before the most recent developments, prominent Israeli analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff argue that
A month passed between the first and second clash; only a week between the second and third. The conclusion is that the checks and balances that had influenced the sides with some success are no longer working as well as they used to. The road to Cast Lead II is getting closer, despite both Israel and the Hamas loudly proclaiming that they have no intention of going there.
Thus, while neither of the two main players - Israel and Hamas - seems to really want an escalation, we should not be surprised to see a full-scale military campaign in Gaza in the near future. As Israeli analysts have repeatedly cautioned in the last months, it is only a matter of time.

1. Israel expedites vote on hundreds of new homes beyond Green Line, Ha'aretz, April 6, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

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