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Israel's brinkmanship over Gaza

There is nothing imaginary about Israel's threat to attack Gaza. It is real; both the Hamas-led administration and civilian population in the enclave have had to live with it increasingly since 2007. Although the sabre-rattling from Israeli leaders is indeed menacing, developments on the political front seem no less ominous.


Having inflicted seven years of collective punishment on Gaza's 1.5 million people, Israel and its allies, it now seems, are about to make yet another attempt to unseat the Islamist government elected by the voters of Palestine. Never one to miss an opportunity, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced from Davos that a political shift has taken place in the region and that Arab governments now view the Muslim Brotherhood, and by definition Hamas, as a threat.

This is the logic that currently informs Israel's hostility toward Gaza's administration. Political and military officials led by Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon are all singing in harmony. For better or worse, they believe that most Arab countries are far too busy with their own internal problems to bother themselves with the Gaza Strip.

While Israel expects the active complicity of Egypt's military regime, it is, at the very least, hoping that others will remain silent, if not offer tacit support. This is, of course, a risky strategy because right across the region people are seething with frustration and anger at the way their aspirations and human rights are being trampled upon.

Much depends on how events unfold in Egypt. If the military regime manages to stabilise the country, Israel will be emboldened to launch its long-promised assault knowing full well that the army leadership in Cairo would turn the other way. However, should the current unrest in Egypt escalate, Israel would have to postpone its Gaza offensive because it would almost certainly inflame further social unrest in Egypt. As it stands, the Israelis' friend and ally General Al-Sisi is just barely hanging on to power, albeit with lethal force and draconian laws.

Militarily, no one should question the preparedness of Hamas and the other resistance forces, but even with their battle-hardened brigades, they will do everything possible to spare their weary and besieged population from the ravages of yet another war. Not that they would capitulate if one was imposed on them.

However, having played a key role in ousting President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, recent undertakings by the UAE have aroused concern. On this occasion it is the Emirates' alleged use of aid as a means to undermine Hamas. If confirmed, this would be an affirmation of Israel's latest demand of the resistance movement – "security for food".

Following the high profile visit of senior Fatah officials to Gaza last week, reports abound that Al-Sisi has stipulated that the delivery of Gulf aid to the enclave must be delivered and administered by Fatah officials. It is believed that renegade ex-Fatah official Mohamed Dahlan brokered the agreement with the Egyptian junta during his recent visit to the country.

Sources in Gaza have, however, downplayed the importance of this development and explained the visit by Fatah officials as part of the ongoing push for national reconciliation. One of the requirements of the proposed reconciliation is that it must lead to general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thus, if it is seen that Fatah has been instrumental in breaking the Israeli blockade, it is possible that people will be inclined to vote for them.

Despite their long-standing opposition to reconciliation, it seems that even the US is warming to the idea; not for the sake of the Palestinian people, it must be said, but because it is necessary to give a veneer of legitimacy to the agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to conclude. In the event, the PA would be able to assure the Israelis that they actually represent all Palestinians and there can therefore be closure to the conflict.

All of this is based on the notion that the blockade and its destructive consequences have diminished Hamas's popularity. For its part, the movement claims that without public support it could never have governed Gaza for eight years, in the face of such a siege. Indeed, Hamas asserts that its steadfast adherence to its principles since its inception has worked in its favour. On the question of public support, Hamas notes further that it is Fatah's popularity that has suffered because it allowed itself to become the security arm of the occupation in the West Bank and failed to deliver on any of its promises throughout 20 years of negotiations with the Israelis.

A military battle may be looming on Gaza's horizon but the political battle has already begun. Israel's war rhetoric, backed by sections of the Egyptian media, is clearly an attempt to divide and polarise Gaza's population. Once this is achieved the blame will be laid at the feet of the resistance movements.

With the drums of war beating and uncertainty accompanying them, one factor remains constant: when the Israeli state finally decides to launch its next attack it needs no pretext or provocation. It will do so according to its own calculations and desires. Its objective will be to change the balance of power in Gaza while incurring minimal damage and pain to itself; this is almost impossible for Israel to achieve. As one Hamas official noted recently, any attack would not be 'a picnic', for Palestinians or Israelis. Israel knows that it will have to pay a price for its aggression, but is it ready to do so? We have to wait and see.

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Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestine
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