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Bomb attacks in Gaza are a sideshow which won't divert attention from Al-Aqsa

Just when the new Al-Aqsa intifada was gathering momentum the homes of senior Fatah officials in the Gaza Strip were bombed this week. Those responsible must be rubbing their hands with glee as the finger of blame was pointed immediately at the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas stand to benefit from an armed confrontation in Gaza or anywhere else for that matter. So, in the absence of any hard evidence about the Islamic movement's involvement, the focus of the investigation must surely turn to the "sleeper" cells of Israeli collaborators in the coastal enclave.

Apart from disrupting attempts by both factions to consolidate a functional national unity government, Friday's attack, if mishandled, could regrettably serve as a useful distraction from the worsening security situation in occupied Jerusalem. However, from a purely pragmatic point of view it would be stupid for Hamas to antagonise Fatah at this time when the latter's cooperation has become crucial for the procurement and delivery of aid for the reconstruction of Gaza.

In the event, sources in the besieged territory point out that the attack could actually be linked to the ongoing power struggle between Mahmoud Abbas and the disgraced Fatah official Mohamed Dahlan. On the night prior to the bombings there were reports of clashes between the supporters of both men at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, a traditional stronghold of the secular faction.

Still, there are other lines of inquiry that must also be pursued rigorously by security officials in the Strip. As the explosive devices did not result in fatalities and caused only limited damage to property, it could well be that the attacks were staged in order to send a strong message to Fatah and Hamas, or for any number of other reasons.

In the few days before the explosions Abbas came under increasing pressure from Benjamin Netanyahu to end what the Israeli prime minister described as "incitement" against settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Despite the widespread publicity given to Netanyahu's claim, only the most naive would give any credence to it. After all, had it not been for the security coordination between Abbas's Fatah movement and the Israelis, the situation in the occupied West Bank would be very much different today. Thus, instead of pretending to blame Abbas, Netanyahu should actually thank him for suppressing popular dissent amongst Palestinians and maintaining the status quo.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, where Abbas's writ has absolutely no effect, the resistance to Israeli attacks against the integrity and sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque continues to grow. Hamas has publicly claimed responsibility for operations carried out against Israeli soldiers.

As long as the Israelis continue to desecrate Al-Aqsa and its compound the situation is set to become even more incendiary. Far from subsiding, Palestinian outrage will grow in direct proportion to every act of Israeli provocation.

Israel's closure of the mosque and daily attacks on worshippers have convinced many in Palestine and beyond that the conflict has now taken on a distinct religious character. The inability of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to protect the Islamic sanctities has belied its claims that Jerusalem will become the capital of the future Palestinian state. A Jerusalem without Al-Aqsa would be like a body without a soul.

While President Abbas continues with his rhetoric about UN initiatives and statehood, Israel's messianic government is busily engaged with legislation to divide the mosque so that Jews can have access through all its entrances and worship in it every day of the week, except Friday.

The attacks against Fatah officials in Gaza have thus come at a convenient time for Messrs Netanyahu and Abbas. While the former will certainly use them as a smokescreen to divert attention from his policies in Jerusalem, so too will Abbas find them a useful distraction from his failure to protect Al-Aqsa.

In addition, by implicating Hamas in the attacks in Gaza there will be added pressure on the authorities in the territory which will embolden Abbas to demand, like the Israelis, the disarming of the resistance groups. In that way, Gaza will no longer be an "existential" threat to Israel and, like the West Bank, it will be brought under Palestinian security forces that exist to serve the occupation.

There is a huge flaw in this thinking though. Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa are bigger than any single Palestinian faction. Mahmoud Abbas may not acknowledge this, but the Israelis do. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni warned last month that Israel was "a step away from a national conflict turning into a religious one", which will make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a war between the self-declared Jewish state and Muslims the world over.

For all its worth, the struggle in Jerusalem has transcended the mundane issues of inflation, development and capital flow. Accordingly, it is fool-hardy on the part of Ramallah to suppress popular protests in the West Bank in order to prevent Hamas from gaining political and popular support. This is a narrow-minded approach.

The attacks on Al-Aqsa have ignited a fuse and there is no turning back. No sideshow in Gaza will be big enough to divert attention from what is happening to the Noble Sanctuary.

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Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestine
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