Hamas plays dangerous poker games in Egypt

By Guillaume Lavallie and Jonah Mandel ,AFP

JERUSALEM — Limited skirmishes or a new round of killing? Friday’s resumption of hostilities may see Hamas overplay its hand in a dangerous poker game that could plunge Gaza back into chaos, analysts said. Palestinian militants fired two rockets at Israel in the final hours of a 72-hour truce and followed it up with dozens more as Israel hit back with unrelenting air strikes. At least 1,898 Palestinians have been now killed, including around 450 children, thousands of homes have been reduced to rubble and around a quarter of the 1.8 million people in Gaza displaced. Israel endured its worst military losses — 64 soldiers — since its 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon — and three civilians — one of them a Thai agricultural worker — were killed on the home front. Indirect talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, whose delegation includes Hamas, have stretched for days in Cairo but Egyptian mediators have struggled to reconcile conflicting demands. Hamas wants Israel to lift the blockade it imposed on Gaza in 2006 before it will stop rocket attacks. Israel has conditioned reconstruction on the demilitarization of Gaza.

Easing the Blockade Hamas sees lifting the blockade, which Egypt has also partially imposed with the closure of the Rafah border crossing, as the minimum it can take home to a war-battered Gaza Strip. “Clearly they are not going to get it. Question is how much easing will they get?” says Nathan Thrall, from the International Crisis Group. The armed wing of Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, has insisted on a sea port and the building of an international airport in Gaza. Israel will not countenance it.

“Any boat would be able to enter without being checked and Israel will never accept that,” warned Thrall, pointing out that a port would simply give Hamas a new means to smuggle in rockets. Naji Charab, a political affairs expert at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, says Hamas is looking for some kind of compromise that would give it “an honorable exit.” The Islamist movement may have inflicted greater losses on Israel in the battlefield than it expected to, but it has been forced into a corner and lost an ally in Egypt. The overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement is close to Hamas, has seen Cairo lash out hard against Hamas, destroying its tunnels on the Egyptian side of the border and freezing out the movement. Kobi Michael, a political scientist at Ariel University in the occupied West Bank, said Israel’s most important alliance in the Middle East had become Cairo. “Egypt has no problem seeing Gazans buckle under the burden,” he told AFP. “In that aspect, Israel might have even disappointed Egypt a bit for not doing to Hamas what Egypt would have done to them if it were up to them,” he added.

Ground Offensive? Its battlefield achievements have given Hamas at least a temporary boost in popularity in Gaza, but it is under huge pressure to prove to people at home that the massive Palestinian losses were worth something. Former Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin told AFP that Hamas wanted to see how Israel will respond.

For the moment Israel has hit back only with air strikes. It recalled all ground troops from Gaza earlier this week and there is no imminent sign of tanks rolling back across the border. “If they want to stop the rocket fire you have to go with ground forces, you have to occupy the Gaza Strip. But nobody has said that,” she said. “Israel did not want to go in, to conquer Gaza, to progress too deep,” said Yoram Schweitzer, a former counter-terrorism chief in the Israeli military. But if the conflict gets bogged down and the sides can’t reach an acceptable agreement, “Israel would have to decide if it changes its policy and enters Gaza for a wider operation,” he said.