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    Middle East
     Nov 1, 2011

Disorder the order of the day in Gaza
By Victor Kotsev

The weekend flare-up in the area of the Gaza Strip, which claimed the lives of at least 14, appears to be largely over or destined to end within days. Though two consecutive Egypt-brokered ceasefires between the Islamic Jihad movement and Israel disintegrated, efforts to stop the hostilities stand a good chance of succeeding.

While seemingly low in significance, the weekend's violence offers a glimpse into the incredibly complex and fluid situation on the southern Israeli border. It also sheds light on some consequences of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal two weeks ago. In the relatively unlikely event that it escalates out of proportion, moreover, it will become entangled with and offer a perspective into powerful regional dynamics such as the standoff between the

West and Iran and the bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Hamas is apparently facing an internal challenge, most likely a design of a discontented Iran and Syria. The Israeli government is trying to reinforce its deterrence vis-a-vis the Gaza militants, but perhaps also to undermine (for different reasons and in different ways) both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

As a whole, Gaza and southern Israel have been destabilized by chaos in the Sinai Peninsula following the Arab Spring, partly as an effect of internal Egyptian instability and partly due to a massive inflow of arms from Libya.

According to the Israeli version, it all started late last Wednesday, when a rocket from Gaza exploded in an area near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod; Israel retaliated symbolically (no injuries reported), but it also condemned the incident unusually harshly at the United Nations, attacking Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas for his failure to condemn it, and underscoring his lack of authority in the Gaza Strip (the subsequent escalation reinforced the latter message).

"The rockets that continue to fly out of the area illustrate a basic truth: the Palestinian Authority has absolutely zero authority in the Gaza Strip," reads a letter by the Israeli ambassador at the UN, Ron Prosor, quoted by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. " While Abbas continues his unilateral march for state recognition at the United Nations, the Palestinians are far from meeting the basic criteria for statehood, particularly the test of effective control ... So-called Palestinian unity has been - and remains - a virtual reality." [1]

On Saturday, two days after the letter was sent, the Israeli Air Force bombed an Islamic Jihad cell, killing five militants, including a relatively senior commander. Israel blamed the cell for Wednesday's fire, and claimed that it was preparing to fire more missiles.

In response, Islamic Jihad unleashed a deadly barrage of missiles, killing an Israeli civilian in the city of Ashkelon and wounding a number of others. Meanwhile, Israeli strikes killed at least eight additional militants, and wounded over a dozen. By Saturday evening, however, the situation had begun to calm down, and even though hostilities continued through Sunday night, Egypt stepped in and leaned hard on everybody to negotiate a ceasefire.
According to the Israeli press, the first such ceasefire was meant to come into effect at 6am local time on Sunday, and after it disintegrated another was arranged for 10pm on Sunday evening. Early Monday morning, reports came of further missiles and of two Palestinians casualties of an overnight airstrike; still is likely that another ceasefire will be announced shortly. The last similar flare-up in August died out in days.

Importantly, the dominant movement in Gaza, Hamas, seems to have little interest in the violence. It just concluded the first part of the prisoner swap deal with Israel, which boosted its popularity among the Palestinian public, and now it is waiting for another 550 prisoners of Israel's choosing to be released in phase two. It is hard to imagine it would risk jeopardizing that agreed-upon exchange - or its own infrastructure in Gaza - by picking a fight with Israel.

Islamic Jihad is in a different situation. With the help of Syria and Iran - and weapons that reached Gaza from Libya following the chaos in the North African country - Islamic Jihad has upgraded its arsenal and organizational capabilities substantially in the last months and years, rising up to become the second most powerful militant organization in Gaza. In the words of Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh,
[Islamic Jihad] is beginning to emerge as a major challenge to the Hamas regime, especially given the fact that dozens of disgruntled Hamas members are reported to have defected to Islamic Jihad. Former Fatah security officers, some of whom were trained by the US and EU [European Union], are also believed to have joined Islamic Jihad in the past few years ... Islamic Jihad is acting on instructions from Tehran and Damascus, whose leaders are also reported to be at loggerheads with Hamas ... According to informed Palestinian sources, relations between Hamas and the Iranians and Syrians have deteriorated because of the movement's refusal to publicly support the embattled regime of President Bashar [al-]Assad. [2]
Prominent Israeli analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff add the following details about the relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad:
Hamas officials were not surprised by Islamic Jihad's firing of the Grad after weeks of relative quiet. Had the lull in the fighting gone on much longer Jihad risked fading from the public eye in Gaza. The organization, and especially its Iranian handlers, have no such intentions. Jihad is now squarely back in the forefront of the rejectionist (muqawama ) camp, to which Hamas has mainly been playing only lip service of late. In order not to be seen as having turned its back completely on the ideology, for the sake of convenience, Hamas must let Islamic Jihad respond to the killing of its members with rockets, but only for a limited period. [3]
It is important to note that Iran and Syria were likely on the losing side of the Shalit swap. According to a recent analysis by the American think-tank Stratfor, "The crisis over Iran that we expected by the end of the year is here," and Saudi Arabia is playing its hand very aggressively.

Stratfor suggests that the Saudis sought to douse out the potential for violence between Israel and Hamas, in order to keep turning the screws on Assad:
In this context, the last thing that the Saudis want to see is conflict with Israel. A war in Gaza would have given the Assad regime an opportunity to engage with Israel, at least through Hezbollah, and portray opponents to the regime as undermining the struggle against the Israelis. This would have allowed al Assad to solicit Iranian help against Israel and, not incidentally, to help sustain his regime. [3]
If the conflict between Islamic Jihad and Israel escalates, it is reasonable to look for a substantial foreign interference - by either Syria or Iran. Conversely, and perhaps in parallel, Israel may be trying hard to establish a deterrence in Gaza, in anticipation of a regional flare-up.

As a final note, the much acclaimed Israeli anti-missile system Iron Dome seems to have failed the test this weekend. The Israeli army blamed poor weather conditions and "a technical glitch".

Islamic Jihad has boasted of new missile technologies, including multi-barrel rocket launchers. There have been signs - also during previous confrontations - that the militant groups in Gaza are studying the Israeli defense system and adapting to it.

1. Israel slams Abbas in letter to UN following Gaza rocket fire, Ha'aretz, October 28.
2. Analysis: How Islamic Jihad is becoming a threat to Hamas , Jerusalem Post, October 31.
3. Hamas seems wary of escalation with Israel, despite increased rocket fire, http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/hamas-seems-wary-of-escalation-with-israel-despite-increased-rocket-fire-1.392660, Ha’aretz, October 30 2011 4. From the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush: Rethinking the Region, Stratfor, October 18.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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Iranian plot recalls deterrence strategy (Oct 25, '11)

Shalit: Israel wins, but it's only half-time (Oct 20, '11)



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