GAZA CITY – The mile-long stretch that divides Israel’s Erez border crossing into northern Gaza from the Hamas police border post is eerily quiet. But the mountains of rubble, twisted metal, and craters which remain following Israel’s intensive bombing campaign in January serve as a stark reminder that war between the two bitter enemies is still a possibility.
The streets of Gaza appear calm, clean, and mostly deserted during the day with few pedestrians and vehicles, due in part to the siege and to the holy month of Ramadan.
But this deceptive appearance of tranquility was shattered last week when Israeli forces invaded northern and central Gaza and exchanged fire with several Palestinian resistance groups.
According to Palestinian sources, the Israeli soldiers razed large swathes of agricultural land and fired at farmers in the area before taking several young men across the border for questioning.
This was the biggest military confrontation between Gaza-based fighters and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in December-January. It sparked fears that another major military confrontation might be in the offing.
This followed a hardening of attitude by the IDF as outlined in statements that any Palestinian gunmen who try to capture Israeli soldiers would be shot at if it endangered the lives of Israeli soldiers.
Israel has been trying to secure the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian guerrillas over three years ago.
On Wednesday Damascus-based Hamas politburo chief-in-exile Khaled Meshaal upped the ante when he addressed the youth wing of the National Congress Party in Khartoum, Sudan.
Meshaal told them that despite Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its continual bombing of smuggling tunnels, his organization had managed to smuggle weapons and armaments into Gaza through the tunnels which link the territory with the Sinai peninsula.
The military developments run parallel with political movement on the diplomatic scene.
“The Israelis are trying to provoke retaliatory rocket-fire so as to justify another ground invasion,” says Dr. Ahmed Yousef, political adviser to Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
“This is related to the forthcoming UN General Assembly meeting to be held on Sept. 23 in New York when the issue of the siege on Gaza will be discussed by the Europeans and the Americans,” Yousef told IPS.
“Many in the international community now realize that discussing a resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians must on pragmatic grounds include Hamas, as we are part of the political equation. The Israelis are not happy about this,” added Yousef.
Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah believes the UN General Assembly meeting will be crucial in that U.S. President Barack Obama will address the gathering. Regional peace including Israel’s continued illegal settlement-building will be on the agenda.
“The Americans are no longer using the hackneyed phrase ‘The War on Terror,’ and this is indicative of a change in attitude by the Russians, Americans, and the Europeans toward the Middle East and Hamas in particular,” Awad told IPS.
“Hamas is trying to make political mileage out of the West’s more tolerant attitude toward the resistance movement by appearing as a moderate force in the area with the same agenda against more extremist ‘terror groups,'” said Awad.
“This is one of the reasons Hamas publicly invited the media to cover its recent law and order campaign to keep the streets of Gaza free of crime and political unrest.”
Last week Hamas security forces set up roadblocks and searched vehicles after several explosions outside government institutions in Gaza City.
The bombs were assumed to be retaliation for Hamas’ brutal operation against Jund Ansar Allah, an allegedly al-Qaeda-affiliated Salafist group of gunmen, in Rafah several weeks ago when 24 people died during an exchange of gunfire and missiles.
Some Fatah activists accused the usually media-shy Hamas authorities of staging the events to prove to the outside world that they are in control and that, like the West, Hamas won’t tolerate “terrorism” from extremists.
Simultaneously, as Hamas makes political headway with the international community, there are some signs that forthcoming unity talks between Hamas and Fatah, to be held in Cairo in October, might actually be more positive this time.
“The Egyptian mediators have presented both sides with documents outlining the practical steps that need to be taken respectively. Their input this time has been far more substantive,” Awad told IPS.
A reconciliation agreement and simultaneous presidential and legislative elections are to be held early next year as part of the Egyptian-sponsored unity plan.
The elections will comprise both proportional representation and constituency-based voting. There is still disagreement between Hamas and Fatah over the breakdown of this, with Hamas wanting a 50-50 divide and Fatah arguing for a 75-25 ratio.
“During the last few years, Hamas’ rule over Gaza has failed to deliver basic needs to the Palestinian public and it is losing popularity as a result,” says Awad.
“The extreme destruction caused by Israel during the war and Fatah’s resurgence following its revolutionary conference in Bethlehem have also outlined the movement’s vulnerability,” he said.
“Both parties realize that unity is in their mutual interests. The continued division only serves Israel’s interests,” Yousef told IPS.
(Inter Press Service)