Israel bracing for a long struggle with Hamas

jerusalem | With no end in sight to Kassam rocket attacks on Israeli civilians near the border with Gaza, the Israeli government is preparing for a long struggle against radical, Hamas-led Palestinian militants.

In two weeks of persistent bombardment, some 200 rockets have been fired across the border, killing at least two Israelis and injuring dozens more in the frontier town of Sderot. Now, it seems, that could be just the beginning.

Although dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militiamen have been killed in Israeli air strikes, several Cabinet ministers are pressing for an even tougher Israeli response to force Hamas to back down.

Both sides have an interest in continuing the fighting. Hamas wants to embarrass Israel and consolidate its position as the leading force in Palestinian politics. Israel wants to deal Hamas a crippling blow and help elevate the status of the more moderate Fatah movement on the Palestinian street. The hope is that an empowered Fatah, under Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, could become a genuine negotiating partner.

In a Cabinet meeting Sunday, May 27, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signaled Israel’s intentions.

“There will be no limit in acting against the terror groups and against those who are responsible for the terror. No one is immune,” he warned.

For now the bigger problem for Israel is the West Bank. The Israeli army remains active there, gathering intelligence, arresting terror suspects and intercepting would-be suicide bombers.

Top army officers argue that a cease-fire suspending these activities would mean the return of suicide bombers to Israeli towns and cities.

Hamas began the latest round of fighting with Israel in an attempt to deflect attention from its escalating civil war with Fatah. So, ironically, the attacks on Sderot appear to be part of an intense domestic Palestinian power struggle.

But there is a bigger picture. In instigating the violence, Hamas is also trying to undermine any chances for an Israeli-Arab peace dialogue based on the 2002 Arab League peace initiative. That initiative has been accepted by Arab moderates such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Fatah; it is rejected by Iran and its allies.

Hamas believes that time is on the Palestinians’ side — that if it just keeps up the pressure, Israel eventually will collapse. That is why it rejects the two-state solution; Hamas believes that if it waits long enough, all of Israel will fall into its hands.

The poverty and chaos in Gaza, exacerbated by Israeli retaliation and security measures such as closing the borders to Palestinian workers, feed into Hamas’ operational plans. Young people without job prospects are joining the relatively well-paid militias.

Israel’s handling of the current standoff, therefore, is vital. Unlike last summer’s fighting between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon, this time Israel wants much different public perceptions of the outcome. That could help restore Israeli deterrent capabilities, which suffered in the wake of Lebanon.

In Israel there are two approaches to the Hamas conundrum. The government seems to be saying that Israel must smash Hamas to pave the way for the return to power of the more moderate Fatah. This in turn would facilitate negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Some analysts hold, however, that all Palestinian factions except Hamas are too weak to deliver on any commitments they might make. Therefore, instead of trying to smash Hamas, Israel should negotiate with it. Instead of a two-state solution, Israel could discuss Hamas’ ideas for a long-term cease-fire.

Olmert and Abbas have agreed to meet next week.

What happens next on the negotiating front will depend on how the Hamas-Fatah standoff works out.

“Hamas’ violent clashes with Fatah in the streets of Gaza are nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the great confrontation the group anticipates in June or July,” political analyst Akiva Eldar wrote in Ha’aretz.

If current efforts to prevent them fail, the outcome of those anticipated clashes could determine the contours of Israeli-Palestinian ties for years to come.