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The Gaza Conflict: Hamas' Strategy of Escalation

By and Ulrike Putz in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

The Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip entered its third day on Monday with over 300 Palestinians now dead. The Arab world is up in arms, and with Palestinians as fragmented as ever, the dream of an independent country seems no closer today than it did decades ago.

The anger quickly came to a boil on Saturday. Thousands of Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, were in Jaffa for an annual street festival. "The Arab peddlers were so busy that it took awhile for the news from Gaza to spread," Sami Abu Shadeh, a member of the center-left, Arab-Israeli Balad party, recalled on Sunday. It was noon before he found a television. "By then," he says, "there were already 120 dead."

In the ensuing hours, Shadeh said, everything seemed to move in fast-forward. Quickly, a meeting was called bringing together representatives from Jaffa's 20,000-strong Arab minority. Shutting down the street festival was the first priority. "The further the news from Gaza spread, the more the tension could be felt in the air," Shadeh said. "We were afraid that there would be violence between our youth and the Jewish festival-goers."

In the end, the community leaders managed to channel the growing rage into an orderly protest. For two hours, Koran verses streamed out of the loudspeakers of the minarets in Jaffa, a largely Arab-Israeli quarter of Tel Aviv, as 2,000 people silently commemorated the dead.

The anger, though, remains. Across the Middle East -- in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, the West Bank and within Israel itself where 20 percent of the population is made up of Palestinians -- people have taken to the streets in rage and grief. Anti-Israeli marches have likewise been held as far away as Karachi and Jakarta. A group of Iranian clerics is signing up volunteers to fight in the Gaza Strip.

'Ready to Die'

An Indonesian militant group told Reuters on Monday that it planned to recruit up to 1,000 volunteers to fight in the Gaza Strip. "Fighters should be in good physical condition, have a strong faith and be ready to die," said Ahmad Soebri Lubis, head of the Islamic Defenders' Front.

Israeli fighter planes continued dropping bombs at targets within the Gaza Strip on Monday, with the Interior Ministry being hit early in the morning. Over 300 Palestinians have been killed in the three-day-old offensive and more than 600 wounded. The attack began not long after Hamas, the radical Palestinian group which holds power in Gaza, allowed a cease-fire to lapse and resumed firing rockets into Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that a ground invasion has not been ruled out.

The air raids have already been among the most intense since the Six-Day War in 1967 -- and Abu Shadeh fears that harmony between Israel's Arabs and the rest of the country could soon be a thing of the past. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has even gone so far as to call for a third Intifada -- an uprising of all Palestinians against Israel.

But as bloody as the Israeli offensive has been, it comes largely as the result of a deeply cynical calculation on the part of Hamas. The Islamist group must have known that Israel would not tolerate the incessant cross-border rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip indefinitely. Since the six-month cease-fire between Hamas and Israel ended on Dec. 19, dozens of rockets once again began landing well inside Israel, killing one civilian last week and another, an Arab-Israeli, on Monday.

For weeks, the threats voiced by Israel had been clear and unmistakeable. Only last Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a stark warning to the Palestinians in an interview with an Arab TV channel: "Stop it" -- or Israel would respond with violence to the rocket launchers and their backers, was his message.

Hamas' Need for Violence

That, though, is exactly what Hamas seems to have been banking on. For Hamas, the gruesome television pictures that were beamed around the world following the Israeli air raids appear to have been part of the plan. They appear to have deliberately factored in the suffering of innocent victims when they refused to prolong their cease-fire with Israel. Ultimately, Hamas hopes the current escalation of violence will make the West take it seriously as a negotiating partner.

Otherwise it wouldn't have provoked Israel and its mighty army. The Hamas leadership accepted the possibility that Palestinian civilians would be hurt in the Israeli counter-attack. The Hamas infrastructure is deliberately located in city districts where civilians live.

It seems unlikely that Hamas will ultimately be successful. The Palestinians are simply too divided to provide a unified response to Israel -- too split for a third Intifada. On a political level, that became abundantly clear on Sunday. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party has the upper hand in the West Bank, condemned the attacks, but seemed to partially blame Hamas for the ongoing bloodbath in the Gaza Strip.

"We talked to them (Hamas) and we told them 'please, we ask you, do not end the truce. Let the truce continue and not stop' so that we could have avoided what happened," Abbas said on Sunday in Cairo, where he had traveled for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

'We Don't Do Politics'

Even among the moderate Palestinians living in Israel, the comment did not play well. "Imagine: hundreds of his fellow Palestinians have been killed and he uses the opportunity to blame the opposing party," Abu Shadeh said in Jaffa. "I really don't know what to expect anymore."

Shadeh's confusion is understandable. The entire Arab world is united in its condemnation of Israel. Many in Europe have likewise criticized the Israelis for overreacting and using disproportionate violence. But among the Palestinians themselves, the situation could hardly be more complicated. They are scattered across the Middle East -- from Beirut to Cairo -- and their politics fall across the political spectrum. Some are ready to fight and die to achieve their goal of a Middle East free of Israelis. Others seek to make peace with their Jewish neighbors. And the two dominant Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, are united only in their hate for one another.

Israel, in its regional dominance, has made it even more difficult for the Palestinians to work together, meaning the dream of an independent country seems no closer today than it did decades ago. The Palestinians quite simply have little political leverage because they have no political unity.

In Jaffa on Sunday, Arab-Israelis seemed intent on keeping a low profile. A restaurant owner there was one of many who was unwilling to comment on the ongoing violence. He ran his finger across his mouth, as if closing a zipper. "We make kebabs here," he said. "We don't do politics."

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent for the Swiss paper Weltwoche. Ulrike Putz is SPIEGEL ONLINE's Middle East correspondent.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
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