Erin Cunningham
The National (Analysis)
January 12, 2010 - 1:00am

GAZA CITY // While Israel and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah trade heated accusations over who is to blame for stalled US-led peace talks, Hamas’s inability to thwart fresh rocket attacks into Israel by other Gaza-based militant groups might also give Israel cause to delay steps to create a Palestinian state.

Rebuffing comments made last week by the US peace envoy, George Mitchell, suggesting Israel was to blame for failed peace negotiations, Israeli officials instead claimed that continued rocket fire from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip aimed to provoke Israel.

Mr Mitchell had said in an interview with US media that Israel’s biggest ally could “withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel” to pressure its right-wing government to halt illegal settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“Qassam rockets are still landing on our territory,” said the Israeli tourism minister, Stas Misezhnikov, on Sunday, according to the Israeli news agency Ynet. “And Mitchell’s comments do not contribute to moving this matter forward.”

Also on Sunday, an Israeli air strike killed three Islamic Jihad militants whom Israel said were preparing to launch a rocket, just hours after the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed to “seriously retaliate” to any rockets or mortars fired from Gaza.

The attack came on the heels of deadly strikes on Friday, when Israel, hitting targets across Gaza, killed three people in response to a barrage of mortars fired by militants from the Hamas-aligned Popular Resistance Committees on Thursday.

Yesterday, the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, urged Hamas to rein in militant groups behind the recent surge in attacks.

“I think the recent days reflect the inability of Hamas to control the dissident groups, the Popular Committees or Islamic Jihad, who are trying to break the tranquility,” Mr Barak said during the unveiling of an Israeli anti-rocket system due to be deployed outside the Gaza Strip by June.

“Hamas is well deterred from trying another direct collision with Israel. I hope that they will take over – or else,” he said in English, referring to the Islamist movement imposing its authority over smaller armed groups.

Still, although Hamas remains a bitter enemy of Israel and has so far failed to forge a unity government with its Fatah rivals in the West Bank, the Islamist movement had until recently kept its border with Israel largely quiet since it suffered a crushing defeat in Israel’s deadly assault on the Gaza Strip last winter.

Hamas announced a rocket ceasefire in Gaza in November, and was reported to have arrested militants along the narrow enclave’s border with Israel to prevent them from firing the projectiles at southern Israeli towns in recent months. Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip when it ousted the secular Fatah movement in a violent coup in 2007.

“We have been adhering to our ceasefire for almost a year now,” said Ahmed Yusuf, a political adviser to the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. “We, and other groups in the Gaza Strip, have made it a priority to keep things calm.”

Mr Yusuf said Palestinian militants have “no interest” in engaging with Israel militarily, but instead want to focus on reconstructing the territory, which saw widespread destruction and heavy damage to critical infrastructure in last year’s war. The three-week assault left almost 1,400 Palestinians dead and wounded 5,000.

But the recent rise in violent incidents calls into question Hamas’s real ability to rein in the military activities of smaller militant groups in Gaza, which some analysts say is giving Israel the room to hold off on talks with the Fatah-led government in the West Bank.

Negotiations broke down one year ago after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, demanded Israel halt all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Both were captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967, and Palestinians claim East Jerusalem for a future capital.

In November, Israel said it would stop the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank only temporarily, and that Palestinian negotiators should return to the table without preconditions. Building in East Jerusalem and some other areas, Mr Netanyahu’s government said, would continue unabated.

“The other groups in Gaza are not satisfied by this situation with Hamas, where Hamas is trying to avoid escalation and putting pressure on others to do the same,” said Talal Okal, a Gaza-based political analyst.

“And I think the Israelis will use this as a justification to resist international pressure to open negotiations with the Palestinians,” he continued. “They will say Mahmoud Abbas does not represent Palestinians and that they are still under threat.”

Israelis say the recent rise in hostilities is good reason to believe Palestinians are not serious about peace. While substantially fewer than the 3,300 rockets fired in 2008, about 300 rockets were fired into Israel in 2009. At least 20 were fired in the past week, according to Israeli government figures.

Palestinian rockets rarely cause damage or injuries.

“The violence over the past couple of days just goes to show that there are Palestinians who are ready for peace and there are those who aren’t,” said Shmuel Sandler, a researcher on Palestinian statehood at the Israel-based Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies. “And that is the main problem for Israelis – that there is nobody to negotiate with.

“If they put together a unified front,” he continued, “this would do much more for the Palestinian cause than the extremists.”


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