Gaza IAF strike tunnels Reuters 14.7.11
Palestinians watch as a bulldozer works at the site of a smuggling tunnel that was damaged after an overnight Israeli air strike in Rafah in southern Gaza, July 14, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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The new escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza, still limited in scope, is the first of its kind since the bitter round of clashes at the beginning of April. That previous round, which included rocket fire on Ashdod and Be’er Sheva, ended once Israel took the initiative, mustering all its aerial firepower against Hamas and other Palestinian factions in Gaza, and simultaneously intercepting eight Katyusha rockets fired at its territory, using the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system for the first time.

It seems that the upswing in violence of the past couple of weeks is primarily a result of Palestinian actions that are then met by Israeli air strikes, albeit relatively restrained ones. The fact that the rockets have so far only fallen in open areas in the Negev and not caused any injuries, has served for now as a way of reining in the severity of the fighting.

Palestinian analysts in Gaza are unable to pinpoint the cause for the recent escalation: Hamas has refrained from using rocket fire, as has Islamic Jihad. But it seems that groups identifying themselves with Al-Qaida are trying to provoke a stronger reaction from Israel.

The widespread belief in Gaza is that Hamas does not have 100 percent control over the rocket fire against Israel, although it has tried to prevent it. As usual, in light of the recent developments, some Palestinians are theorizing that it is Israel which intends to spark an escalation of violence in Gaza.

But there are other feasible explanations for the current tensions. For example, some time has passed since the last round of hostilities, and the Israeli deterrence in Gaza has dissipated almost entirely.

Following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s offensive to halt rocket fire on its territory which ended in January 2009, a basic balance of power was created: Hamas was not interested in another direct confrontation with Israel, and has for the most part acted as a moderating effect on the smaller Palestinian groups. Since then, there has been every couple of months an escalation over a particular incident, which ends with Israel employing greater force and a renewal of the previous status quo. This is probably what we will see this time too.

Nonetheless, there is another explanation, one connected to internal Palestinian affairs: At the start of May, Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo. Since then, despite a declaration of goodwill on both sides, almost nothing has happened to move this forward.

The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has not violated its security arrangements with Israel in the West Bank. As already stated, the fire of the last two weeks has been from smaller factions, among them Hamas deserters and groups taking their cues from Al-Qaida. It is possible that Hamas will not this time stick its head above the parapet to rein in the fire, and the “motivational factor” is the power struggle with Fatah and Hamas’ desire to return to the center stage regarding the conflict with Israel.

In other words, this an attempt to show Fatah that without any progress on a comprise agreement, Hamas is capable of making trouble with Israel on the diplomatic front, even before the PA goes to the United Nations in September with its plan for recognition of a Palestinian state.