Gaza assassination - AP - 2/4/2011
Palestinians surrounding the wreckage of a vehicle following an Israeli airstrike that killed three of Hamas militants near Deir Al Balah, central Gaza Strip, April 2, 2011. Photo by AP
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After a week-long lull in violence along the Gaza border, the southern front is heating up once again following an Israeli assassination on Saturday of three Hamas men in Khan Yunis, one of them a senior member of the organization's military wing. According to the IDF, the three men were planning to abduct Israeli tourists in Sinai over the Passover holiday. Hamas denies the allegation.

While the dispute over the facts is important, the overall trend also matters. This is the third round of violence between the two side since February. After two years of quiet, since Operation Cast Lead, tension is once again boiling to the surface.

A month passed between the first and second clash; only a week between the second and third. The conclusion is that the checks and balances that had influenced the sides with some success are no longer working as well as they used to. The road to Cast Lead II is getting closer, despite both Israel and the Hamas loudly proclaiming that they have no intention of going there.

As far as facts are concerned, Hamas is playing a double game. It says it doesn't want a war, but it's ready to risk breaking the rules to gain some strategic advantage, like taking more Israeli hostages. At the same time, it is losing some control - intentionally or not - of the smaller factions, which never lack the motivation to shoot rockets at southern Israel.

Israel, for its part, needs to counter the Hamas denial with a persuasive explanation of how yesterday's assassination was necessary to prevent a major terrorist attack. Despite Hamas' threats, by last night the group had still not responded to the assassination. This may not necessarily be significant, though: In the last round of violence, the Islamist organization waited three days before responding to the killing of two of its members with a barrage of 50 mortar shells striking the Negev.

Members of Hamas' armed wing are well aware that their men are defecting to groups calling for global jihad - Al-Qaida wannabes, to quote incoming Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen. The group knows that failing to respond to the assassination may lead to even further defections and harm its image as a "resistance" organization, but it also knows that a full-on confrontation with Israel will exact a heavy price.

Hamas is also affected by events further afield - with its primary patron, Syria, embroiled in anti-government protests.

Israel, meanwhile, can draw some satisfaction from a belated declaration by Judge Richard Goldstone, who implied in a Washington Post op-ed published on Friday that his committee made rash and exaggerated conclusions in accusing the IDF of committing war crimes during Operation Cast Lead. He also admitted there was not enough weight given to crimes perpetrated by Hamas, and that the organization did nothing to investigate the claims against it following the report's publication.

The way things are going right now, Goldstone may soon have a new opportunity to investigate Hamas attacks on civilian populations.