ANALYSIS / Gaza Raids Met by Loud Silence From the Arab World

Hamas will have to concentrate its efforts not on the incursion, but on shattering the Israeli definition of this war.

As the death toll in Israel Defense Forces raids against miltiants firing rockets from Gaza climbed to more than 60 on Saturday, Palestinian Information Minister Riad al-Malki responded by saying: "Hamas gave Israel an excuse to start a war in Gaza."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also responded along these lines by saying that the "operation in Gaza is not just a reaction to the rocket barrage." Both comments can be interpreted as Palestinian backing of the Israel Defense Forces ground incursion in the Strip.

Moreover, the very mild Egyptian reaction and the conspicuous absence of a convicting Arab voice also indicate that the IDF raid is perceived by the Arab world to be first and foremost a war against Hamas, not the "real Holocaust" of the Palestinian people - as Khaled Meshal claimed on Saturday.

The fact that Al Jazeera devoted a whole episode of a popular debate show to the question "Why are the Palestinians keeping silent about the situation in Gaza?" also serves to prove this point.

Hamas will therefore have to concentrate its efforts not only on the Israeli offensive or on getting the support of the Arab countries, but mainly on shattering the Israeli definition of this war - from one directed against a terrorist organization to a full-fledged war on the entire Palestinian people.

Hamas succeeded in doing this once in late January, when its people breached the Gaza-Egypt border and the media portrayed Hamas as the savior of the Palestinians from the Israeli siege.

Back then, the Egyptian government had to show its support of the breached border fence and allow thousands of Palestinians to swarm into Egypt. Hamas also managed to set the issue of the Rafah crossing and the need for inter-Palestinian reconciliation as top priority of the political agenda.

This time, however, a different effort is required: In order to portray the Palestinian people as a victim of Israeli aggression, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and his representatives both in Gaza and in the West Bank will have to muster the support of the public in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, as well as bring about a resolute commitment from the Palestinian Authority that it would join the active struggle against Israel.

Meshal's ultimate goal is to pull elements within Fatah and other Palestinian organizations to the armed struggle, even at the cost of starting a third intifada.

So far, Meshal was unsuccessful in his attempts to garner pan-Palestinian support for Hamas' repeated use of Qassam rockets against Israel. Senior Palestinian and Arab officials voiced serious doubts concerning the rockets' efficacy, including several officials who condemned the use of Qassams as detrimental to the Palestinian cause.

This is a new situation in which the IDF operates in a wide scope, the television footage is extremely hard to watch, the number of dead Palestinians since Wednesday is close to 90 and the physical damage inflicted is enormous.

All these factors make it easier for Hamas to swerve public opinion its way and direct it towards a large-scale operation in the West Bank that would run deeper than a quiet protest. Arab leaders could soon find the situation to be out of their control.

The problem facing Israel at the moment is how to confine the incursion within the limits of Israel's struggle against Hamas and the rocket barrage, and not turn it into a war that seems to be directed against all Palestinians.

The line between these two stages is tricky and dangerous. Therefore the Israeli government should not give up on trying to get Egypt and the rest of the Arab countries to initiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.