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Old rivalries, new allies as Hamas fights to save face

A quick look at the historical context surrounding Israeli operations against Palestinians uncovers a pattern of assassinations, which has proven to be largely ineffective from a security paradigm

On July 22, 2002, shortly after midnight, an Israeli F-16 warplane dropped a one-tonne bomb on a house in a crowded neighbourhood in Gaza City, killing 13 civilians, including women and children. The target: Salah Shehadeh, a high-ranking Hamas leader, who was one of the founders of the faction's military arm, the Izzedine Al Qassam Brigades.

Israel's reasoning for that killing, according to a government assessment, was that "Shehadeh was the driving force behind Hamas, its ideology and its operations, and was directly involved in the planning and execution of deadly terror attacks" against Israelis.

Just a few weeks before Shehadeh's death, Mark Perry - a military and foreign affairs analyst and unofficial adviser to Yasser Arafat - was working on securing the approval of Palestinian factions for a draft ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians.

"By July 20, all seemed in place. Only Shehadeh, the head of Hamas's military wing in Gaza, needed to give his approval - and he had informed our team, through a Fatah intermediary, that he was prepared to do so. His signature on the ceasefire document was to be obtained on the evening of July 22," Mr Perry recalled last week.

But less than an hour later, Shehadeh was dead. Mr Perry remembers that an Israeli official whom he had been dealing with accosted him on a Jerusalem street shortly afterwards. "You know, Mr Perry, you don't seem to understand," the official said before walking away. "We don't want a ceasefire."

Fast forward to Wednesday, when an unmanned drone shot a missile at a car as it travelled through Gaza City, killing its occupants, including Ahmad Jabari. Jabari was believed to be the mastermind behind the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the current Qassam Brigades leader. Ironically, Jabari took the position from Shehadeh after his assassination.

In a New York Times op-ed published Friday, the Israeli academic and activist Gershon Baskin revealed that hours before his death, Jabari received a draft of a long-term ceasefire document developed through Egyptian and Israeli intermediaries.

"If Mr Jabari had agreed to the draft, then we could have prevented this new round of violence; if he had refused, then Israel would have likely attacked in much the same way as it is now. The proposal was at least worth testing."

But it never had the chance to be tested. Why? Some analysts cite Israel's "deterrence" policy as the primary reasoning behind their newly launched assault. However, a quick look at the historical context surrounding such operations uncovers a pattern of assassinations, which has proven to be largely ineffective from a security paradigm - Israel's supposed raison d'Ítre for attacking Gaza in the first place.

Since the beginning of Israel's offensive, Hamas has escalated its rocket attacks, surprising many after its rockets reached Tel Aviv and even an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem. It has been decades since missiles have reached either city, prompting some to ask why Hamas's leadership would cross such a line, given the possible escalation of hostilities in response.

Obviously, given the group's lack of military power in comparison to Israel, which hosts one of the most sophisticated armies in the world, Hamas's aims are less tangible in a traditional sense.

Since the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, Israel has launched sizeable military campaigns in Gaza - in 2003, and again in 2006 and 2008. In this manner, Israel managed to deplete whatever arsenal Hamas had accrued and put the group in a predicament where any response would be used as pretext for a disproportionate retaliation by Israel but no response would be perceived as weakness by its supporters.

Yet there are other contributing political factors affecting the current calculations on both sides. Israel's upcoming elections in January figure into the equation, and although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new far-right coalition does not have any apparent contenders to face, a large-scale military operation could all but seal his victory.

Hamas, meanwhile, is being bolstered by new allies, as Islamist governments are ascendant throughout the region. In a joint news conference with the Egyptian prime minister, Hisham Qandil, at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Hamas's leader Ismail Hanieh said: "The Egypt of today is unlike that of the past; this visit reflects post-revolution Egypt's solidarity with Gaza." He was of course referring to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government (of which Hamas was founded as an offshoot), which has taken a more substantial interest in the dealings of the Palestinian Islamic resistance.

Hamas's management of the situation is also dictated by internal pressures of a Gaza Strip suffering years of a suffocating blockade, to distinguish itself from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is often seen as acquiescent to Israel's demands. Hamas's increased popularity during the current conflict has even forced the PA to ease its clamp down on Hamas members in the West Bank. In at least one demonstration in Ramallah last week, a sea of green flags appeared for the first time in years.

Because Hamas is no match for Israel in terms of might, the end goal in this current conflict cannot be a military one, even though the group was left with very few choices that would allow it to maintain its resistance credentials after the killing of its chief military leader. Hamas is using these new regional dynamics to form an exit strategy from the current crisis, while trying to lose as little face as possible.

Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist and TV producer based in the West Bank

On Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa

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