Islamic Jihad's Attacks, Hamas' Dilemma

From Israel's viewpoint, the disruption caused to a million Israeli citizens' lives in the south of the country is intolerable. Israel is aware of Hamas' dilemma, but has no reason to do the movement any favors. So Israel's message is clear and uncompromising: for as long as the rocket fire continues, Israel will continue to retaliate. If the Hamas regime wants to engineer a return to the de facto ceasefire, then it better go ahead and do so before it’s too late.

So which course will Hamas choose? The indications are that Hamas, fearing a major Israeli attack more than the potential political loss of face of a renewed ceasefire, is hurrying to secure a return to the shaky and partial calm that preceded the current escalation. The Hamas rulers have rushed to the authorities in Cairo to ask them to broker a renewed ceasefire.

Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu stated March 10 that “all Palestinian factions” wanted a renewed truce but that Israel must stop firing first. Hamas is also currently insisting that Israel commit to avoid targeted killings in Gaza in the future -- a condition entirely unacceptable to Jerusalem. Islamic Jihad spokesman Daud Shihab, however, denied that the organization was involved in any contacts to end the clashes.

The political game in which each group tries to claim the mantle of greater militancy against Israel is once again in play. But the words of the Hamas spokesman suggested that the stage of bargaining had begun. So this round is likely to end in the coming days -- barring unforeseen developments -- with a return to an uneasy de facto ceasefire.

If this happens, the Israel defense establishment will be able to register an achievement. It will have showed it can act decisively to ensure the security of Israeli citizens, and then use sophisticated techniques to minimize the damage of the response from Gaza and force a return to quiet.

Meanwhile, the Hamas authorities in Gaza remain in an uncomfortable dilemma, caught between their desire to keep control of Gaza and the lure of militant violence against Israel. For its part, Islamic Jihad will have proved its worth as an asset for Iran to remind everyone in the locality of its continued presence and possibly of what might happen if Israel attacks Iranian nuclear facilities.

A bigger issue is how changes in Egypt -- including the projected turnover of power from the military to an elected president -- will affect the Gaza Strip and the situation on Israel’s southern border. If Cairo turns toward greater Islamist militancy, the chance for a major confrontation being sparked in Gaza would exponentially increase. For now, though, efforts have begun to end this current round of fighting.