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Analysis: Israel-Hamas: a clash waiting to happen

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JERUSALEM – Since Israel completed a devastating military offensive in the Gaza Strip four years ago, military officials have warned it was only a matter of time before the next round of fighting. Violence erupted this week with little warning, driven by Hamas' ambitions to make its mark on a changing Middle East and an Israeli government reacting to public outcry over rocket attacks just weeks ahead of national elections.

It is a clash of wills driven by wildly contradictory narratives nurtured over the years by two deeply antagonistic societies with little in common save a deep-seated sense of historical grievance and victimization.

From Israel's perspective, the fact that it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, pulling out all soldiers and settlements after a 38-year occupation, should have been the end of its troubles with the 1.6 million Palestinians there. The continued rocket attacks – especially since Hamas militants seized the coastal strip from the more moderate Fatah faction in 2006 – are seen as an outrage that justifies extreme measures. No country, Israelis argue, could possibly be asked to tolerate a decade of rocket attacks.

That view aligns with a deeper historical grievance: Israelis feel their Zionist movement was fundamentally a return home from two millennia of exile but that it was met from the beginning by Arab rejection and violence. The Holocaust, the World War II slaughter of 6 million Jews by the Nazis even as Jews were building their state-in-waiting, further fed the sense of victimization accompanied by a distrust of the world and an obsession with self-reliance.

Hamas, on the other hand, rejects any Jewish connection to the Holy Land and views Israel as a colonial outpost in the heart of the Islamic world that must be destroyed. And among Palestinians, the Gazans' specific sense of victimization stems most directly from the miserable living conditions in a crowded, besieged and impoverished coastal strip a few miles wide. Israel's soldiers and settlers may be gone, but Israel continues to seal off its border with Gaza, blockades its seacoast for fear of weapons imports, and controls the airspace — and that, they reason, means that Gaza remains "occupied" and therefore "resistance" retains legitimacy.

That narrative aligns with a seething hatred of Israel fed by the fact that roughly three-quarters of the strip's population are refugees or descendants of refugees who lost their homes in what became Israel in 1948. For many, the current predicament is one chapter in a long story that will end with the restoration of historical Palestine to Arab and Muslim control.

In that context, the current historical moment takes on particular potential for instability and escalation.

The Arab Spring has opened up many new possibilities for Hamas, which has long been shunned by the international community. The changes in the region have strengthened Islamists across the Middle East, bringing Hamas newfound recognition. Last month's visit by Qatar's emir and Friday's solidarity mission by the prime minister of Egypt's new Islamist government illustrated the growing acceptance of Hamas.

"I say on behalf of the Egyptian people that Egypt today is different than Egypt yesterday and the Arabs today are different that the Arabs of yesterday," Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of Hamas' parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, said Friday. "I say with all confidence Egypt will not leave Gaza on its own."

Such words were hardly imaginable under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, who leaned to the West and whose officials over the years were much engaged in evenhanded mediation between Israel and various Palestinian factions.

But Hamas has paid a price in public opinion, especially among its religious and conservative base. The organization rose to power as an armed resistance group, and is considered by not only Israel but also the United States as a terrorist organization. Many in Gaza, ranging from longtime supporters to more radical al-Qaida-influenced groups, have accused it of going soft. Recent attacks on Israel, and this week's confrontation, are meant in part to re-establish Hamas' militant credentials.

For Israel, the offensive in Gaza has been brewing for months. After dealing Hamas a heavy blow in an offensive four years ago, Israeli intelligence has carefully watched the group recover and restock its arsenal with more powerful weapons and longer-range rockets. Rocket fire has steadily increased over the past two years, with more than 1,000 launched at Israel this year alone, according to the military. A pair of incidents last week marked a significant escalation in Israel's view. First, Hamas militants blew up a tunnel along the Israeli border in an attempt to attack Israeli troops. Then, Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep, seriously wounding four soldiers.

Israel's unhappiness with Hamas' surging confidence was evident in comments by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. "Hamas mistakenly thought that because of the change in government in Egypt and the election here that we will not respond properly," he said.

As rocket fire heated up early this week, there were an increasing number of calls by the Israeli public for a response by the government, which is up for re-election on Jan. 22.

Might Israel have decided to escalate — or allow itself to be easily provoked — with electoral calculations in mind? Israeli officials dismiss such suggestions, and the army says the objective is solely to halt the rocket fire.

Still, historical precedent certainly seems to be there:

In June 1981, weeks before a vote he seemed set to lose, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the air force to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak in faraway Iraq. The strike was successful, Begin won the election by a whisker, and as a bonus the world even came to appreciate the elimination of Saddam's potential nuclear weapons.

Fifteen years later the man Begin defeated, Shimon Peres, found himself as caretaker prime minister and saddled with a electorally inconvenient reputation as an overzealous advocate for peace. First, Peres ordered the killing of Hamas' key bombmaker, leading to a series of ferocious revenge bombings that badly sapped his support. And in April 1996, two months before the vote, he ordered a massive air campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon which many considered to be at least partly politically driven. The campaign ended with Hezbollah still in place and Israel halting the operation ignobly after mistakenly killing dozens in a U.N. compound. Peres lost by a whisker.

Four years ago the man who defeated Peres then, Benjamin Netanyahu, was staging a comeback after a few years out of office, and surging in the polls. The government of Ehud Olmert, far more moderate than Netanyahu, ordered an operation against Hamas.

The reason will be familiar to anyone watching the news today: Israeli public opinion was fed up with rockets from Gaza.

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Josef Federman is the Associated Press News Editor for Israel and the Palestinian territories. Follow him at twitter.com/joseffederman.

Dan Perry has covered the Mideast since the 1990s and currently leads AP's coverage in the region. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan

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