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On the edge

Israel and Hamas both have upped the ante in their continuing struggle, but why now?

Violence be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas in the Gaza Strip is so com­mon­place that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity no lon­ger asks why, but why now? In a Mid­dle East that is more vol­a­tile than it has been in years, that’s an im­por­tant ques­tion.

Who started it this time? Each side blames the other. Each claims its use of vi­o­lence is a just re­sponse to an in­tol­er­a­ble prov­o­ca­tion.

Is­rael points to an ex­plo­sion in a mine along the Is­raeli bor­der that Ha­mas claimed credit for, and a mis­sile strike on an Is­raeli mil­i­tary jeep in which four sol­diers were se­ri­ously in­jured.

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Ha­mas cites the Nov. 5 shoot­ing by Is­raeli forces of a 23-year-old Pal­es­tin­ian man as he ap­proached a bor­der fence. On Nov. 8, a 13-year-old Pal­es­tin­ian boy was shot to death while he was play­ing soc­cer out­side his home.

The re­sult was pre­dict­able: Ha­mas be­gan fir­ing more rock­ets into Is­rael, which re­sponded by tar­get­ing doz­ens of rocket launch­ers in Gaza, es­pe­cially ones that fire Ira­nian mis­siles ca­pa­ble of strik­ing tar­gets deep in Is­rael.

Last week, an Is­raeli drone launched a mis­sile that blew up the car in which a Ha­mas mil­i­tary leader was rid­ing. The at­tack that killed Ahmed al-Jabari was rem­i­nis­cent of as­sas­si­na­tions Is­rael seemed to have aban­doned in re­cent years.

Is­raeli peace ac­tiv­ist Ger­shon Baskin told the Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz that Mr. Jabari was in the fi­nal stages of ne­go­ti­at­ing a per­ma­nent truce with Is­rael. That has led to spec­u­la­tion that Mr. Jabari died be­cause Is­rael doesn’t want peace with Ha­mas — at least not now.

The death toll in the re­gion has sur­passed 100. Is­rael is tar­get­ing the homes of sus­pected Ha­mas lead­ers. These ac­tions have en­raged Pal­es­tin­ians, could cause other Arab na­tions to flock to the Pal­es­tin­ian cause, and may en­dan­ger sup­port for the Jew­ish state from the rest of the world.

Is­rael has set par­lia­men­tary elec­tions for Jan­u­ary. Are Prime Min­is­ter Ben­ja­min Netan­yahu and the rul­ing Likud party pol­ish­ing their mil­i­tary hard-line cre­den­tials? An­a­lysts say that it wouldn’t be the first time.

Mr. Netan­yahu may be try­ing to send a mes­sage to the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion as well. Most Is­rae­lis ev­i­dently would have pre­ferred the elec­tion of Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney. Mr. Netan­yahu has en­cour­aged the per­cep­tion that Pres­i­dent Obama is hos­tile to­ward Is­rael and weak on Iran and grow­ing Islamic rad­i­cal­ism.

But if what Is­rael has un­leashed is stage­craft, as some in the United States sug­gest, it did not oc­cur in a vac­uum. Beyond the con­tin­u­ing threat of a nu­clear Iran, the Mid­dle East and North Africa are in the throes of changes that are bound to af­fect Is­rael.

If civil war in Syria top­ples the gov­ern­ment of Bashar As­sad, it could re­sult in chaos, or the rise of a more Isla­mist re­gime. Fight­ing there also threat­ens to de­sta­bi­lize Leb­a­non, where the Syria-backed mil­i­tant group Hez­bol­lah holds sway along Is­rael’s north­ern bor­der.

Is­rael has long-stand­ing peace trea­ties with Egypt and Jor­dan. But Egypt’s new Muslim Brother­hood-led gov­ern­ment is walk­ing a tight­rope be­tween sup­port for the Pal­es­tin­ian cause and its de­sire to be seen as a re­spon­si­ble player in re­gional pol­i­tics.

At the same time, re­cent pro­tests in Jor­dan over re­duced gas­o­line sub­si­dies have turned deadly and led some op­po­si­tion lead­ers to call for the over­throw of King Ab­dul­lah II.

Egypt and Tu­ni­sia, with whom Is­rael also has dip­lo­matic ties, have sent del­e­ga­tions of sup­port to Gaza. Egypt is work­ing be­hind the scenes to bro­ker a truce. The United States, which backs Is­rael’s right to de­fend it­self, still wor­ries as Is­rael threat­ens to send troops into Gaza.

Is­raeli-Amer­i­can writer Emily Hauser told the At­lan­tic mag­a­zine that be­tween Is­rael and the Pal­es­tin­ians, there will al­ways be “some­thing or some­one to avenge.”

Even in the best of times, it can be dif­fi­cult to pin­point what mo­ti­vates ei­ther side. But light­ing matches in the Mid­dle East is never a good idea.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. Netanyahu says his country is ready to strike harder against Gaza Strip militants if they don’t stop attacking Israel. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)


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