TEL AVIV — Responding to the latest barrage of Palestinian Qassam rockets fired, mostly harmlessly, on Ashkelon and its environs, Israel this week “bombarded” Gaza with fliers warning residents not to enter the zone from which the rockets were launched. The firing zone at Gaza’s northern edge, formerly housing the settlements of Dugit and Nisanit, was declared an Israeli “buffer zone,” and any Palestinians entering would do so at their own risk. They could, Israel said, be fired upon without further warning.
Israel’s step, supported by the Bush administration, is the latest effort to stop the repeated shelling in recent weeks by Palestinians operating from a virtual free-fire zone in northern Gaza. The homemade rockets were causing little damage: One rocket hit an army camp and slightly injured five soldiers; another landed alarmingly close to a kibbutz kindergarten; yet another narrowly missed a group of Sderot residents on their way to synagogue. But the barrages were seen as a direct challenge to Prime Minister Sharon’s promise, prior to leaving Gaza, that Israel would respond harshly to any threat from across the border. The last thing that Sharon needs, three months before a general election and well ahead in the polls, is for Israelis to start questioning whether his single biggest move as prime minister actually put a city in harm’s way.
Israel also got off a few missiles of its own, fired by helicopter on a bridge that had served as a Qassam launching pad and on the offices of a terrorist group blamed for much of the shelling. The group, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, responded by storming a Palestinian Authority office building, waving guns and demanding jobs.
The terrorists’ response drove home a point that Israeli officials make repeatedly: that the shelling of Ashkelon is meant to influence not the Israeli elections, scheduled for March 28, 2006, but the Palestinian legislative elections due in mid-January. Each day that brings those elections closer seems to lessen the authority of the man they were intended to strengthen, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. By firing rockets, a senior security source told the Forward, militants “are trying to show that Abu Mazen is incapable of stopping them. Even though all of the major political forces, including Hamas, have no interest in escalation right now, they want to demonstrate just how ineffectual and weak Abu Mazen is.”
Inevitably, the Palestinian infighting influences Israel’s internal debate by forcing Israeli leaders to offer responses to events in the territories. The thorniest of those is the rise of Hamas. A strong electoral showing by Hamas is now a foregone conclusion, and Israel has all but given up hope of influencing the Palestinian elections’ outcome. Abbas’s Fatah movement, still the most powerful force in Palestinian politics, is fragmented beyond repair. In a last-ditch effort to save itself from utter humiliation, Fatah announced this week that it would present a single list of candidates, reuniting the old-guard leadership with the breakaway group led from an Israeli prison cell by Marwan Barghouti. But it’s doubtful whether even Barghouti’s popularity can preserve Fatah’s dominance. Under the complicated, two-tiered Palestinian electoral system, Hamas seems assured of at least 25% of the new parliament, perhaps even more.
That could be a blessing in disguise, some senior Israelis now argue. A strengthened Hamas would become part of the political system, perhaps even join the government. The need to show legitimacy and effectiveness could restrain its trigger-finger, if not temper its refusal to recognize Israel. One of Israel’s top military planners, army Strategic Planning Division director General Udi Dekel, argued publicly at a Jerusalem seminar this week that a strong showing would prompt Hamas to scale terrorism back.
In that event, some planners say, Abbas, who doesn’t face re-election as chairman, could end up with a strengthened mandate to negotiate with Israel, representing all Palestinians for the first time.
Other security officials disagree. Noting Abbas’s inability to deal even with small-caliber problems such as the minor dissident groups firing rockets, they have said that the Palestinian leader is incapable of establishing authority. “It isn’t a mandate he lacks,” one official told the Forward. “You look at the polls, and he has approval ratings Sharon or President Bush should be envious of. But he has no real power in the street. He is a representative figure, nothing more.”
So the Israeli leadership, facing uncertainty on the other side and political challenges at home, tries to maintain a delicate balance, presenting a resolute appearance while avoiding escalation into full-scale bombardments or an invasion of Gaza. Hence the “buffer zone” and similar measures.
In the north, meanwhile, things are heating up again. Hezbollah, apparently intent — perhaps, some officials say, with Syrian encouragement — on luring Israel into an escalating confrontation, fired rockets and mortar shells on Kiryat Shmona and the Western Galilee, wounding three. It was not the first attack in recent months, but it was the first direct hit on Kiryat Shmona in years, and seemed to catch Israeli leaders by surprise. They responded by hitting the training camp of a Syrian-controlled Palestinian group, the Popular Front-General Command. That drew Lebanese anti-aircraft fire, opening the way for the escalation Syria seems to want.
It isn’t clear whether there is a direct link between the actions of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite organization, and the chaotic situation among the mostly Sunni Palestinians in Gaza. Hezbollah has moved in a big way in recent years into sponsoring terrorism in the West Bank, operating largely through the small, Shi’ite-led Islamic Jihad. And Islamic Jihad is one of the main troublemakers in the Gaza rocket zone. The hint of a connection is tantalizing. But Israeli analysts seemed unanimous this week in dismissing it. Most surmised that Hezbollah’s actions had more to do with Syria’s international troubles.
If the shelling continues, the fine distinctions that occupy defense experts could be lost on the average Israeli voter. All of which casts a cloud over Sharon as he seeks to maintain his lead in the upcoming election. His advantage does not seem to have been weakened by his own health troubles, but that does not mean he is invulnerable.