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As tensions flare between Gaza and Israel, Hamas may be forced to act

A Hamas policeman (R) stands guard next to a destroyed building after an Israeli air strike in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip March 12, 2012. Israeli air strikes killed two Palestinian militants and wounded 25 civilians in the Gaza Strip on Monday, medical sources said, as cross-border hostilities continued into a fourth day.

SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

As volleys of Israel-bound rockets poured out of Gaza over the weekend, rockets fired by Hamas were noticeably absent.

The Palestinian barrage began when Israel fired a missile into Gaza Friday afternoon, killing Zuhair al-Qaissi, head of the Palestinians' Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), whom Israeli defence officials accused of planning an attack on Israel.

As such, Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, did not object when the PRC retaliated with rocket fire, nor when the Islamic Jihad group joined in the retaliation. While Hamas supports a calm (or hudna) with Israel, the rules of the game allow for smaller groups to respond to Israeli attacks either when civilians are killed or when a group's leader is assassinated.

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Mr. al-Qaissi was the fourth PRC leader to be killed in six years.

But the current exchange of rockets – more than 20 Gazans have been killed by Israeli missiles, and more than a 150 Palestinian rockets have been fired on Israel – has raised the stakes.

Islamic Jihad, supported by Iran, is the second-best equipped force in Gaza, though with an arsenal and military force only a fraction of that of Hamas. And Jihad wants to know why Hamas is not joining in the exchange of fire with Israel, going so far as to call publically for an answer.

A spokesman for Hamas, speaking Monday on Hamas television, explained that Hamas was doing many things on the ground to assist in the conflict (short of firing rockets). Chief among those things is an attempt to restore the calm between Gaza and Israel.

To that end, a senior Hamas delegation went Sunday to Cairo to use Egypt's good offices to seek out a ceasefire with Israel.

Israel has hinted it is amenable to the idea, saying it does not seek an escalation in the current conflict. However, it is Islamic Jihad that says no to the idea, insisting that Israel agree to end its practice of assassinating Palestinian leaders.

It is believed that Israel has agreed to a no-assassinations policy toward Hamas in exchange for the current undeclared calm, and the ambitious Islamic Jihad wants one too.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told members of his Likud party Sunday that Islamic Jihad's sponsor, Iran, is calling the shots and he may be right.

The current tensions between Israel and Gaza come just a few weeks after Hamas's political leadership parted company with Iran. The Palestinian group moved its offices out of Damascus and publically aligned itself with Qatar, a rival of Iran. (The small but wealthy Gulf emirate is sponsoring a region-wide growth in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's parent organization.) And Iran may see in the current rocket exchanges a way to punish Hamas for its move.

If Islamic Jihad continues to reject a ceasefire with Israel, Hamas may be drawn into the fray – Palestinian public opinion would demand nothing less especially if many civilians are killed. The result of that would be an end to the current calm Hamas has enjoyed, including an end to Israel's no-assassinations policy, and punishing attacks on Hamas by Israel.

The outcome also would be a much more intensive barrage of missiles against Israel – Hamas is believed to possess large numbers of accurate and longer-range rockets – a situation that could easily result in missiles evading Israeli defences and causing large-scale Israeli casualties.

If, on the other hand, Islamic Jihad accepts a ceasefire and the calm is restored, it will be Jihad (and its Iranian sponsor) who will take a bow for doing this.

In either case, officials in Tehran will be smiling.

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Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Zuhair al-Qaissi. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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