Hamas Missteps Provoked Israel, Observers say
Stewart Ain - Staff Writer
A series of miscalculations by Hamas was being seen as triggering Israel's assault on the terrorist organization throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank this week, an offensive that Israel promises will not end until the group's ability to renew Kassam rocket attacks on Israeli targets has been destroyed.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Radio Wednesday that it was "impossible to administer peace or negotiations until terrorists are disarmed. We must quash the terror at its roots."
The Israeli military threatened to destroy an entire Gaza town if more rockets were fired from there.
"The rules of the game have changed," Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said of Israel's decision to ignore Hamas claims that it had ordered an end to the rocket attacks.
"The Palestinians don't have any credibility," he explained. "Israel has heard these words for years. Attacks would stop and they would use the quiet to regroup. That is not going to happen this time. The country [Israel] does not want to see us going back to the old system."
The Israeli military offensive, which included raids on Hamas offices in the West Bank and the arrest of more than 400 Hamas members, followed a barrage of Kassam rockets — nearly 40 in all — into southern Israel Saturday, injuring six people.
The attack came in response to what Hamas claimed was Israeli aircraft missile fire into a crowd gathered for a military parade last Friday at the Jabalya refugee camp. The blast reportedly killed 21 people, including a 7-year-old boy.
Israel denied responsibility for the blast, and a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority claimed the explosion was caused by Hamas' own homemade rockets. Masked gunmen later tried to assassinate the spokesman.
On Tuesday, a forensic report published by the explosives unit of the Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry said shrapnel found in the bodies of those killed resembled that used in the noses of Hamas' Kassam rockets.
Guy Bechor, head of the Middle East Department at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, said Hamas found itself caught in a Catch-22 — taking responsibility would have meant admitting to criminal negligence and blaming Israel forced it to "retaliate."
"They became victims of their own slogans and declarations," Bechor said. "They were almost obliged to do something against Israel."
Abu Mustafa, a campaign coordinator at Hamas' regional campaign headquarters in Ramallah who used another name for fear of arrest, said he also believed the Hamas leadership in Gaza erred.
"It is unfortunate that Hamas launched the attacks," he said. "Had I been the decision maker in this situation I wouldn't have done this.
"Our leadership are not saints. It is the military wing of the Hamas that makes the mistakes.… It was wrong to retaliate, especially now that Hamas is on the verge of embarking on a political process."
Mustafa added that the declaration of Hamas leader Mahmoud A-Zahar earlier this week that attacks from Gaza would end was an attempt at "damage control."
Hassan Barghouti, a Ramallah-based political analyst, said that not only had Hamas made a mistake in its attack on Israel, but that its public standing among Palestinians has been further damaged — an erosion that began with the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip earlier this month.
"After the disengagement, Hamas lost a little bit in Gaza, and after what happened in Jabalya and the retaliation, they are losing more," he said. "Gazans are celebrating because of the withdrawal. And there is no logic to risk an Israeli invasion because of Hamas rockets. The Gazan people want quiet."
Diana Buttu, the press officer for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, termed Hamas' attack and Israel's response "one of the most unfortunate events."
"It largely backfired on Hamas," she told members of the Israel Policy Forum in a conference call Tuesday from Gaza City. "Rather than bowing its head and saying I'm sorry and it [parading around with live explosives] shouldn't have happened, it had a knee-jerk reaction to cover it up."
Buttu added that the erosion of support for Hamas has continued "because people see that these things are unwarranted and cowardly." But she said Hamas could recover support in time for parliamentary elections Jan. 25 should the international community not come through with its pledge of $3 billion in aid to the Palestinian Authority that was to be used for a host of projects, including new housing and roads.
"The fear is that around election time Hamas will pick up on this and say that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt, that Israel and the international community have failed the Palestinians, and that it will have to take the situation into its own hands," she said.
Bechor said Hamas' kidnapping and execution of Israeli businessman Sasson Nuriel this week — ostensibly to pressure Israel into releasing Palestinian prisoners — reflected the group's attempt to show itself as fighting for Palestinian prisoners at a time when the Palestinian Authority is not. But showing a video of Nuriel bound and blindfolded in a manner similar to captives held by terrorists in Iraq has backfired, he said.
"This is totally for the elections, but they did not consider the outcome," Bechor said. "They didn't consider the international damage. … It's creating great damage for Hamas and great damage to the PA, which is doing nothing to stop that."
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.