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Gaza Strip Flares Up

A Palestinian Islamic Jihad bomber blew himself and five Israeli civilian shoppers up in a Netanya mall today, further indication that the fragile truce between Israel and groups within the Palestinian Territories has effectively ended. While Hamas has largely adhered to the truce, the Iranian-supported PIJ has been responsible for the vast majority of attacks on Israel since the ceasefire’s inception. Hamas has largely focused its ire internally on the fight with the Palestinian Authority for political popularity and control within the Palestinian Territories. With no real dog in the political arena, the PIJ has continued its focus on attacking Israeli civilians.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Italy, meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and inviting him to Jerusalem, a weekend of violence in the Gaza Strip seems to mark the beginning of the end of a truce that is due to expire at the end of the year. For its part, Islamic Jihad has already stated that it does not plan to enter into a new agreement.

In separate incidents, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. One of them was a Palestinian in a boat that ignored warning shots and reportedly fired on the IDF vessel. Palestinians claimed the man was a fisherman and rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel were carried out.

Israel responded by targeting artillery on the Gaza field from which the Qassam rockets were fired and air-to-ground missile attacks on a metal workshop which Israel says was a Qassam rocket lab used to facilitate terror attacks. No one was in the building during the overnight raid. Also hit in a separate raid was an Islamic Jihad charity that was said to be a center for disbursing payments and funding terror attacks. These were the first airstrikes by the IDF into Gaza since late October. This prompted more rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza.

There is cause to believe that this may be the norm rather than the exception until at least the January 25 Palestinian elections, as the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad vie for power and public support in the run-up (though the latter not for political/electoral purposes). On the other side, Israel’s Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, had strong words in response, demonstrating that Israel has little tolerance for attacks into its territory after the Israeli pullout from Gaza.

“I have ordered the army to take immediate offensive measures in reaction to the rocket and mortar firing … If calm does not reign in Israel, it will not reign in Gaza,” he told public radio.

The Palestinian Authority has called for more arms and equipment to combat the general lawlessness in Gaza, stating that only one in twenty PA police officers are armed. In Friday street-fighting between Gaza clans, five Palestinians were killed, including one PA police officer. The PA hopes to recruit the better-armed Hamas, Islamic Jihad and groups to join the ranks of the PA police force.

“My ministry is working carefully on the process of bringing the armed wings and their members inside the security services,” he said. While he said the security services would “be open to everyone,” it is highly unlikely that Hamas members would join up.

It is indeed very unlikely that Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s chief rival for control, would see any of its members join PA ranks, either now or after the elections.

Feedback

Keep an eye out for a new Palestinian political party founded by Salam Fayyad, who just resigned as finance minister in the PA over corruption issues. The fact that Rabbo and Ashrawi seem set to leave Fatah for his party is also a good sign. See this Jerusalem Post article for more details.

This is potentially a very key development because it could be the first time that the Palestinians have the option of voting for a party not tainted by terrorism. Fayyad would be the alternative to the corruption of Fatah and the violence of Hamas. I wouldn't expect him to win, of course, at least the first time through, but even if it splits the secularist vote and gives Hamas a plurality, this might be what the Palestinians need.