This commentary was published in the Arab News on 28/12/2010
On the second anniversary of Israel's three-week war on Gaza, the pressing question is not if the siege will be lifted any soon, or if hundreds of demolished homes will finally be rebuilt, but whether or not a new aggression is on the verge of breaking out.
In the past month tension has escalated along the Israel-Gaza border, ending a yearlong lull.
At least 15 Palestinians, most of them fighters belonging to various Islamist groups, have been killed in Israeli air raids. In response, rockets were fired into southern Israel from Gaza. Hamas, which controls the strip, has denounced the Israeli raids but it is believed that it is trying to stop other groups from escalating the situation. Already news reports suggested that a militant group has been behind the recent firing of rockets. Israel, on the other hand, claimed that its forces had thwarted a rocket attack planned by "Al-Qaeda inspired salafi-Muslim terrorists."
Meanwhile, Israeli Cabinet ministers have issued warnings that the government will not stand for more attacks against its citizens, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said there are no guarantees that the situation in the Gaza Strip will not deteriorate. Hamas spokesmen responded that they too will not stand for Israeli attacks but hinted that they will honor a truce if their enemy does the same.
While it is not clear if war talk reflects genuine intentions on either side to engage each other again, both have used the unofficial cease-fire to prepare for a possible second round. Israel is said to have learned valuable lessons from its 2008-09 incursion into Gaza which inflicted heavy civilian losses among Palestinians and drew condemnations from all over. And Hamas and other groups have not wasted their time as well. Israel claims that they have acquired advanced weapons including armor-piercing rockets.
Of course, the Palestinians will never reach military parity with Israel. If war does break out we could see a repetition of Operation Cast Lead in terms of huge human losses on the Palestinian side, especially among civilians, and use of banned weapons by Israel. There will be heavy resistance and even some qualitative missions against the invading forces, but unless the big powers intervene it could end in disaster for Hamas and its allies.
One would have thought that two years after one of the most brutal operations against the Palestinians since 1967, the international community would find ways to ease tensions along the Gaza-Israel borders. It didn't. The Israeli siege has not been lifted although it had been relaxed a bit. But Hamas and Israel remain on opposite sides and the only line of communication, through a German intermediary, over the release of Gilead Shalit has now been truncated.
The political standoff in Gaza has frustrated Hamas, both in Gaza and in Damascus. It is not clear what Khaled Mishaal, the movement's top political figure, has in mind. He has failed to move forward on the issue of reconciliation with Fatah and the PNA, although he would also hold the latter responsible. And his hope that Europe and the United States would recognize his movement and talk to him has been dashed.
Gazans are suffering and they are growing tired as they await promised funds to repay for reconstruction. Unemployment is above 60 percent and the economy is all but shattered. Hamas is feeling the pressure and it is realizing that unless something happens soon, the world will forget about Gaza altogether.
A short altercation with Israel may change all that. But it cannot afford to start a small war unless it has the means to end it. By the same token Israel is also feeling some pressure now that the peace process has waned. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may still be in charge but he is definitely not happy with his right-wing coalition partners. A skirmish in Gaza may change political realities in Israel and give Netanyahu an excuse to rebuild his coalition in a way that will allow him to have more leeway in the future.
President Mahmoud Abbas too is looking for a dramatic change in the political landscape that would end the current impasse. That does not mean that he favors a war on Gaza, but if that ever happens he would be very interested to see his political foes, Hamas, defeated. His sentiments would match those of Egypt and others in the region.
The United States too would not move quickly to contain a new conflagration in Gaza. Hamas is allied with Iran, which also supports Hezbollah in Lebanon. To take down one of those allies would be considered a victory for Israel, the United States and Arab moderates. It would also create political space for a new peace initiative and give Abbas and the PNA a life-line.
So it all boils down to this: Will we have a big war or a small one in Gaza? Hamas would seize the opportunity of a small aggression to reclaim world attention and sympathy. But a big war would almost certainly destroy it. Israel's claim that Al-Qaeda is now operating in Gaza would give it the excuse to launch a major offensive, no matter the cost.
It is unfortunate that ordinary Palestinians stand to suffer regardless of what the coming few weeks bring. If the truce holds they will have to endure more harsh economic and living conditions. And if war breaks out they stand to pay dearly with their lives. They lose both ways!
Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman