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Conflict fears as Gaza clashes intensify

Oct. 24, 2012 at 3:45 PM  |  Updated Oct. 24, 2012 at 4:20 PM   |   Comments

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GAZA, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- There are ominous signs that worsening clashes between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip could touch off a new conflict as the Middle East is wracked with upheaval, a civil war in Syria and the threat of a U.S.-Iranian shootout in the Persian Gulf.

This eruption of violence appears to be isolated but it's not. It's part of a very intricate gavotte between Israel and its Palestinian foes.

To an outsider it seems meaningless but to those on the inside, there's a merciless logic, according to rules that only the participants comprehend.

Hamas needs to reassert its revolutionary credentials every so often to maintain its political status.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called parliamentary elections and needs to burnish his security credentials without going to war with Iran over its nuclear program -- which Washington doesn't want.

That's a far bigger, more dangerous conflict that would inevitably entail a sustained missile barrage against Israel, with many casualties, than dueling with Hamas whose rockets inflict little real hurt.

But periodic violence carries political rewards for both sides.

The upsurge in clashes was accentuated by the Oct. 6 Israeli downing of a Hezbollah surveillance drone over the southern Negev Desert of the Jewish state, an area that over the years has been pounded by thousands of rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza.

The Iranian-built drone, which Hezbollah says it launched in south Lebanon, guided out into the Mediterranean then swung eastward into Israeli air space near Gaza, jolted the Israelis. It was over southern Israel for 30 minutes before an Israeli F-16 fighter jet shot it down over the Negev.

It's still not clear whether there was a connection between the drone's mission and the upswing in rocket fire from Gaza but the conjunction of events resonated in Israel.

"These incidents underscore that the threat of war in the Middle East has not receded despite a flurry of recent reports that claim Israel will refrain from striking Iran's nuclear program this year," observed Israel-based analyst Victor Kotsev.

"The sporadic outbreaks of civil unrest in the Islamic Republic, which are believed to have contributed to Israel's change of mind, may serve as a trigger for a more limited conflict."

Kotsev muses that "given recent friction between Hamas and its former Iranian patrons -- the movement has increasingly sided against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is a key ally of Iran and Hezbollah, in the Syrian civil war -- Iran may have an interest to lure the Gaza militants into a confrontation with Israel.

"In this way, it would punish the infidelity and would simultaneously raise the heat on Israel, deflecting attention from its own many troubles," Kotsev concluded.

If that sounds convoluted and conspiracy-manic, that's the way things work in the Middle East.

Israel's clashes with Palestinian militants in Gaza noticeably picked up around this time, with non-Hamas groups firing rockets and mortars into southern Israel that provoked Israeli retaliation.

This, as a matter of course, is generally far more destructive than the incidents that trigger it.

In this case, it's probably not just what damage Hamas or other groups in Gaza can inflict that matters but what military opportunities Israel perceives present themselves.

"While most analysts agree that the Jewish state can ill afford to draw further negative attention in light of regional upheaval caused by the Arab Spring, there are also certain strategic arguments in favor of a short but intense operation," Kotsev noted.

Israel ran into a brick wall of international opprobrium in December 2008 when it used Hamas' rocket attacks -- largely ineffectual -- to invade Gaza in force, killing some 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, in the name of deterrence.

Israeli commanders have threatened another invasion but the political leadership doesn't want such heat again. However, there are ways around that, despite U.S. presidential elections Nov. 6.

"A campaign to degrade the military capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah would constitute a limited pre-emptive strike against Iran's sphere of influence," Kotzev observed.

"By picking out the Iranian military assets one by one, particularly given a solid legal justification for doing so -- such as self-defense -- Israel would offer Iran and Syria a grim choice: stay on the sidelines or be blamed for a war that could easily draw in the United States."

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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