Friday, September 24, 2010

Violent Diversions

Time and again troubles in the Arab world have increased the chances of violence against Israel. Case in point: Hezbollah's assassination of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, the country's chief Sunni figure, on February 14, 2005, resulted in a period of severe political pressure on the Shi'ite movement. Its Syrian ally, presumed complicit in the murder, was compelled to withdraw its forces from the country. Only when the Islamist group sent its gunmen across the border into Israel on July 12, 2006 seizing two Israeli soldiers and sparking a 34-day conflagration was attention diverted from the crime. Hezbollah bought the time it needed to solidify its position as the ultimate domestic arbiter of Lebanese politics.

Now, with the Special Tribunal For Lebanon reportedly poised to finger senior Hezbollah operative Mustafa Badr al-Din for carrying out the Hariri murder, will Hassan Nasrallah again seek to draw attention away from his movement's culpability with a diversionary attack against Israel? This time there is less incentive to do so. He has already preempted the panel by predicting that his men were about to be traduced. Syria, like Hezbollah a client of Iran, has brazenly demanded that the Hariri investigation be shut down because identifying Hariri's killers would threaten Lebanon's stability. Sunni powers are capitulating to the Syrian and Hezbollah intimidation.

Saudi King Abdullah, patron to the slain Hariri as well as his son, current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, travelled to Beirut on the same plane as Syrian President Bashar Assad in a symbolic push for Lebanese unity during an hours-long "summit." An Arab analyst close to the Hariri camp intuited that Syria had offered to "protect" the surviving Hariri in return for quashing the indictment against his Hezbollah killer. The son, who once openly blamed Assad for murdering his father, has sensibly concluded the neither Washington, Europe nor the Sunni Arab powers are prepared to stand up to Hezbollah, Damascus or Tehran. Consequently, the younger Hariri has pledged homage to Assad.

With Sunnis and Shi'ites working in tandem to cover-up the Hariri assassination in a bid to calm Lebanese tensions, Israeli analysts rate the prospect of a "diversionary" attack from the north as low.

Turning to the south, divisions among the Palestinians have been contributing to a heating up the Gaza front. The Palestinian Authority has come under intense pressure from Washington to enter into direct negotiations with the Netanyahu government. In interviews with the Israeli media, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has taken to lobbying the Israeli public to justify the Palestinian refusal to talk. Erekat explained that Mahmoud Abbas has submitted "far-reaching" proposals on final-status issues -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees, water and security -- to U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell and is waiting to hear a positive response from Israel. Washington, however, has apparently advised the PA that it will not be able to further assist the Palestinians in establishing a state if they continue to reject talking directly to Israel.

Against this background, over the weekend a Grad missile fired from Gaza slammed into Ashkelon, and Kassam rockets smashed into Sapir College in the western Negev. Fortunately, no one was hurt in either attack.

By striking across the border – or looking the other way as global jihadist launch their rockets on Eilat – Hamas may be trying to instigate an Israeli retaliation that it can portray as an "atrocity" or "war crime" thereby inhibiting an anyway hesitant Ramallah from participating in genuine give-and-take bargaining with Israel. Past experience is worth recalling: Hamas first gained infamy with a bus bombing in April 1993 intended to thwart the Oslo Accords signed anyway five months later. In the course of 1995 and 1996 Hamas's cold-blooded bombing campaigns were aimed at torpedoing Oslo's implementation.

Hezbollah has acknowledged miscalculating the force of Israel’s reaction to previous Islamist aggression. Hamas has been less publicly self-critical about the repercussions of its violent adventurism. What would happen if the next rocket from Gaza were to strike a crowded shopping mall or playground? The risks notwithstanding, chances are Hamas's will continue its noxious efforts to foil an anyway hobbled peace process.

-- August 2010

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