Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hamas celebrates gains from Israeli offensive

Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas has emerged from battle with the triumphal sense of a hard-won game change: By stopping its offensive when it did, Israel's hard-line government seems to have grudgingly accepted that the Islamic militant group cannot soon be dislodged from power in Gaza.

Hamas dared rocket the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas, then stared down threats of a ground invasion to wipe out the group — emerging with its rule intact, world figures rushing to the region to put out the fire and key Muslim countries openly on its side. In the rush of diplomacy, Hamas also succeeded in overshadowing its main Western-backed Palestinian rival.

Still unclear is whether the Egyptian-brokered truce can deliver the promised end to Gaza's stifling blockade.

On Thursday, the first full day of calm after eight days of fighting, the contrast in mood couldn't be sharper.

Gazans celebrated the cease-fire with fireworks, Hamas militants flaunted their weapons in the streets and a Hamas political leader, Khalil al-Haya, taunted Israel at a victory rally, saying "you can't invade us."

Israel's mood was subdued, with some glad a costly ground invasion had been averted, but others disappointed by the inconclusive end of the offensive. Unlike previous military campaigns, Israel set the bar low, saying it wanted only to end Gaza rocket fire, not topple the Islamists in charge of the Palestinian territory.

The offensive had started seemingly unexpectedly, with the assassination of the Hamas military chief with a missile strike on his moving car on Nov. 14.

Over eight days, Israel's military struck some 1,500 Hamas-linked targets in Gaza and amassed troops on the border, while Israel's leaders threatened a bruising Gaza invasion, just like the one Israel staged four years earlier.

But Israel did not send in troops, even after Hamas barraged the Jewish state with hundreds of rockets, including several falling close to the heartland cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — something many had believed would surely trigger an invasion.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, pushing back Thursday against those clamoring for a decisive blow against Hamas, said he was not willing to embark on a military adventure and risk antagonizing the international community.

"Hamas won't be toppled unless Israel retakes Gaza, but I'm not sure that would be wise," Barak, one of Israel's most experienced military strategists, acknowledged on Israel Army Radio.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could always reconsider if Hamas breaks the cease-fire, but that seemed unlikely considering warnings from the United States and the West of the high cost of sending ground troops.

Israel underestimated Hamas and "fell into a trap," said a leading Hamas hard-liner in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar.

Other Hamas leaders bragged that their improved arsenal, including longer-range rockets and antitank missiles smuggled from Iran via tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, helped deter Israel's military.

But a bigger factor may have been the change of leadership in Egypt.

Four years ago, Egypt was ruled by pro-Western Hosni Mubarak, who helped keep Hamas isolated. This time around, Hamas had an effective ally in Mubarak's successor, Mohammed Morsi, like the Gaza Islamists a member of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi quickly emerged as an effective mediator, since he already had the trust of Hamas and Israel did not want to risk hurting its ties with the Arab world's most populous nation.

Israel's deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, underscored Egypt's importance to Israel, suggesting they share security concerns, including making sure that "Gaza does not become a source of eruption endangering the stability of the region."

On Thursday evening, a senior Israeli official arrived in Cairo for follow-up talks with Egyptian intelligence. Earlier in the day, the Egyptian intelligence chief had met with the top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, and the head of the smaller sister group Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shalah, according to Shalah's deputy Ziad Nakhaleh.

The apparent formula on the table is that Hamas halts weapons smuggling into Gaza in exchange for an easing of the Gaza border restrictions imposed by Israel and Mubarak after the Hamas takeover of Gaza more than five years ago.

Hamas' main gains have been in the political arena. Foreign ministers from the region rushed to Gaza over the past week to show support for Hamas, while the United States and Israel grudgingly acknowledged Hamas' central role by conducting indirect talks.

Hamas also managed to show up Abbas, its main Western-backed political rival who, rendered largely irrelevant, watched events from the sidelines.

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