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Friday, 8 January 2010

8 January 2010

I fear one of the predictions that I made in my New Year newsletter may already be coming true.

I wrote a week ago: “There'll be a resumption of hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians. Calls from outside for restraint will be ignored.”

Here’s what has been happening over the past few days:

-- On Tuesday, several hundred pro-Palestinian activists clashed with Egyptian police after Egypt refused to allow an international aid convoy cross into Gaza.

-- On Wednesday, there was a shoot-out between Hamas forces in Gaza and Egyptian forces during a protest over Egypt’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. One Egyptian border guard was killed.

-- Yesterday morning, at least 10 mortar shells fired from the Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel. A Palestinian group called the Popular Resistance Committees said they fired the shells, in retaliation for the killing of two of their members by Israeli forces on Tuesday, apparently as they were preparing to fire rockets into Israel.

-- Late last night, Israeli warplanes launched a series of air strikes against Gaza, following the firing of a Qassam rocket which landed close to the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. Two Palestinians, includng a 14-year-old boy, were reported killed in the air strikes.

Now, you will notice that all these clashes are in, or on the border with, Gaza – and that they involve both Israel and Egypt. As you may have read, the Egyptians are beefing up the security on their border, trying to restrict the lucrative subterranean cross-border smuggling operations that largely keep Gaza from total collapse.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, is furious – but the Egyptians are deeply suspicious of Hamas, which is an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Egypt, and which they accuse of smuggling weapons from Gaza into Egypt to help fellow-Islamists.

None of this bodes well for any future attempt to breathe new life into the inaptly-named peace process. For months now, the Egyptians have been trying to broker a kiss-and-make-up deal between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – and to mediate in a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel, which would lead to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the freeing of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was seized on the Israeli side of the Gaza border three and a half years ago.

There is a horrible choreography that comes into play after events of this kind. Each side strikes at the other, in retaliation for an earlier strike in the opposite direction. Each side tries to escalate its response, hoping to cow its enemy into an early admission of defeat.

But Gaza has been boiling up for months now, and it’s only too easy to see how it could all erupt again. I suspect Hamas will want to try to keep a lid on things, but it’s not the only player in Gaza, and other groups may well be keener to take the fight back to the Israeli enemy.

Incidentally, Israel has just successfully tested a new short-range missile defence system – it’s called Iron Dome – which it says is capable of intercepting rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The first operational system is due to be delivered in May. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone in Gaza wasn’t already planning to see how it performs for real.

Just a quick word about our programme next Thursday: I’ll be live at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, for a discussion with top foreign affairs analysts there about President Obama’s foreign policy achievements in his first year in office. I hope you’ll be able to join us.

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