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Standoff among Israel, Hamas, Abbas at root of cross-border violence

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israel looks powerless to stop the barrage of rockets from Hamas-ruled Gaza.

The Islamic militants, choked by a blockade of their territory, find it increasingly difficult to hold on to power. And moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is facing growing pressure to suspend peace talks because of Israel’s strikes in Gaza.

No one appears able to win the upper hand in this volatile three-way standoff, and only an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal or an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza would likely break through the deadlock.

Yet the persistent cross-border violence – the latest round killed 38 Palestinians and rained rockets on Israeli border towns – jeopardizes the very prospects for such an agreement.

During his Mideast peace mission last week, President Bush held out hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in 2008, but the latest fighting erupted while he was still in the region.

Even the current escalation – Israel cut off fuel supplies to Gaza and Hamas fired dozens of rockets – won’t change the basic equation.

Israel’s mighty military has not found a way to halt the crude rockets, short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza. Hamas can’t govern effectively because of the crippling economic sanctions, and Gazans are becoming increasingly vocal in their complaints about their rulers’ failure to provide basic services.

Abbas is too weak to regain control of Gaza. The TV images of Israeli missiles pounding Hamas targets and Gaza City’s residents huddling in darkness have deepened the image of Abbas as an ineffective leader, while Hamas has gained sympathy.

“We are entrenched in a reality in which no side alone can solve the problem,” said Israeli counterterrorism expert Yoni Fighel.

Yet it’s extremely unlikely the three could find a way to coexist.

Israel says it won’t negotiate a cease-fire deal with Hamas, for fear the militants, committed to Israel’s destruction, would exploit a lull to boost their already considerable arsenal. Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza more than two years ago, Hamas has smuggled large amounts of weapons through tunnels from Egypt.

Abbas distrusts Hamas, especially since the group wrested control of Gaza from him by force in June. He has tied his political fortunes to backing by the West, which rules out a partnership with Hamas.

Hamas fears it would be further isolated by progress in talks between Israel and the Abbas government, and has successfully disrupted negotiations in the past by carrying out attacks on Israel.

The latest round of fighting started almost inadvertently.

On Jan. 15, an Israeli undercover force entered Gaza on a routine arrest raid last and was spotted by Hamas gunmen who opened fire. Israeli aircraft unleashed missiles to help extract the force, the son of Hamas’ Gaza strongman, Mahmoud Zahar, was killed, and Hamas retaliated with rocket barrages on Israeli border towns, including one that hit a day care center.

Late Thursday, Israel sealed off Gaza completely, halting crucial fuel shipments, and a day later dropped a bomb on an empty Hamas government building as a warning of possible further retaliation. On Sunday, Gaza’s only power plant started switching off its turbines, as fuel supplies dwindled.

Hamas has scored some points in the latest round.

The Israeli military strikes have helped divert the growing dissatisfaction with Hamas rule, as Gazans close ranks against a common enemy. The rocket fire appears to be carefully calibrated, underscoring Hamas’ claims that it is in full control of Gaza, and thus the address in possible cease-fire talks with Israel.

The fighting also helps Hamas make Abbas look bad in the eyes of many Palestinians. The Palestinian president has denounced the Israeli airstrikes as “brutal,” but has not put negotiations with Israel on hold, even after 19 Palestinians were killed in a single day last week. Abbas would risk losing international support if he were seen suspending peace efforts.

On the downside for Hamas, a protracted closure of Gaza, following seven months of an almost complete blockade, could deepen poverty to such a degree that Gaza might become ungovernable.

For Israel, the sporadic bursts of fighting are an opportunity to keep Hamas off-balance and slow the militants’ systematic efforts to build their army. Since the Israeli pullout, Hamas has been able to smuggle some longer-range rockets into Gaza, and has found a way to stockpile once perishable Qassam rockets.

Israel has not been able to intercept the projectiles because their range of 6-to-7 miles is too short. In the hard-hit Israeli border town of Sderot, terrified residents get only very brief warning of a launch.

Israel’s government is in a bind.

The Israeli public is clamoring for a quick fix, but would likely not support a reoccupation of Gaza, which might require many thousands of soldiers and a call-up of reserve soldiers.

Only a rocket attack with many Israeli casualties would provide sufficient grounds for an offensive, said Israeli historian Michael Oren. “Once that happens, they’ll move into Gaza with 20,000 to 30,000 troops,” he said. If Israel moves without sufficient provocation, “it will look like flagrant aggression.”

Abbas and his aides, meanwhile, complain that Israel is using the Gaza quagmire as an unfair pressure tool in peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said there will be no peace deal unless the Palestinians halt rocket fire, a position endorsed by President Bush in his recent visit.

Yet Olmert has not said how he expects Abbas to do what Israel has been unable to achieve.

Abbas aide Nabil Amr said Israeli negotiators routinely raise the Gaza issue whenever their Palestinian counterparts demand that Israel halt West Bank settlement expansion, as required under a U.S.-backed peace plan.

“When we raise the settlements as a condition to continue (negotiations), they raise the legitimacy in Gaza,” Amr said. “The Israelis use it, and Abu Mazen (Abbas) cannot do anything because he is not there.”

Karin Laub, The Associated Press’ chief Ramallah correspondent, has covered Israel and the Palestinian territories since 1987.

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