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David Hearst Headshot

Gaza Is a Pandora's Box for Netanyahu

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NETANYAHU
REUTERS

Had Benyamin Netanyahu decided not to use the pretext of three murdered settler youths to launch a pogrom against Hamas in the West Bank and then attack Gaza, much of what Israel considers useful in the status quo would have been allowed to fester.

The Fatah-Hamas unity government would have been unity in name only, lurching from one crisis to another, with Mahmoud Abbas acting as the senior partner. The salaries of 50,000 Gazan government workers would be unpaid. Hamas would still be contained inside a small box called Gaza, starved of funds and with access to the outside world more firmly barred on the Egyptian border than the Israeli one.

The 46-day campaign appears to have changed much of that. It has re-unified -- temporarily at least -- the Palestinian factions in a way no amount of talking in Doha could have dreamed of. Mahmoud Abbas has had to travel some distance -- from condemning the rocket fire to vowing that the siege has got to stop. Whatever his private irritation about the Palestinian rejection of the Egyptian initiative, both he and Egypt itself have been dragged towards the resistance position. He can not do otherwise.

The bombing campaign has elevated Hamas to the forefront of the Palestinian cause, assuring it of a place at the PLO top table. And within Hamas, it has elevated the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Targeting their families has, again, had the opposite of the intended effect. No one can say, and no one does say in Gaza itself, that fighters have been cowering in their tunnels while civilians take a pasting. Their civilians, their wives and children have died first.

Abu Ubaydah, spokesman for Al-Qassam Brigades, was imperious in a statement on Thursday ordering the Palestinian delegation back from Cairo, talks which he called a dance with demons, after the attempted assassination of Mohammed Deif, the head of the armed wing.

"There will be no return to this route after this day. Any dynamic along this route does not oblige us in any way. We would like to stress that the enemy has wasted a golden opportunity to reach a ceasefire agreement in exchange for demands whose ceiling was much lower than that of the demands it would have to meet in the wake of its crimes and failures."

The tone is instructive. Here is the Qassam Brigades telling not only the rest of Hamas but the other groups of the delegation what to do. They have never issued such a political statement before. If nothing else, it reflects their confidence.

Another way of charting the political ripples of the Gaza war are the efforts of Europe and America to stop it. Two weeks ago, a statement by 28 EU foreign ministers called for the disarmament of all factions in Gaza, in line both with Israel has been saying and conditions for participating in final settlement talks. Now they are coming to a more realistic understanding that demilitarization is unachievable, and are shifting their position to a discussion of mechanisms to prevent re-armament. A draft UN resolution prepared by the E3, UK, France and Germany leaves out of the word altogether.

Netanyahu has yet to put any formula to the right wing of his cabinet, so all of this is still words. But the longer this campaign goes on, the less likely it will be painless for Israel. Either it will launch another and even bloodier sally into the centre of Gaza city, and the Israeli army has already warned about the consequences of that. Or it will have to think increasingly in terms which amount to the end of the siege. A real Hobson's Choice. This is classic mission creep and it's creeping into territory that suits Hamas. Netanyahu never wanted a long war and certainly not one in which Hamas's rocket fire actually grows with time, rather than diminishes.

Round three of the conflict has started as a trophy war. Netanyahu hoped that Deif's head would have allowed him to claim victory. But even if Israel had got Deif's head, it would have changed nothing. As Deif's own biography shows, he started throwing stones and ended up commanding what now has to be called a small army, with its own rocket arsenal. Others will follow the same trajectory.

The funeral of the three Qassam leaders hit in the next air strike attracted thousands of young people swearing revenge in the city of Rafah. Each time Israel assassinates one generation of Hamas leaders, another more effective one replaces them. Hamas returns militarily stronger.

But it is not just youths in Palestine who are magnetically attracted to the cause of resistance, but Sunnis all over the Arab world. This is a shift which Israel should take seriously. Getting the backing of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have seemed to Israel like a clever short-term move. They already had covert support , but the war in Gaza made it overt.

In the medium to long term, this looks less sensible to a country surrounded by Sunni Arab states. For it has placed the Palestinian cause right back centre stage of the conflict shaking the Arab world. The Gulf monarchies and military dictatorships giving Israel their backing to crack down on Hamas, are the same regimes who have thrown their money and influence behind a counter-revolution against the Arab Spring. The nationalist Palestinian cause against occupation has become joined at the hip to an uprising against western backed dictatorship. The Qassam brigades serve as a fighting symbol far beyond Rafah. They speak to Egyptian youths too.

Was this Netanyahu's intention when he launched this war? Probably not, but it could be the reality he now has to contend with in order to stop it. Gaza has become his Pandora's Box.