Despite raid, Hamas, Israel don’t seek escalation

Tuesday’s fighting in the Gaza Strip and western Negev was the fiercest in a year, making it one of the worst days since the disengagement in August 2005. The Palestinians suffered 19 deaths and dozens of wounded. On the Israeli side, a foreign volunteer was killed at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, a few people were lightly wounded in Sderot, and dozens of Qassam rockets and mortar shells fell on communities near Gaza and a Katyusha rocket hit Ashkelon.

Despite this, Tuesday’s military operation in Gaza was basically routine. It was not part of a major operation to reoccupy the Strip; neither Israel nor Hamas is currently interested in a broader confrontation.

Nevertheless, a cautionary note must be added to this assessment: The large number of fatalities suffered by Hamas – more than 30 since the start of the month – could push the organization into escalation even if this is not in its interest.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that fewer Israelis were killed by Palestinian terror in 2007 than in any year since 1999, and he “strongly recommends not becoming embroiled in operations and costs that bear no proportion to the constraints that we face” – a reference to a major operation in Gaza. Senior Israel Defense Forces officers say their impression is that neither Olmert nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak wants an escalation in the Strip.

However, this picture contains another element as well: the deal to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Mahmoud Zahar, who lost a second son to IDF fire Tuesday, is the politician with the most influence on Hamas’s military wing, which holds Shalit. The death of his son might stall negotiations on the Shalit deal, which had recently seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. And since the deal, in which Israel would swap 450 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, would likely have included a temporary cease-fire, the chances of escalation increase if it is put on ice. [complete article]

Exiled Hamas leader says Bush ‘incited the Zionists’ to raid Gaza

Khaled Meshal, in an interview with The Associated Press in Damascus where he lives, accused Bush of inciting Israeli leaders.

“This crime is the ugly fruit of Bush’s visit to the region. He has incited the Zionists and has exerted pressure on the Palestinian side to become more hardline against Palestinian dialogue,” he said during the interview in his office. [complete article]

See also, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah: Bush’s visit empowered Israel to ‘wreak havoc’ (AP).

Editor’s Comment — The death of Hussam Zahar who, as the New York Times reports, “died in an Israeli airstrike on the car in which he was traveling,” suggests that Israel may have reinstated its program of “targeted killings” — assassinations.

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