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On Eve of Elections, Israeli Leaders Play Into Hands of Palestinian Militants

Why would Israeli pols take a hard-line stance against Hamas, even as the group pushes for an extended pause in fighting?
 
 
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Editor's Note: The U.S. mainstream media has featured several stories recently alleging that Hamas broke the fragile ceasefire that ended the Israeli assault on Gaza.Below, Ira Chernus notes that the Israeli media is telling a different story. Also, see Eva Bartlett's piece, " Israel Broke "Ceasefire" Hours After it Went Into Effect"
 

In the last few days, while the U.S. mass media offered up only sensational headlines like “ Gaza militants fire rockets into Israel,” and “ New Gaza exchanges strain truce,” the Israeli press was reporting some really important news: “ Hamas agrees to 1-year lull.” 

Everyone -- outside of the U.S. media and political establishments -- seems to agree that Hamas is holding its fire. The head of Israel’s Military Intelligence service, Amos Yadlin, told the Israeli cabinet that Hamas is not responsible for the current wave of attacks: “Terrorists that are not Hamas are challenging Hamas and carrying out attacks for a renewed escalation.”  Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former head of the Israeli military (IDF), also argued for restraint: “If Hamas tried to prevent shooting, I would first strike the responsible organization.” 

But will Israeli leaders indeed be restrained? Will they retaliate only against the people actually firing the rockets?  Or will they go beyond the rather limited retaliations of the last few days and strike back at Hamas, claiming that the ruling party can and should control all the dissident militants in Gaza?  That route would surely scuttle Hamas’ bid for a pause in the violence. 

Israeli leaders are divided on the question. Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly wants to respond positively to Hamas, predicting that "Israel is on the verge of a long period of quiet." But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is against it, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has thus far remained silent. 

So Hamas is taking a risky step in holding its fire -- offering a period of calm without knowing how the Israelis will respond, because the Israeli leaders are quarreling among themselves. 

If the Israelis are undecided, that may be because they are not sure how Hamas will respond to any steps they take. They know that Hamas leaders are divided on fundamental policy issues. The Israeli public knows it too.  They read headlines like “ Hamas deeply divided over Blair remarks,” and “ Gaza Hamas heads furious with Meshal decision to end lull.”  (Back in November, it turns out, “Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip sought to extend the six-month cease-fire … and are furious with Hamas' Damascus-based political bureau chief Khaled Meshal's decision to end the truce.”)  

These are just the most recent of many dozens of Israeli news stories over the years about internal disputes within the Hamas governing structure. 

None of the internal conflicts on the two sides of the world’s most heated divide should come as any surprise. Governments naturally have their left, right, and center factions engaged in endless squabbles. So do political parties. Remember the old joke about the Democrats’ firing squad, formed up in a circle -- which is now widely told about the Republicans too? It’s the same story all over the world. 

Israelis who pay attention to their own press have long known that Hamas is not the monolithic Borg-like monster -- the solid bloc of pure evil -- that the U.S. mass media portray. Hamas is a long-standing political party and now a government. Naturally it has its hard-liners, its compromisers, and its centrists. Palestinians who pay attention know that the same is true of the Israelis. 

 
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