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Another Gaza war?

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salafi-groupsBy Sherine Tadros

On Thursday, as I hurried into Gaza, that was the question everyone was asking – from news editors in Doha, to the guy who carries luggage through the Erez terminal, to the Hamas official who took my passport details.

If the donkeys in Gaza could talk this is what they would be asking: Is there going to be another war?

Maybe because I was there during the last assault people see me as a bad omen in Gaza ... but there is real cause for concern.

Last week the strip witnessed the most violent few days since the end of the war, with Israel killing several fighters and dozens of mortars and rockets being fired towards southern Israel [one lightly injured an Israeli teenage girl].

From discussions with Hamas and military wings in Gaza, the good news is, it doesn't look like another war will happen right now. The bad news: is it is likely to happen.

Make War not Love

For the past two years, since the war ended, there has been no effort to reconcile Israel and Hamas, not even whispers of talks (direct or indirect) between the two.

The unilateral ceasefire declared in 2009 seems to be holding only because neither Hamas nor Israel is ready for another round.

Instead, both have used this time to regroup, rearm and, particularly for Hamas, recover .... building an arsenal that will ensure the next war will be deadlier - for both sides - than the last.

Israel has learnt from it’s 2006 war with Hizbullah and fitted it’s Merkava tanks with defence systems that can neutralize advanced missiles.  It says it is deploying these tanks on the Gaza border. 

Hamas have been accumulating a variety of mainly Russian-made weapons, including the Kornet - a laser guided missile able to penetrate the Merkava.

And it did.  Last week a Kornet sliced through an Israeli tank but didn’t explode.  Kornet’s can take up to 10kg of explosives – had it exploded it would have killed Israeli soldiers and been seen as a serious provocation, if not declaration of war.

Hamas never claimed responsibility for launching the Kornet, but it's widely believed Hamas (and perhaps Islamic Jihad too) were testing their new toy.

A fighter from one of the military wings told me they have weapons most of their fighters don’t even know how to operate yet.

From Arms Race to War

For now though neither Israel nor Hamas want to see an escalation of violence.  A senior Hamas official said on Friday his group will abide by the unofficial ceasefire as long as Israel does.

In fact, it’s not Hamas launching most of the rockets but the smaller Salafi groups (many of whose members are ex-Hamas fighters).  Hamas, they tell us, is aggressively cracking down on them, arresting their fighters and stopping them from launching rockets.

Israel’s army chief is on his way out and defense minister Ehud Barak is in hot water with his party and could face early primaries to see him out.  It’s not a good time for a war right now – certainly not one which would see Israeli soldiers killed, or perhaps worse, captured.

In short, the stakes for another confrontation are much higher than they were in 2008.  The sides may not looking for a war right now, but they are it seems gearing up for one.

Sherine Tadros reports from Israel and the Palestinian Territories.


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