By Rocketing Israeli Civilians, Hamas Raises the War Stakes

How Hamas is playing the spoiler.

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Israelis in the besieged town of Ashkelon take cover during a rocket attack.

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Yet even in purely military terms, the problem with hitting Gaza harder, of course, is that Israel has been killing both rocket launchers and civilians in Gaza day in and day out for 2½ years, yet the blowback has only gotten worse. And now a red line for Israel has been crossed. "Until recently, Hamas refrained from attacking Ashkelon, but after the Israeli raid, we showed them that our capabilities are unlimited. We have more surprises for them," said Mushir al Masri, a Hamas legislator and spokesman in Gaza.

U.S. diplomacy. Rice came to the region last week to try to keep a lid on the fighting, but U.S. mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only grows more ineffectual. The Bush administration will have nothing to do with Hamas, working instead through moderate West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has no power in Gaza and is widely belittled by Palestinians as a collaborator. With Gazans being killed in large numbers by the Israeli Army, Abbas felt compelled to suspend peace talks with Olmert, which have gone nowhere anyway and are commonly viewed as a hollow exercise meant to keep Rice and President Bush happy. During her visit, Rice did manage to persuade Abbas to change his mind and agree to talk with Olmert some more. In the virtual peace process, this ranks as an achievement.

The only working model Israel has for shutting down Palestinian terrorism is its military occupation of the West Bank, a burden it hopes one day to shed—and which it dreads taking up again in Gaza. Another option is negotiating with Hamas, but the Gazan regime remains ideologically committed to Israel's destruction, and, at any rate, Hamas isn't offering peace or even an open-ended cease-fire. All it's offering is a tahdiyeh—a lull in the fighting, during which time Hamas would be free to gather its strength—after which it would call off the tahdiyeh and return to battle at a time of its choosing.

Theoretically, there is a middle way. That would be a mutual de-escalation. On the ground, though, that doesn't seem likely. Neither does it seem likely that Israel will let Ashkelon go the way of Sderot. Most likely, the war is going to spin further out of control before it slows down.

With Khaled Abu Toameh in the West Bank