Violent Diversions

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Time and again, troubles within the Arab world have increased the chances of aggression against Israel. Case in point: Hizballah's assassination of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, the country's chief Sunni figure, on February 14, 2005, resulted in a period of severe political pressure on the terrorist Shi'ite movement and its Syrian ally, presumed complicit in the murder. Only when Hizballah sent its gunmen across the border into Israel on July 12, 2006, seizing two Israeli soldiers and sparking a 34-day conflagration, was world attention diverted from the crime and could Hizballah buy the time it needed to solidify its position as the ultimate domestic arbiter of Lebanese politics.

Now, the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon is reportedly poised to finger senior Hizballah operative Mustafa Badr al-Din for carrying out the Hariri murder. Will Hassan Nasrallah again seek to draw attention away from his movement's culpability with a diversionary attack on Israel? This time, there is less incentive to do so. Nasrallah has already preempted the panel by predicting that his men are about to be framed. Syria, like Hizballah a client of Iran, has brazenly demanded that the Hariri investigation be shut down to protect Lebanon's "stability."

The Sunni Arab powers are capitulating to this intimidation. In a symbolic push for Lebanese unity, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, patron to the slain Hariri as well as to his son Saad, the current Lebanese prime minister, traveled to Beirut on the same plane as Syrian President Bashar Assad for an hours-long "summit." Sensibly concluding that neither Washington, Europe, nor the Arab world is prepared to stand up to Hizballah, Damascus, and Tehran, the younger Hariri, who once openly blamed Assad for murdering his father, has consequently pledged homage to Assad.

Since the summer of 2006, the northern border has been quiet. For the time being, with Sunnis and Shi'ites working in tandem to cover-up the Hariri assassination and thus calm Lebanese waters, and momentary flareups notwithstanding, Israeli analysts still rate the prospect of a "diversionary" attack from the north as low.

What about the southern border? There, divisions among the Palestinians may be contributing to heating up the Gaza front once again.

The West Bank Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas has come under intense pressure from Washington to enter into direct negotiations with the Netanyahu government. In interviews with the Israeli media, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has taken to justifying the Palestinian refusal to talk by claiming that Abbas has submitted "far-reaching" proposals to U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell and is waiting for a positive response from Jerusalem. But Washington appears to have been pushing back.

Against this background, is it a coincidence that, over the weekend, a Grad missile fired from Gaza slammed into Ashkelon and Kassam rockets hit Sapir College in the western Negev? Although no one was hurt, Hamas may be striking across the border—or looking the other way as jihadists launch their rockets—in order to instigate an Israeli retaliation. This might then be portrayed as an "atrocity" or a "war crime," thereby inhibiting an already hesitant Abbas from pursuing genuine give-and-take bargaining with Israel. It has happened before: Hamas first gained infamy with a bus bombing in April 1993 intended to thwart the impending Oslo agreement. Subsequent Hamas bombing campaigns in 1995 and 1996 were aimed at torpedoing the accord's implementation.

Hizballah has acknowledged miscalculating the force of Israel's reaction to previous Islamist aggression. Hamas has been less publicly self-critical about the repercussions of its violent adventurism. What if the next rocket from Gaza were to strike a crowded shopping mall or playground? The risks notwithstanding, chances are that Hamas will continue its noxious efforts to foil an anyway stalemated peace process.

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