By Josef Federman
JERUSALEM — The rising confidence and bellicosity of Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, combined with rapidly deteriorating relations with Israel’s would-be peace partner in the West Bank, are raising jitters in Israel that a new Palestinian uprising could be near.
A number of prominent voices urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to take steps to ease the tensions and bolster the Western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu’s political rival, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, warned that renewed violence might not be “far off.”
But the Israeli leader stood tough. Poised for re-election, it appears unlikely he will float a bold new initiative anytime soon. “We in the government have no illusions. We want a true peace with our neighbors. But we will not close our eyes and stick our heads in the sand,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet.
Over the past month, Netanyahu has taken a series of steps that appear to have unintentionally emboldened the rival Palestinian leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank.
In mid-November, Israel carried out an eight-day military offensive in Gaza in response to months of intensifying rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory.
Although Israel claimed to inflict heavy damage, the operation failed to halt the rocket fire before an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took hold and Hamas emerged intact. Hamas has claimed victory, won newfound recognition across the Middle East and boosted its popularity with the Palestinian public.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Gaza over the weekend to welcome the movement’s exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, as the Islamic militant group celebrated its 25th anniversary with rallies, speeches and displays of weapons.
It was the first time Mashaal has ever been to Gaza, and his presence in the seaside territory was a reflection of the group’s rising clout. Mashaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997, is now confident enough to enter Gaza and walk around in public, thanks to his group’s warm relations with the new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime in neighboring Egypt.
Mashaal, known as a relative pragmatist inside the movement, showed no signs of moderation during the three-day visit. In speech after speech, Mashaal praised Hamas fighters for standing up to Israel and repeated the movement’s original goal of wiping Israel off the map.
“God willing, we shall liberate Palestine together, inch by inch,” Mashaal told university students on Sunday, referring to the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel. “We started this path and we are going to continue until we achieve what God has promised.”
Hamas seized control of Gaza in mid-2007, ousting forces loyal to Abbas. Repeated attempts at reconciliation have failed.
The Palestinian rift has pushed Abbas into an uneasy alliance with Israel, with both sides united in their opposition to Hamas. But Israel’s ties with Abbas have also frayed as peace efforts remained frozen. Abbas and Netanyahu blame each other for the deadlock.
Fed up with the impasse, Abbas last month won U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
While the move did not change the situation on the ground, it was seen as an international endorsement of the Palestinian position on future borders with Israel.
It also amounted to international rejection of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu responded by announcing plans to build thousands of new settlement homes, sparking fierce international condemnations.
The tensions further escalated over the weekend when a Palestinian security officer briefly scuffled with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron. The incident quickly attracted some 250 Palestinian protesters. A second clash developed elsewhere in the West Bank.
Israel’s Channel 10 TV showed video from the second clash on Sunday under the headline, “Third Intifada?” using the Arabic word for uprising.
Speaking at a business conference, President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, said the events in Gaza over the weekend showed that Abbas is a peaceful and desirable alternative to Hamas.
“We have two clear choices, nobody is perfect but one is right and the other is wrong. We have to choose between Mashaal and Abbas,” Peres said.
Olmert, speaking at the same conference, accused Netanyahu of undermining moderate Palestinian elements.
“We methodically hurt the ones who do want peace. We help raise the radical elements instead. The result of this policy could be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority government very rapidly, which would create the worst intifada we’ve seen thus far. We are not far from it,” Olmert warned.
Olmert’s government conducted a year of peace talks with Abbas in 2008 that resulted in closing many gaps but no final accord.
Netanyahu showed no signs of bending. Speaking to his Cabinet, Netanyahu said the celebrations in Gaza over the weekend exposed “the true face of our enemies.”
“They have no intention of compromising with us. They want to destroy our country, but they will obviously fail,” he said.
He also said it was “interesting” that Abbas “has issued no condemnation” of the Hamas comments. “To my regret, he strives for unity with the same Hamas that is supported by Iran.”
Netanyahu’s tough approach has gone over well with the Israeli public. With elections scheduled for Jan. 22, opinion polls forecast Netanyahu winning re-election as leader of a coalition dominated by hard-line nationalist and religious parties.
The Palestinians have launched two uprisings against Israeli occupation. The first erupted exactly 25 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1987, and lasted nearly six years. The second, deadlier uprising broke out in late 2000 and stretched for about five years. More than 3,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis died in the fighting.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank have signaled they have no desire to return to the days of the uprising, when armed militant gangs controlled Palestinian cities, Israeli military raids were common and Israeli troops strictly controlled movement throughout the West Bank.
“We are not ready for war. The only way forward is peace,” Abbas told Arab leaders at a gathering in Qatar on Sunday.
Majed Swailim, a Palestinian political scientist, said Palestinian disappointment in failed peace efforts could lead to anti-Israel street protests in the West Bank in the coming months. But he did not expect an open armed rebellion.
“People here don’t want to repeat the violent intifada because they know that Israel can paralyze life in the entire West Bank,” he said.