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Israel, Hamas square up for next Gaza duel

13 November 2013, 17:07

Gaza City - A year after trading fire in a week-long war in Gaza, Israel and Hamas are squaring up for another confrontation, despite both sides appearing reluctant to make the first move.

More than 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed when hostilities erupted after an Israeli missile killed Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari last November 14.

An Egypt-brokered truce was agreed seven days later, on November 21.

During an inspection of the Israeli army's Gaza division on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that one year later, "a significant deterrent was achieved."

He cited a fall of 98 percent in the frequency of rocket attacks on Israel from the Islamist-ruled Palestinian territory.

"Israel will continue to respect international law scrupulously, but will not remain with its arms crossed in the face of terrorism," he warned.

Rights groups and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have accused both sides of flouting international law during the 2012 Gaza conflict.

Netanyahu accused Palestinian militants of preparing for another round of hostilities.

"Hamas and other terrorist groups continue to arm themselves in different ways. They are also trying to develop an underground option through the use of tunnels," he said.

On October 13, Israel announced the discovery of a "terror tunnel" 1.7 kilometres (one-mile) long from Gaza under the border into Israel.

Responsibility for constructing the sophisticated tunnel was claimed by the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, which said it had planned to use the tunnel to capture Israeli soldiers and hold them in exchange for imprisoned Palestinians.

'A message to Israel'

A Hamas leader, Bassem Naim, told AFP the tunnel was "an important message to Israel that Hamas is ready to strike as far as possible."

On November 1, four Hamas fighters were killed and five Israeli soldiers were wounded during an Israeli raid to destroy the tunnel, which saw Israeli forces bomb another tunnel during the shootout.

"Hamas does not want war or confrontation, because the Palestinian domestic situation weighs heavily," Naim said, referring to the heavy toll of Israeli and Egyptian border restrictions on the impoverished territory.

"But if it happens, the movement will not stand idly by and will respond with military force, as well as politically and diplomatically."

On Wednesday Palestinian security forces paraded in Gaza City's central Katiba Square to celebrate Hamas's "victory" in last year's conflict with Israel.

"Our message is that the Palestinian resistance will rid the Zionist enemy of its arrogance in every battle to come," one official from the Hamas armed wing told AFP.

He said the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades were even stronger now than a year ago.

Last week, the Hamas government said it had added studies to encourage "resistance to Israel" to the territory's public schools curriculum.

Courses to "strengthen Palestinian rights, update programmes and add studies on human rights" would be introduced at three levels in secondary schools, education minister Muetassem al-Minaui told AFP.

For Hamas, however, the most immediate threat comes from the souring of relations with Egypt after the army there toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July.

The Egyptian military has since stepped up efforts to destroy tunnels used to smuggle fuel and other basic goods into Gaza from under the border at Rafah.

Hamas has also lost support from Syria and Iran after breaking with President Bashar al-Assad's regime over his brutal crackdown on an Arab Spring-inspired uprising.

Hamas "faces a grave crisis after the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and tensions with Iran," said Naji Sharab, political science professor at Gaza's Al-Azhar university.

"It has lost its strategic, political, economic and security-related depth."

He believes the Islamist movement's options are limited, given that "the sole issue is reconciliation" with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Hamas official Ahmed Yussef said he recognises the existence of "numerous difficulties because of less support from Iran," but insisted "these are being surmounted and relations will improve."

"Hamas is focusing especially on resolving problems caused by the closure of the tunnels, and it will be some time before the crisis is over," Yussef conceded.



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