Power Balance in Gaza Appears to Shift ; Islamic Jihad and Hamas Change Dynamics, Posing Strategic Puzzle for Israel

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Changes in Islamic Jihad and Hamas could disrupt the delicate dance the enemy territories have been doing for years, and may demand something different than Israel's longstanding deterrence plan.

Islamic Jihad, the militant group responsible for the most recent assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip, announced on Thursday that Egypt had intervened to restore calm -- a familiar resolution to the familiar cross-border exchange of rockets and airstrikes that had shaken Gaza and southern Israel over 24 hours.

But Hamas, the Palestinian faction that has ruled Gaza since 2007, said it knew of no such truce. The statement was a sign of the profound changes in the coastal enclave since a military-backed government took control of Egypt last summer.

Those changes could disrupt the delicate dance the enemy territories have been doing for years, and may demand something different than Israel's longstanding deterrence strategy known as "cutting the grass" -- occasional, inevitable incursions carefully calculated not to create too much chaos.

Egypt's shutdown of hundreds of smuggling tunnels beneath its border with Gaza, frequent closings of its Rafah crossing into the strip and the banning of Hamas as a terror organization have left Gaza's 1.7 million residents more isolated and desperate.

Unemployment is 39 percent, fuel shortages have led to half-day blackouts, prices for staples are soaring and travel is thwarted. A weakened Hamas has struggled to maintain control in the face of increasing challenges from its political rival, Fatah, as well as from the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, and less-organized radical cells.

"It's quite clear for Israel that the balance of power in Gaza is changing, and not to a very optimistic direction," said Shaul Shay, the director of research at the Institute of Policy and Strategy and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "At least Israel and Hamas both have no interest in escalation, but there are other parties that are playing in the Gaza Strip, other bad guys. To put an end to this threat, the only way to do it is a large-scale ground operation, and I don't think anybody in Israel is eager to go back to Gaza."

Tony Blair, the Middle East peace envoy for the "quartet" of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, said the rocket strikes "underline and illustrate the depth of the problem."

"One thing we are going to need, medium- and long-term, is a completely new strategy towards Gaza," Mr. Blair told reporters in Jerusalem on Thursday.

After an hourlong barrage of more than 60 Islamic Jihad rockets on Wednesday afternoon, Israel pummeled Gaza Wednesday night with bombs on 29 of what it called "terror sites," by far the most intense exchange since the cease-fire that ended eight days of violence in November 2012. But the only injury reported was an Israeli woman who fell while running for cover, a sign that each side wanted to make a forceful showing without risking further escalation.

Hostilities continued on Thursday: Israeli airstrikes hit nine targets near the southern border town of Rafah, injuring three, after two rockets from Gaza hit open areas in the Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod, and four earlier ones were launched but did not reach their targets.

"Our police in the south is clear: we will strike at anyone who tries to attack us, and will respond forcefully to any attack," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at a morning appearance here. "It would be worthwhile for terrorists in the Gaza Strip to start internalizing the fact that they have an issue here with a very determined government and a very strong military. …


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