Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Eilat rocket attack – too clever by half?

The pattern is so unvarying that it has become predictable. Every so often the Israeli-Palestinian kaleidoscope gets a good shake, and the pieces assemble themselves into a design suggesting the possibility of an accord. No sooner does this happen than forces opposed to compromise unleash some act of violence calculated to inflame public opinion and frustrate such an outcome.

Last Thursday (29 July) Arab League foreign ministers gave PA President Mahmoud Abbas the green light to proceed to direct face-to-face peace talks with Israel as soon as he deems it appropriate to do so. After months of indirect talks and relative lack of progress, there is now a broad international coalition backing the US call for the resumption of direct talks. Britain, France, Italy and Germany have been working actively behind the scenes to push the Palestinians back to direct negotiations. In addition it was only a few weeks ago that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres met with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, and received their support for direct talks.

With the Israeli settlement moratorium set to expire in late September, and demands from hard-liners growing on Netanyahu not to renew it, there is an increasing desire on all sides to avoid a new crisis and ensure that progress is made ahead of the critical moment. The next possible step is a trilateral meeting in Washington next week between Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators. This is a Palestinian initiative to which the Obama administration is attempting to win Israel's agreement – its aim: to set the terms of reference, agenda and timetable for direct negotiations. If Israel agrees to the meeting, it will be the first significant direct talks with the Palestinian Authority since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister last year.

This positive and gathering momentum towards peace has proved too much for the visceral Islamist rejectionists that abound in Hamas-dominated Gaza. The result: a barrage of rockets fired pretty indiscriminately towards Israel's Red Sea resort of Eilat, but in the event wreaking death, casualties and damage in the adjacent Jordanian resort of Aqaba.

"Preliminary information," reported Egypt's official news agency, "indicates that Palestinian factions from the Gaza Strip are behind that operation." A number of terrorist groups with links to Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and other global Jihadi bodies, are known to be operating in the Sinai peninsula, engaged in smuggling arms into the Gaza Strip and attempting to penetrate into Israel – which is why Israel's Counter Terrorism Unit recently issued a serious travel warning to tourists contemplating travelling to Sinai and Egypt.

But today (Wednesday, 4 August) Cairo security officials told the Egyptian news daily al-Youm al-Saba'a that Hamas was responsible for the rocket attack. According to the report, Hamas operatives infiltrated into the Sinai Peninsula from Gaza to fire the rockets, so that it would appear as if they had been fired by an Egyptian terror group.

Hamas have denied responsibility. Their spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri criticized Egyptian security sources' allegations, calling them "politically motivated".

People who launch rockets randomly into civilian areas simply in order to create terror and stir up conflict are not usually very sophisticated in their thinking. They cannot be expected to consider carefully the possibly unanticipated results of their actions. This latest rocket attack may prove to be a case in point. For one outcome appears to be a closing of ranks between Israel and Jordan in opposing the extremists.

On Monday, shortly after the rocket attack, Israel's President, Shimon Peres, said that Israel and Jordan were now working together in the fight against terror. Fears in Amman about the increasing influence of the Iranian-led axis, with its connections to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, had already led to stronger defence ties between the Israeli and the Jordanian armed forces. The Katyusha rockets that struck in Aqaba were most likely meant to hit Eilat, but they did make clear that the terrorists who are moving freely throughout the Sinai Peninsula threaten not only Israel, but also neighbouring Jordan.

The end result – a more concentrated and concerted move against them – may be far from what the terrorists intended.

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