As the world watches the flare-up in fighting between Israel and Hamas, it is important to analyze the wider goals of the IDF's operation in Gaza.
One of the reasons Israel has targeted Hamas's military infrastructure in such an overwhelming manner is because Jerusalem does not want the movement to turn into another Hizbullah. In other words, Israel does not want Hamas to develop a deterrence capability, which it can later use to change the strategic rules of the game.
Such a development would hurt Israel's deterrence image. It would also embolden other terror organizations in the region. This would be a clear and present danger to Israel, moderate Arab states and the peace process.
What should be noted is that Fatah probably shares Israel's concerns. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been trying for the last two months to reach a deal with Hamas on the issue of presidential elections after his term expires on January 9. But Hamas walked out of the talks, much to the anger of the Egyptians and Fatah.
Had Hamas been able to develop its deterrence capability and military infrastructure, it would have been much more difficult for Fatah and Egypt to create some kind of reconciliation in the political system of the yet-unborn state of Palestine. Hamas would have been able to call the shots whenever it wanted, and the PLO and Egypt, together with Israel, would have lost the initiative.
THERE IS also the question of Iran. A stronger Hamas right now is very important for Teheran. Currently, pro-American Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, together with Gulf states, are trying to become involved in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. This angers Iran, because its leadership does not trust them.
According to the Islamic republic news agency, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani issued a public warning on Friday by clearly stating that "Arab states are advised not to interfere in Iran's nuclear case, thus harming their prestige."
An emboldened Hamas is another way to keep the Arab countries, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, away from Teheran's nuclear program.
At the same time, an increase in Hamas's capability to keep the residents of Sderot in their bomb shelters - and the citizens of cities such as Ashkelon fearing for their lives - would have emboldened Teheran and increased its motivation to push up the level of support for Hamas. This would have increased Iran's popularity in the Arab street.
WHAT ISRAEL has to watch out for is the level of force it applies. There is a very fine line of diminishing returns when it comes to application of massive military force against guerrilla organizations that operate among civilians.
This is especially true when it comes to Hamas, which has become expert at using its own population as a human shield. Any excess on Israel's part could turn the recent fighting into a Hamas PR victory.
Jerusalem should also not mistake Fatah and Egypt's animosity toward Hamas as a permanent green light. It should be treated rather as a yellow light, which could turn red at any time.
At the end of the day, the fate of Gaza's residents also has an impact on their standing in the Middle East and in the Muslim world.
Last but not least, Hamas's political victory in Gaza should be a warning of what is to come if Israel does not cooperate with Fatah. If moderates are not supported, they lose, and are replaced by extremists.
When the fighting stops, Israel should stop expansion of settlements and boost Fatah. Because by the look of things in Gaza, the alternative is much worse.
The writer is a Middle East Analyst and coauthor of The Nuclear Sphinx of Teheran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran. email@example.com
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