Israel and Hamas will risk a war in Gaza to deny Abbas's plan

Gaza is once again being used as a proxy between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to justify the ends of occupation.

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After a lengthy lull, violent confrontation has returned to the centre stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Over the past week, the Israeli army and Palestinian militants have appeared keen to flex their muscles with regular exchanges of fire. Israel's tanks and fighter planes have attacked the Gaza Strip, killing civilians and fighters, while Palestinian militants have launched mortars and rockets, some reaching as far as the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Beersheva.

The carnage spread to central Jerusalem, too, where a bomb blast killed a woman and injured dozens. Although it is unclear who was responsible, Palestinian militant groups were quick to extol the operation.

Clashes on this scale have not been seen since Israel inflicted a savage three-week assault on Gaza two years ago that left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead. Both sides are now escalating the rhetoric, as well as their firepower. Senior Israeli government ministers have even suggested it is time to launch an Operation Cast Lead 2, referring to a second Gaza invasion.

The person caught in the middle of the armed confrontation - and its ultimate target - is Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank. Hamas, the rival Islamist faction that rules Gaza, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, have effectively launched a pincer movement against Mr Abbas.

This week, Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, warned of the danger that Mr Abbas represents. The Palestinian president, he said, was preparing to unleash a "diplomatic tsunami" against Israel - in the form of a threat to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally in September and then seek recognition at the United Nations.

Mr Barak blames Mr Netanyahu for creating a diplomatic vacuum that Mr Abbas is now seeking to fill. Only an Israeli initiative to revive the stalled peace process, Mr Barak believes, can thwart a Palestinian bid for UN recognition.

But in reality Mr Abbas's hand is not as strong as it appears. He suffers from a legitimacy deficit, both because his rule is confined to the West Bank and because his presidential term expired two years ago. The solution to both difficulties is a reconciliation with Hamas.

Mr Abbas's chances of winning much-needed European support for a declaration of statehood in September, and maybe even of staving off a US veto, depend on elections to refresh his mandate. And credible elections require Hamas's participation. That, more than the small-scale protests earlier this month by Palestinian youths demanding political unity, explains his offer to visit Gaza for the first time in three years to talk to Hamas.

But neither the hardliners in Hamas nor Mr Netanyahu have much desire to see the Islamist group reconcile with Mr Abbas. He may hold the menacing UN card, but after recent events he is probably in too weak a position to play it - at least without Palestinian unity.

His and the PA's credibility was undermined by the leaking in January of the so-called Palestine Papers, which showed his negotiators making desperate concessions to Israel to win a peace deal.

But worse, he has lost his closest - and most powerful - ally in the Arab world: the deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. And many of the heads of the Arab League, which had until recently championed the Palestinian cause, are now preoccupied with their own domestic strife.

Hamas, by contrast, is growing stronger by the day. Mr Abbas's loss of Mr Mubarak was the Islamist group's gain. Popular sympathy in Egypt for Gaza's plight has already ensured a weakening of the siege, allowing more smuggling through tunnels under the single shared border.

Hamas' regional supporters, including Iran and Syria, are likely to exploit this change to arm Gaza's militants in the hope of making life more difficult for Israel. That appears to explain the shipment of weapons seized by Israel on a ship in international waters last week.

For this reason the militants in Gaza are choosing to revive the armed struggle, if only briefly, in preference to unity talks and fresh elections. Why play second fiddle to Mr Abbas when the future looks to be moving in their direction?

Similarly, Mr Netanyahu may actually see a silver lining in the clouds of gun-smoke wafting over Israel's southern front. Until the outbreak of hostilities with Gaza, the Israeli prime minister was in a bind: either break with his Greater Israel ideology and produce a credible peace plan; or wait for Mr Abbas to make his move at the UN.

Now Mr Netanyahu is on safer terrain, able to deflect attention from his diplomatic failures and point the finger at Palestinian terrorism and the role of the Palestinian Authority in inciting it.

Alex Fishman, a veteran Israeli military analyst, has observed that Israel is conducting a "planned escalation" in its clash with Gaza's militants. Another commentator, Aluf Benn of the Haaretz newspaper, supplies equally cynical reasoning: sustained rocket fire from Gaza will bolster Mr Netanyahu's claim that "any area Israel gives up in the West Bank will become a base for the launching of missiles against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem".

Mr Netanyahu and Hamas share a hope that through violence on Israel's southern border they can send a message to the world that peace is an illusion and that a two-state solution is doomed. If they succeed, Mr Abbas's offering to the UN will be stillborn.

Jonathan Cook is The National's correspondent in Nazareth, Israel. His latest book is Disappearing Palestine