NAZARETH // Four years since Hamas's success in the Palestinian elections, a period during which there has been a crippling Israeli siege of Gaza; fruitless negotiations for the release of an Israeli soldier captured three years ago; ineffectual reconciliation talks between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah; and the inconclusive Israeli offensive itself, known as Operation Cast Lead, Israel signalled last week that it finally had a winning card in its hand.
From May, the first batteries of "Iron Dome", a missile defence system developed at a cost of US$200 million (Dh734m) to intercept short-range rockets, will be installed around Gaza. Some Israeli officials have suggested the Iron Dome heralds the imminent demise of the Hamas rocket threat to Israeli communities close to Gaza. Militant groups in Gaza, by contrast, have done their best to remain defiant. A spokesman for Islamic Jihad declared last week to Maan, a Palestinian news agency, that the rocket defence system "cannot stop the projectiles of the resistance", as it launched sustained volleys of rockets and shells into Israel for the first time since Cast Lead. Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, accused Hamas of turning a blind eye to this activity.
But a major question mark hangs over the Israeli project, even supposing it turns out to be true that Iron Dome successfully shot down rockets fired in a live test this month: does it make economic sense for Israel to try to destroy home-made rockets when each interception costs an estimated $100,000? Military analysts reckon that, in addition, Israel will be forced to spend $1 billion on the 20 batteries needed to protect Israeli communities next to Gaza and those in Israel's north that are in the line of Hizbollah's fire from Lebanon. That cost would rise rapidly should Hamas and Hizbollah extend the reach of their arsenal, or if groups in the West Bank begin launching rockets, too.
Israel's siege of Gaza, which has denied all but the most essential humanitarian items to the Palestinian population, could quickly be matched by a Hamas war of attrition against Israel's defence budget - at a time when Israel is pondering expensive military adventures further afield, such as in Iran. Nonetheless, signs of unease have become apparent in Gaza over the past week. Militant groups have again risked engaging in serious clashes with Israel. On Sunday, Israel claimed that more than 20 rockets and mortar shells had been fired out of Gaza, while Palestinian sources said at least eight Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, had been killed in Israeli air strikes. More mortar shells were fired on Monday.
Israel is hoping that this is little more than a show of strength by Gazan militants who are concerned that their hand is weakening. Israel has significantly tightened its chokehold on the enclave, which is already gasping from the long-standing ban on the entry of most goods. Before the Iron Dome, one of Israel's most significant moves has been forcing Palestinians to abandon productive rural land in Gaza, much of it situated just inside the fence that surrounds the Strip.
According to Palestinian officials, Gaza once produced half of its own food, with one-quarter of its 1.5 million inhabitants dependent on agriculture. Today, about half of this land is no longer usable. Some of it was destroyed by the Israeli army during Cast Lead. Other areas, according to Italian researchers last week, have been contaminated with toxic metals from Israeli munitions. And yet more land is off limits because it falls within a buffer zone of 300 metres Israel has declared inside the perimeter fence, as a leaflet drop last week by the Israeli air force reminded Gazans. Farmers say in practice the zone often extends much deeper into the enclave.
As Gaza's chief means of subsistence has been steadily eroded, the lifeline provided by hundreds of smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Rafah, under the one border not controlled by Israel, has come under imminent danger of being severed, too. Sealing the Rafah border was one of the main goals of Operation Cast Lead, but Israeli aerial bombardments only had limited success in destroying the tunnels there. Instead, Egypt is building a steel wall underground in an attempt to foil the smugglers. Although Cairo is taking the flak for the wall's construction, and has its own interests in punishing Hamas, the forces behind the scheme are almost certainly Israel and the United States. US engineers are reported to be providing the technical expertise to make the wall as effective as possible.
Another wall, this one to be built by Israel along the border with Egypt immediately south of Gaza, was announced this week. Although chiefly intended to stop the flow of refugees and illegal immigrants reaching Israel, it is also aimed "to turn the screws on Hamas" by blocking the only way into Israel for terror attacks, Yaakov Katz, an analyst with the Jerusalem Post newspaper, argued yesterday.
This significant ratcheting up of pressure, including the Dome anti-rocket system, is designed to send a message to Gaza: that Hamas has nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from resisting Israel's occupation, and that ordinary Gazans should turn their back on the Islamic movement. But there is also a message for Hamas's rivals in the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his Fatah supporters are being daily reminded that their own chances of extracting significant concessions from Israel - through a policy of quietism - are even more anaemic than Hamas's.
The hope in Israel is that sooner or later Mr Abbas, or his successor, will realise there is no choice but to sign up to whatever territorial crumbs of the West Bank Israel is prepared to concede as a Palestinian state. email@example.com