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USA Today November 19, 2012

Israel-Hamas fight more risky in a changed Mideast

By Oren Dorell and Sarah Lynch

11:15AM EST November 19. 2012 - CAIRO — When Israel launched retaliatory air and ground attacks against Palestinians in 2008, Egypt's president at the time showed no sympathy for the Palestinian cause. He closed the border with the Gaza Strip and harassed aid workers and activists who backed Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza.

When the fighting broke out again over the past week, it happened in a very different Middle East, one reshaped by popular uprisings that brought down secular dictators in three countries, including Egypt, whose new Islamist president condemned Israel as "the aggressor."

"I say to the aggressor to take a lesson from history and stop this farce and bloodshed or else you will face the wrath of the people and their leadership," Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said. "Egypt today is different than Egypt yesterday and that the Arabs today are different than the Arabs of yesterday."

Indeed, Israel and Hamas are fighting in a whole new Middle East, making this conflict much more dangerous for both Israel and the Palestinians, analysts say. This is the killing season many feared might follow the Arab Spring, a testing of loyalties and revival of violence that seems hard-wired in the region.

Israel and Hamas have been preparing militarily, and this escalation is all the more worrisome because each has more potent weapons and refined tactics. But the politics of the Middle East also have shifted dramatically, giving more power and influence to Islamists who are aligned with Hamas. This, in turn, leaves Israel more isolated.

"Before, Israel could count on Egypt to turn its back, keep the border with Gaza sealed and not intervene," said Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "We can't count on that in case of a ground operation," and a more direct attempt to support the Palestinians cannot be discounted.

"Egypt is different, the region is different," Berti said. "If you look at countries like Tunisia, Turkey, the position they've taken is definitely more vocal than a few years ago."

Political analyst Mazen Hassan, in Cairo, says Israel is in uncharted territory. "This is the first time it is really engaged in military confrontation at a time when political Islam rules the largest and most populated Arab country (Egypt), and at least two others. The rules of the game are being rewritten at the moment."

Under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt joined Israel in blockading the Gaza Strip in 2007, when Hamas took control of the territory from Fatah, the political wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Egyptian border with Gaza remained closed during the Israeli air campaign and ground offensive that began in December 2008 and ended three weeks later.

On Sunday, Morsi allowed hundreds of activists and aid workers to cross from Egypt into the Gaza Strip with medical and other humanitarian supplies, as Israeli warplanes killed Hamas leaders in their homes and struck Hamas installations.

At least two missiles Sunday hit the roofs of the media center in Gaza City, which houses Hamas-run state TV as well as British, German, French and Lebanese news outlets. The strikes shook the high-rise buildings. Smoke ballooned from the building as media workers poured outside, while emergency workers raced to the scene. At least six Palestinian journalists were injured, including one who lost a leg.

A more dangerous conflict

The Israelis have been preparing for this fight because they knew Hamas has been importing huge quantities of weapons of much higher quality, says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Iranian-made rockets have increased Hamas' reach from 27 miles in 2008 to 46 miles now, according to military intelligence firm Globalsecurity.org.

Hamas missiles flew over Tel Aviv on Sunday and over Jerusalem on Saturday, threatening Israel's major population centers for the first time. In addition to Hamas' more advanced Iranian weaponry, it has improved relations with Sunni Arab countries.

Turkey, which in 2008 had strong ties to Israel, has a new Islamist ruling party that sharply criticized Israel for its Gaza policy. Turkey-Israel relations soured over Israel's 2010 raid on the blockade running ship, the Mavi Marmara, which sailed from Turkey and tried to deliver supplies to Gaza.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called the Israeli strikes "a pre-election stunt" and said he would confer with Egypt's Morsi, according to the Israeli news outlet Ynet. Israel is scheduled to hold elections this January.

"The dominant world powers are now making the Gaza people and fighters pay, and as the Republic of Turkey we are with our brothers in Gaza and their just cause," Erdogan told reporters.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in October became the first head of state to visit Gaza under Hamas rule. He pledged millions of dollars in aid, including 1,000 new homes in the Khan Younis district, which was devastated in the 2008 fighting. On Sunday, Hamad urged the international community to end its Gaza boycott.

Meanwhile, popular uprisings appear to be giving greater influence to political Islamist movements across the region. A civil war threatens the regime in Syria. Street fighting broke out last week in Jordan, the only Arab nation other than Egypt that has signed a peace treaty with Israel. And in Lebanon, Iranian-backed Hezbollah controls parliament.

Hamas' new Sunni friends and patrons have close ties to the United States, however, and would want to restrain Hamas from attacking Israel, says Tony Badran, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Hamas anticipated more support from Egypt's new Brotherhood president, but instead finds its legitimacy challenged by other violent Islamists, Badran says. For Hamas, launching an operation against Israel now is "dictating the terms of the relationship — that we (Hamas) are a 'resistance' movement."

"The way to place yourself in the vanguard, to force the (Palestinian) issue on everybody is to do what every Arab regime in modern history has done, which is to start a war with Israel to establish yourself in the region," Badran says.

Iran — far more isolated today — does not have the same level of influence over Hamas that it had in 2008, said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran-Israel expert and lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

"If (Hamas) were still tightly aligned with Iran it would have been easier to isolate Hamas in the international community," Javedanfar said, "but because Hamas is now leaning more toward Turkey and Egypt ... it's more difficult to isolate Hamas regionally."

U.S.-Israeli relations

Today's conflict finds Israel's closest ally, the United States, at a different juncture as well.

In 2008, the fighting erupted while George W. Bush was president, and ended before president-elect Barack Obama was inaugurated. Today, while Obama and the U.S. Congress have expressed support for Israel's right to defend itself, Obama's backing for Israel is not unconditional, something he came under fire for in the presidential election.

Obama has criticized Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem and has had a frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has taken a more aggressive posture toward Iran and its allies, including Hamas.

Israel has new weapons and an extensive and more precise target list since 2008. That war, which Israel called Operation Cast Lead, inflicted heavy damage on Hamas but also devastated civilian infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians.

This time, Israel says its target list is more specific, based on intelligence gathered through a network of informers and aerial surveillance and a deeper infiltration of Hamas' ranks.

Israelis in the towns and villages that have been getting struck by hundreds of rockets fired from Palestinians in Gaza said Sunday they are wary of cease-fire talks if they don't end the terror.

Lior Amar, 24, who works at a Beer Sheva sunglasses store, has had to run for cover multiple times a day this past week as megaphones blast warnings of incoming missiles. "Seven, 10, even 12 sirens a day," she said. "We can't leave our homes."

Amar said the Palestinians "use every cease-fire to get themselves re-armed."

At the al-Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza, a convoy of four ambulances pulled in with the bodies of nine men, all Hamas members killed in Israeli airstrikes. The body of Osama Abd Al Jawad, 26, a Hamas fighter, was draped with the green flag and taken to the local mosque.

"As long as the Israelis keep on occupying our land we must keep on targeting their lands, even harder," said Osama's brother, Amjad.

Israel will almost certainly win militarily, but Hamas is likely to emerge stronger politically, says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The result for Israel will be "a frozen peace treaty" with Egypt, which will provide less cooperation on security in the Sinai, and more isolation than ever, Ottaway says. While Gaza "will pay a horrendous price in life and destruction," its leaders "will gain politically."

Dorell reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Naser Najjar in Gaza City, Michele Chabin in Beer Sheva, Israel; and The Associated Press

Copyright 2012, Gannett