- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 11, 2012

JERUSALEM — The rising confidence and bellicosity of Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, combined with rapidly deteriorating relations with Israel’s would-be peace partner in the West Bank, are raising jitters in Israel that a Palestinian uprising could be near.

Several prominent voices have urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps to ease the tensions and bolster the Western-backed Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Netanyahu’s political rival, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, warned that renewed violence might not be “far off.”

But the Israeli leader has stood firm. Poised for re-election, he appears unlikely to float a bold initiative anytime soon.

“We in the government have no illusions. We want a true peace with our neighbors. But we will not close our eyes and stick our heads in the sand,” Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday.

Over the past month, Mr. Netanyahu has taken steps that appear to have unintentionally emboldened the rival Palestinian leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank.

In mid-November, Israel carried out an eight-day military offensive in Gaza in response to months of intensifying rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory.

Although Israel claimed to have inflicted heavy damage, the operation failed to halt the rocket fire before an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took hold and Hamas emerged intact.

Hamas has claimed victory, won recognition across the Middle East and boosted its popularity with the Palestinian public.

An exiled leader returns

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Gaza over the weekend to welcome the movement’s exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, as the Islamic militant group celebrated its 25th anniversary with rallies, speeches and displays of weapons.

It was the first time Mr. Mashaal has been to Gaza, and his presence in the seaside territory was a reflection of the group’s rising clout.

Mr. Mashaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997, now is confident enough to enter Gaza and walk around in public, thanks to his group’s warm relations with the new regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt.

Mr. Mashaal, known as a relative pragmatist inside the movement, showed no signs of moderation during the three-day visit.

In speech after speech, Mr. Mashaal praised Hamas fighters for standing up to Israel and repeated the movement’s original goal of wiping Israel off the map.

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