JERUSALEM (AP) — 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 new Palestinian uprising could be near.
A number of prominent voices urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to take steps to ease the tensions and bolster Western-backed Palestinian 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 stood tough. Poised for re-election, it appears unlikely he will float a bold new initiative any time 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.
Over the past month, Mr. Netanyahu has taken a series of steps that appear to have unintentionally emboldened the rival Palestinian leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank.
Although Israel claimed to inflict 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 newfound recognition across the Middle East and boosted its popularity with the Palestinian public.
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 ever 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, is now confident enough to enter Gaza and walk around in public, thanks to his group’s warm relations with the new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime 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.
“God willing, we shall liberate Palestine together, inch by inch,” Mr. Mashaal told university students on Sunday, referring to the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel. “We started this path, and we are going to continue until we achieve what God has promised.”
The Palestinian rift has pushed Mr. Abbas into an uneasy alliance with Israel, with both sides united in their opposition to Hamas. But Israel’s ties with Mr. Abbas also have frayed as peace efforts remained frozen. Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu blame each other for the deadlock.
While the move did not change the situation on the ground, it was seen as an international endorsement of the Palestinian position on future borders with Israel.
It also amounted to international rejection of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu responded by announcing plans to build thousands of new settlement homes, sparking fierce international condemnations.
The tensions further escalated over the weekend when a Palestinian security officer briefly scuffled with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron. The incident quickly attracted some 250 Palestinian protesters. A second clash developed elsewhere in the West Bank.
Israel’s Channel 10 TV showed video from the second clash on Sunday under the headline “Third Intifada?” using the Arabic word for uprising.
“We methodically hurt the ones who do want peace. We help raise the radical elements instead. The result of this policy could be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority government very rapidly, which would create the worst intifada we’ve seen thus far. We are not far from it,” Mr. Olmert warned.
“They have no intention of compromising with us. They want to destroy our country, but they will obviously fail,” he said.
“To my regret, he strives for unity with the same Hamas that is supported by Iran,” the prime minister said.
Mr. Netanyahu’s tough approach has gone over well with the Israeli public. With elections scheduled for Jan. 22, opinion polls forecast Mr. Netanyahu winning re-election as leader of a coalition dominated by hard-line nationalist and religious parties.
The Palestinians have launched two uprisings against Israeli occupation. The first erupted exactly 25 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1987, and lasted nearly six years. The second, deadlier uprising broke out in late 2000 and stretched for about five years. More than 3,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis died in the fighting.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank have signaled they have no desire to return to the days of the uprising, when armed militant gangs controlled Palestinian cities, Israeli military raids were common and Israeli troops strictly controlled movement throughout the West Bank.
“We are not ready for war. The only way forward is peace,” Mr. Abbas told Arab leaders at a gathering in Qatar on Sunday.
Majed Swailim, a Palestinian political scientist, said Palestinian disappointment in failed peace efforts could lead to anti-Israel street protests in the West Bank in the coming months. But he did not expect an open armed rebellion.
“People here don’t want to repeat the violent intifada because they know that Israel can paralyze life in the entire West Bank,” he said.
Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank; and Lauren E. Bohn in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.
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