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Attacks shift Palestinian power

| Saturday, July 12, 2014, 11:15 a.m.
AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken from the southern Israeli Gaza border shows a rocket being launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel, on July 11, 2014.
Israelis in Tel Aviv take cover as siren sounds during a rocket attack fired by Palestinians militants from Gaza on Friday, July 11, 2014.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — After four days of round-the-clock rocket and missile fire that has left about 100 Palestinians dead and several Israelis wounded, the latest bout of fighting in and around the Gaza Strip has produced no clear winners.

But it has yielded a nearly indisputable loser: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who this spring was Israel's partner in U.S.-brokered peace talks but has been relegated to bystander status as his two longtime foes once again slug it out.

The sidelining of Abbas reflects the trajectory of a conflict that has marched steadily away from possible negotiated solutions and toward what many here fear may be an eruption of even greater violence as hard-liners on both sides consolidate power.

Here in the West Bank, where Abbas and his allies have long held sway among Palestinians, residents speak admiringly of the Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, while despairing that Abbas' advocacy for nonviolence has led nowhere.

“You look at the number and quality of Hamas rockets, and the training of their fighters, and I think even Hezbollah must be jealous,” said Jamal Hamdan, a 50-year-old electrical engineer. “As for Abbas, it's like he's shy. We expect more from him.”

The overall impact is the opposite of what the United States has long sought in the Middle East — a strengthened hand for Abbas and marginalization for Hamas and other militant groups.

Aides of Abbas acknowledge bitterly that the president is fast losing relevance, but they say this is what Israel intended all along: hopeless negotiations followed by a fight that would elevate militant Palestinian elements at the expense of relative moderates. The timing, they say, is aimed at derailing a fragile Palestinian reconciliation deal that brought together the various factions, including Hamas, under Abbas' leadership.

“The objective of this war for Israel is political revenge against Mahmoud Abbas,” said Husam Zomlot, a top foreign policy official in Abbas's secular Fatah party. “Israel wants to pull all of us into the military arena, because that's where they have the advantage.”

Israel hotly denies that, arguing it was forced into the current conflict by unstinting and indiscriminate rocket fire from the Gaza Strip that has been condemned by leaders the world over.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has brushed off calls for a cease-fire, said in a speech on Friday that Israel had hit more than 1,000 militant targets in Gaza in recent days and that the operation “will continue until we can be certain that the quiet has returned to Israeli citizens.”

Given a Hamas arsenal estimated to contain many thousands of rockets, that may be a long time in coming. Hamas fired more than 100 rockets at Israel on Friday alone, prompting sirens in Israel's largest cities.

At least four rockets were launched at Tel Aviv, and one hit a gasoline station in Ashdod, which burst into flames, seriously injuring an Israeli.

Rockets fired from Lebanon struck in the northern border area on Friday morning for the first time since the crisis began.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said Israel responded with artillery fire toward the apparent source in southern Lebanon; the Lebanese army said in a statement that Israel fired 25 shells across the border. There were no reports of injuries in Israel.

Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has fought Israel numerous times in the past. But fire from Lebanon has also been blamed on radical Palestinian factions. It was not immediately clear which group fired on northern Israel.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told paratroopers on Friday that the militants in Gaza “are understanding that they've made a big mistake. ... Gaza is slowly sinking to its doom.”

But if it is, there are few outward signs. Palestinians in Gaza may fault Hamas for its poor governance, but in the middle of a war with Israel, the population of 1.7 million in the coastal strip either stays quiet or supports the resistance — and blames Israel for their suffering.

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