Israel-Hamas: a clash waiting to happen

Hamas militant

That narrative aligns with a seething hatred of Israel fed by the fact that roughly three-quarters of the strip's population are refugees or descendants of refugees who lost their homes in what became Israel in 1948. For many, the current predicament is one chapter in a long story that will end with the restoration of historical Palestine to Arab and Muslim control.

In that context, the current historical moment takes on particular potential for instability and escalation.

The Arab Spring has opened up many new possibilities for Hamas, which has long been shunned by the international community. The changes in the region have strengthened Islamists across the Middle East, bringing Hamas newfound recognition. Last month's visit by Qatar's emir and Friday's solidarity mission by the prime minister of Egypt's new Islamist government illustrated the growing acceptance of Hamas.

"I say on behalf of the Egyptian people that Egypt today is different than Egypt yesterday and the Arabs today are different that the Arabs of yesterday,'' Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of Hamas' parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, said Friday. "I say with all confidence Egypt will not leave Gaza on its own.''

Such words were hardly imaginable under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, who leaned to the West and whose officials over the years were much engaged in evenhanded mediation between Israel and various Palestinian factions.

But Hamas has paid a price in public opinion, especially among its religious and conservative base. The organization rose to power as an armed resistance group, and is considered by not only Israel but also the United States as a terrorist organization. Many in Gaza, ranging from longtime supporters to more radical al-Qaeda-influenced groups, have accused it of going soft. Recent attacks on Israel, and this week's confrontation, are meant in part to re-establish Hamas' militant credentials.

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