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Hamas ups terror to prove it is relevant

    Hamas men call a press conference in Gaza City following the launch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington last month
    Hamas men call a press conference in Gaza City following the launch of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington last month

    Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are all uneasy allies with one another but one thing the three administrations have now in common is an enemy - Hamas.

    In recent weeks, the IDF has picked up orders to Hamas "sleeper cells" in the West Bank to step up their efforts to carry out attacks on military and civilian targets. So far, there were two drive-by shootings last month against cars carrying Israeli settlers, in which four Jews from near Hebron were killed and two residents of Maale Ephraim in the Jordan Valley were wounded. Further attacks seem to have been prevented by simultaneous arrests of Hamas operatives - carried out by both the IDF the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus.

    According to Israeli and Egyptian intelligence reports, Hamas is trying to carry out attacks in another region, the Sinai Peninsula. Both armies have beefed up security on either side of the Israel-Egypt border and Egyptian security forces are conducting searches for Hamas teams that are supposed to have infiltrated from Gaza into Sinai through the tunnels under Rafah.

    Their aim is to retrieve missiles and explosives from caches in the desert and use them for attacks on Israel's south. Such an attack was carried out against Eilat two months ago but most of the missiles missed their target and fell into the sea or on Jordanian Aqaba. One Jordanian civilian was killed.

    Hamas's motive is clear: with direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under way under American and Egyptian auspices, it does not want to be left on the sidelines.

    Hamas is trying to launch attacks in the Sinai peninsula

    Since Operation Cast Lead 20 months ago, the movement has, for fear of retaliation, largely refrained from using the Strip as a base for attacks, leaving other, smaller organisations to launch largely ineffective missile and mortar attacks. The only way it can prove that it is still a force to be reckoned with and remain relevant during the diplomatic process is to renew its terror campaign.

    The political direction is set out by the organisation's chiefs in Damascus; the military leadership issues its orders from Gaza while most of the operational planning is being done by the Hamas commanders in Israeli prisons. They contact their cadres via illegally held mobile phones and occasionally through meetings with their lawyers.

    While Israel is mainly interested in preventing attacks on its citizens, the Palestinian and Egyptian motives for opposing Hamas are more complex. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement are mainly interested in preventing a reoccurrence of the Hamas coup in Gaza in the West Bank. That is why its American-trained security battalions are quietly cooperating with the IDF against Hamas.

    The main concern of Egyptian regime is ensuring its own stability and securing the succession as the ailing President Hosni Mubarak's reign comes to an end. Hamas, ideological partners of the main opposition force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, are seen as a potential destabilising force.

    That is why Egypt has bolstered its attempts to cut off the smuggling routes and last week even arrested in Cairo Airport Hamas intelligence chief Mohammed Dababish, despite in the past having allowed senior Hamas members free passage.

    Both Mr Abbas and Mr Mubarak, though, have to continue paying lip-service to "Palestinian unity". Last Sunday, Mr Mubarak's "enforcer", Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, met with Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal in what was billed as an attempt to broker Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. There can be little doubt that the meeting included some stern words of warning for Mr Meshal.

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