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Rash Israel lights Arab Spring powder keg

Spark … a still from a video showing the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari.

Spark … a still from a video showing the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari. Photo: AP

The Middle East this week? Think Colorado in July and the movie megaplex massacre - but instead of a lone gunman on the lose in cinema nine, there's a gang shooting it up in all 16 theatres.

New noises from Cinema Gaza pretty well mask an emerging reality in Cinema Jordan - after a year and more of tap-dancing to avoid the Arab Spring's rapier tip, analysts detected blood on the garments of King Abdullah II and his Marie Antoinette queen - Rania.

Like Bashar Al-Assad in Cinema Syria, Abdullah thought he might - and here, please, excuse a seeming contradiction - finesse his way through the irritation of the Arab Spring with a series of crude gestures that have failed to head off a reform storm surge that threatens him.

And, despite the week's headline from the region, it would be a mistake to be distracted from the horror show in Cinema Syria - already shots are coming through the walls, into Cinemas Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; Cinema Israel, too. It's become a serious complication for Cinema Iran and only a bit less so for Cinema Iraq.

We don't have a clue how it will end, except there is a growing sense that even by regional standards, it will set a new benchmark in ugliness and that it has a special ability to draw in the rest of the region. Might be a time to tread lightly - yes?

So with all that in mind, it was courageous - in the Yes, Prime Minister meaning of the term - for Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to decide that he absolutely had to go to war against Gaza this week.

Still testing its footing after the tectonic shifts of the Arab Spring, Israel might have opted for a less aggressive test of its ''cold peace'' alliance with Egypt, which, after years of dictatorship, has an Islamist administration that is required to respond to its people's massive and heartfelt sympathy for the Palestinians.

Could Netanyahu be so cynical as to stage-manage this show of force, because he faces re-election in a matter of weeks? That's what some commentators say. Even as he threatens war on Iran and contends with the Syrian conflict on his doorstep, might he have hit Gaza in the hope of showing the world what a bad lot the Palestinians are - on the eve of a Palestinian bid for greater recognition at the United Nations?

It has to be said that for a conflict that can cause so much pain to so many people, it may well be the leadership aspirations of a handful that drive this current chapter - and not just on the Israeli side.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, is in difficult transitional waters - like all others in the region, because of the Arab Spring. Entrenching the Sunni-Shiite divide among Muslims, these convulsions are strategically ''reformatting'' the region, not quite as Israel's Home Front Defence Minister, Avi Dichter, meant when he invoked the word this week to describe his government's objective in Gaza.

As seen from the world capitals in which Hamas is outlawed as a terrorist movement, the shift is monumental. Instead of the black hats in Tehran and Damascus, it's the West's white-hat allies - Turkey and Qatar - and newly democratised Egypt that rally around Hamas.

Remember when the world was distracted by the Christmas slow-down in 2008, and with an Israeli election in the offing, how Israel earned international condemnation for Operation Cast Lead - a 22-day blitz on Gaza in which about 1400 Palestinians were killed, 300 of them children, and thousands of buildings were destroyed?

Hamas is still standing - just like Hezbollah in Lebanon, across Israel's northern border, which Israel failed to break in a ferocious military assault in 2006.

But Hamas is divided. As a movement of Sunnis, it was obliged to abandon its Syrian and Iranian patrons as fellow Sunnis were being massacred in Syria - but also for reasons of pragmatic good sense.

Now Hamas is embraced by its fellow Islamist Muslim Brotherhood cadres in Egypt and is being swept into a warm embrace by like-minded US allies in Doha and Ankara.

It is no accident that on abandoning his bunker in Damascus, Hamas leader Khalid Mishal opted to relocate to Doha - the expectation here is that in time, the Qataris will be Mishal's chaperone as they introduce the brotherhood to the US and others as the new face of the region.

But the Hamas leadership in Gaza has its own sense of history - and that is that their time has arrived. Before the Arab Spring, they were obliged to leave it to Mishal and his team of outsiders to liaise with a regional and international communities which at best, were indifferent to their plight.

Hence this dangerous new flexing of muscle in Gaza - targeting Jerusalem with rockets? The local Hamas leadership in Gaza recently, and gradually, abandoned a ceasefire that, more often than not, had held since the war of 2008 - and the Israeli retaliation with the assassination of the Ahmed al-Jabari, the revered head of Hamas' military wing, was the spark amid too much kindling in the fire pit of the Middle East.

Mishal, meanwhile, has signalled that he is moving on, quitting the movement but not his leadership ambitions for the Palestinian people.

As in the past, Israel could have responded proportionately and incrementally to the renewed rocket strikes from Gaza. Time will tell, but the all-guns-blazing decision to take down Jabari might well be judged by historians to have been a mistake.

The Arab Spring has changed the strategic calculus. A few weeks ago, no less a figure than the Emir of Qatar made an official visit to Gaza, dropping a cheque for $400 million as he left, for rebuilding after Israel's bombings of 2008. On Friday, Egypt's Prime Minister was on the ground, amid the bombs, and don't be surprised if in his coming visit to Egypt, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces a detour to Gaza.

Aware that successive Israeli governments often have tried to gain tactically at the expense of more considered strategic advances, Israelis might well ask what's at stake for them.

Certainly the decades-old peace treaty with Cairo is going to be tested. And not only does Hamas have new friends, but an old order in which Palestine could be left in a too-hard basket or abused by regional leaders for their own ends, looks so yesterday - a bit like the broken and jaded leadership of the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas of the secular and corrupted Fatah movement.

The Palestinian Authority has always been about managing the Israeli occupation on behalf of Israel and the US. The Arab Spring could change all that - maybe.

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