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Fighting boosts Hamas’ standing

Gaza cease-fire

REUTERS

A Palestinian woman waved a Hamas flag celebrating the Gaza cease-fire.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The eight days of fighting between Hamas and Israel left more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis dead, but there may be another casualty from the sudden burst of violence: whatever small chance there was for reviving a long-moribund peace process.

Emboldened by landing rockets near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — and by the backing of Egypt and other regional powers — Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, has emerged as the dominant force in a divided Palestinian leadership, its resistance mantra drowning out messages of more moderate groups. The word ‘‘peace’’ has hardly been heard in public here since the shelling stopped, never mind the phrase ‘‘two-state solution.’’

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In a sermonlike speech laced with Quranic verses, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya promised on Thursday to ‘‘establish an independent state on all Palestine land,’’ foreboding words from the leader of an organization whose charter prophesies Israel’s elimination. On Saturday, one of his top deputies, Mahmoud Zahar, added that Hamas would ‘‘continue getting arms’’ in ‘‘preparation for the next battle’’ and called on Arab and Muslim nations to provide Gaza with money and weapons.

While that would undo the main accomplishment of Israel’s operation, Hamas’ swagger might just make things easier for Israel’s hawkish leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long insisted that negotiations are stalled because he lacks a willing partner for peace — even when he was dealing with the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. That argument might be more convincing if Hamas, which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization, remains ascendant.

‘‘Israel and the Palestinians have been far from any deal for some time, and this just makes it farther away,’’ said Nathan Thrall, Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group. ‘‘Prospects for a two-state solution are on the losing end,’’ Thrall’s group said in an after-action report published Friday. ‘‘Then again, what else is new?’’

Hamas’ strengthened position might even pave the way for unilateral actions by Israel sought by some on the right — annexing parts of the West Bank, for example, or shutting off Gaza more completely — that redraw the political landscape, analysts say.

‘‘I see many on the Israeli right who have an interest in this reality,’’ said Shlomo Brom, director of the program on Israel-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. ‘‘If, like Netanyahu, you don’t want an agreement or you don’t believe in one, it is very comfortable for them that Hamas is there.’’

Left in the rubble after a week of relentless rocket fire into Israel and the Israeli bombing of more than a thousand targets in Gaza was the type of introspection that might lead to compromise. The violence, instead, exposed one of the unsettling realities of a conflict that has defied resolution for decades. Both sides deeply believe they are winning, and that they are right.

This latest round of hostilities seems only to have reinforced those ideas, causing Palestinians even in West Bank universities with little Hamas presence to raise the faction’s signature green flag, and leaving some Israelis asking whether the assault on Gaza stopped short.

Even the intervention of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — an Islamist praised by the Obama administration for his pragmatism in helping halt the fighting — could in the end reinforce the status quo. He held out the promise of helping to negotiate a long-term cease-fire, and perhaps bring a better standard of living to Gaza by opening borders and easing other restrictions. But Morsi, who shares Hamas’ roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, did not talk about a two-state solution, instead giving rhetorical support to Hamas and its ideology.

The Obama administration held out hope that in the future Morsi could be a voice for change, but officials were most intent on the practical prospect of having a partner in maintaining stability in the absence of a real push for peace on the ground.

‘‘Egypt now has a degree of responsibility for preventing violence between two actors over which its control is very, very limited,’’ Daniel Levy, a left-leaning analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a commentary published Friday. Morsi, he added, ‘‘is likely to remind his Western friends that if they are unable to use a period of quiet to deliver broader progress on Israeli de-occupation, then he cannot be held fully responsible for the consequences later on.’’

Analysts say the recent episode highlights what they say is Israel’s lack of a long-term strategy either for dealing with Hamas and Gaza or for re-engaging with Abbas, who is expected to head to the United Nations on Thursday seeking largely symbolic status as an observer state. Israel’s ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has denounced that bid as ‘‘diplomatic terrorism,’’ and threatened countermeasures as drastic as trying to collapse the Palestinian Authority. After the recent conflict, an official in the prime minister’s office said, ‘‘it is almost ridiculous that Abbas is going to the United Nations for recognition of his state when he has no control whatsoever over what goes on in Gaza.’’

Efraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, said that Israel had three alternatives in Gaza: to destroy Hamas, leaving the enclave to its more radical groups; to reoccupy the area after evacuating it in 2005; or to start a process where the hostile environment is slowly reduced by preventing the influx of new weapons into Gaza while allowing Hamas to increase its civilian political role.

‘’After the elections are over, Israel will have to sit down and ask itself, ‘Where do we go from here?’’’ Halevy said in an interview.

The most promising prospect for any sort of compromise appears to be between the Palestinian factions, rather than with Israel. But there are mixed messages on this front as well.

Ahmed Yousef, an analyst close to the Hamas leaders, said in an interview Friday that Abbas had spoken frequently in recent days with Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ top political leader, and that ‘‘the whole mood has been changed’’ after several years of failed reconciliation attempts. But at a news conference Saturday, Zahar, the high-level Hamas official, was full of venom for Abbas, blaming him for the Israeli blockade on Gaza and accusing him of capitulating to Israel and the United States.

With momentum not only from the recent fighting but also from increased regional support that began with the visit to Gaza last month by the emir of Qatar and his $400 million purse, Hamas is likely to have the upper hand in any such reconciliation. Even moderate leaders in the West Bank, controlled by the rival Palestinian Authority, said last week that the vision going forward is about resistance rather than negotiation.

Still, Yousef, a former Haniya adviser who now runs a research organization, offered some hints at moderation himself. He said Hamas, which has opposed the United Nations bid almost as vociferously as Israel, would no longer speak against it. Asked about his vision for a Palestinian state, Yousef’s contours echoed those of Abbas: 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital.

As for recognizing Israel, he said, ‘‘We’ll talk about it when we have a Palestinian state.’’

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