published Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Deadly activity in Mideast

In recent years, Israeli military planners have been able to say with some confidence that the nation's southern border with Egypt was relatively secure and that the Jewish state could concentrate forces along its more volatile western and northern boundaries. That's no longer true. The fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak clearly changes the military equation on the Sinai border. A deadly attack in Israeli territory on Thursday and a rocket barrage and retaliatory airstrike on Friday indicate that what once passed as an era of good feeling along the border is at an end.

The Thursday attack, apparently carried out by Palestinian militants from Gaza who crossed into Israeli through the Egyptian desert, left eight dead. It was the deadliest attack of its type against Israel since 2008. On Friday, militants in Gaza launched at least 17 rockets into Israel. At least one of the missiles was intercepted by a new Israeli anti-missile system, but one landed in the city of Ashdod and wounded six Israelis. Retaliation, as has been the custom following such attacks, was swift and deadly.

Israeli aircraft attacked five targets in Gaza. At least five people were killed, including, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "the head of the group that sent the terrorists" into Israel on Thursday. He added that the airstrike was "just an initial response."

It is difficult, at this writing, to determine if more retaliatory raids will occur, or if the Palestinian attack and missile launches are isolated incidents or a purposeful escalation of hostilities by Hamas, a group that has pledged to exterminate Israel. It can hardly be a coincidence, though, that Thursday's and Friday's attacks took place when Egyptian influence in the border region is waning.

Egypt's role as peacekeeper in the region is likely to continue to decline or to evaporate entirely. Mubarak's successors are more hostile to Israel than he was, and they have more pressing issues than the border region to keep them busy at the moment. They're trying to establish control of a nation where a successful uprising in the name of democracy has prompted tremendous political and social change. If Hamas chooses to use the subsequent political vacuum to harass Israel, Egypt appears unlikely if not unable to do anything about it.

Palestinian aggression of the type that took place Thursday and Friday, and the Israeli response to it, could prompt another intifada. If not that, Hamas' recent actions could lead to a resumption of tit-for-tat cross-border attacks that harden attitudes and inflame public opinion. That, in turn, could torpedo any hope of restarting the stalled, Western-backed negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Resumption of talks is critical. Reasonable discussion under the auspices of interested third parties -- not attack and counter-attack -- provides the best hope for an equitable resolution of the long-standing issues that continue to divide Israelis and Palestinians and to make the Mideast a volatile place.

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