Gaza battles flare after rocket strikes

BY ROY EITAN, JTA

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A surge in bloodshed over the last few days has pushed the battle in the Gaza Strip into a new phase, with Hamas militants expanding their attacks on Israel to include a sizable city and Israel responding with a military operation in Gaza.

An Israeli man was killed in Sderot recently and two Israeli soldiers died during Israel Defense Forces operations in Gaza that began Saturday after Hamas militants fired several Katyusha-type rockets into Ashkelon, a coastal Israeli city of 120,000. More than 100 Palestinians have died in the violence so far, including numerous civilians.

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Israel’s operations in Gaza have prompted condemnation from the European Union and the United Nations secretary-general.

With no letup over the weekend as Israeli troops targeted rocket crews in northern Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was defiant.

“The State of Israel has no intention of halting counter-terrorist actions, even for a second,” Olmert told his Cabinet Sunday in broadcast remarks.

The paroxysm of violence has brought new challenges to Israel’s strategy of containing violence from the Gaza Strip and derailed peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

The latest surge in fighting began late last week when Hamas rocket crews fired dozens of rockets at Israel after the Israeli Air Force bombed a van carrying five Hamas militiamen who recently had returned to Gaza after undergoing specialized military training in Iran.

The Hamas rocket attacks claimed their first fatality in nine months: a 47-year-old father of four who was undergoing job training at Sderot’s Sapir College after recovering from a kidney transplant. Hamas also fired several Katyusha rockets into Ashkelon. The Katyushas, which have a longer range than the homemade Kassams regularly fired at Sderot, likely were brought into Gaza when the border between the Palestinian territory and Egypt was breached several weeks ago.

The fatality in Sderot and the Katyusha attacks on Ashkelon prompted Israeli politicians to call for a massive military operation in Gaza to counter what they described as Hamas’ escalation of the conflict.

After Olmert returned from a trip to Japan, Israel stepped up its attacks in Gaza, increasing its airstrikes, flattening the Hamas-run Interior Ministry and sending Israeli ground troops into areas of eastern Gaza City. Two Israeli soldiers were killed during point-blank clashes with Palestinian gunmen, and by Sunday some 100 Palestinians were reported killed.

Israeli officials described the crackdown as a “war” but said a full-scale invasion of Gaza was still a way off. The objective, it seemed, was to kill or capture as many Hamas rocket crewmen as possible and perhaps target the Islamist group’s leadership as well.

“The ultimate objective is to bring an end to the firing of Kassams,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

Though Israel said most of the Palestinian casualties were combatants, the dead included many children and other civilians, and television images of the violence drew censure in the Arab world and beyond. A Dubai news anchor wept during a live report on the burial of a Gazan baby. Angry Palestinians in the West Bank clashed with Israeli troops.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused Israel of “excessive” force, and Slovenia, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, condemned the Israeli attacks as “disproportionate.”

For its part, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank announced it was scrapping a routine peace negotiators’ meeting that was scheduled to take place Monday.

Though Mahmoud Abbas’ administration stopped short of declaring dead the peace process revived at the U.S.-led peace conference last November in Annapolis, Md., the Palestinian Authority president irked Israelis by saying in broadcast remarks that what was happening in Gaza was a “worse holocaust” than what befell the Jews in World War II.

Some Israelis have suggested that toppling Gaza’s Hamas regime might be a perfect opportunity to hand the territory back to Abbas, whose Fatah forces were routed from Gaza last June by Hamas militants who wrested control of the strip.

Some Israeli analysts cited this theory in explaining Abbas’ sudden bouts of anti-Israel rhetoric.

“Abu Mazen cannot afford for Palestinians to think he is riding back into Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks,” Tzvi Yehezkeli of Israel’s Channel 10 news said, using Abbas’ popular name.

Last week, Abbas went so far as to suggest that violence might one day be the way for Palestinians to achieve statehood.

“At this time I am against armed struggle because we cannot achieve it,” Abbas said in an interview published Feb. 28 in the Jordanian newspaper Ad-Dustour. But, he added, “things might be different in the coming stages.”

Palestinians, including Hamas, generally use the terms “struggle” and “resistance” for any type of attack against Israelis whether they are soldiers or civilians.

Abbas further boasted in the interview that his Fatah faction, which now controls only the West Bank, “taught many in the region and world about resistance — how and when it is useful, when it is not useful.”

On and off since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel has grappled with how to contain violence from the strip. Despite calls by opposition politicians for a major ground assault in Gaza, Jerusalem officials privately say Olmert is reticent to launch a wide-scale operation in Gaza with no clear exit strategy or effective means of halting the incessant rocket fire on Israeli communities.

“We could go in, kill or capture thousands of Hamas terrorists, even eliminate the Hamas administration once and for all,” one defense official said. “But what then? We would fully expect a few thousand Hamas members to escape our dragnet and go into hiding to await their next chance to strike. There’s no one to hand over to.”

Alon Ben-David, Israel analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly, said the aim of Israel’s offensive in Gaza was to “break apart this formula whereby Hamas responds to a liquidation by launching rockets at Ashkelon.”

Other Israeli officials said the priority was keeping a lid on the Gaza crisis. There was some speculation that Egypt could be asked to broker some kind of unofficial cease-fire with Hamas. But the Egyptians, still reeling from the blow their security and prestige suffered several weeks ago when Hamas breached Gaza’s border with the Sinai, look reluctant to weigh in.

Omar Suleiman, an Egyptian spymaster who was scheduled to fly to Israel this week for talks with the Olmert government and visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, postponed his trip indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Olmert called for talks with the Palestinian Authority to continue, saying the attacks on Hamas strengthen the chances for peace.

“Naturally we are interested in continuing the diplomatic negotiations,” he said.

“When the diplomatic negotiations began, we made it clear that they would not, in any way, be conducted at the expense of our right to defend the residents of Israel against the intolerable actions of the terrorist organizations,” Olmert said.

“Nobody would deny that striking at Hamas strengthens the chance for peace. The more Hamas is hit, the greater the chances of reaching a diplomatic agreement and peace.”