TEL AVIV (Oct. 3)
Yom Kippur may have passed, but the Days of Reckoning between Israel and the Palestinians over the fate of the Gaza Strip are far from over. The punitive overtones of the code name given to Israel’s deepest military thrust into Gaza in four years of conflict are no accident.
Ordered after a Hamas-fired Kassam rocket killed two infants in an Israeli border town Sept. 29, the mission’s stated aim is to deter the terrorists from escalating violence ahead of the Gaza withdrawal slated for next year.
“There will be no ‘Kassam party’ after the pullout,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Ma’ariv daily newspaper on Sunday.
With more than 50 Palestinians dead in Gaza — most of them combatants — Yasser Arafat’s government issued repeated appeals for foreign intervention.
But there was little serious response as the spiraling violence in Iraq and impending U.S. elections dominated headlines.
International media also noted the grim incident that provoked the operation — two Ethiopian-born toddlers killed by a rocket as they played on the streets of the hardscrabble town of Sderot on Sukkot eve.
“One feels a general understanding that this operation was retaliatory, and the story is pretty much consigned to the back pages” of European newspapers, Zvi Heifetz, Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, told Army Radio.
Israeli security sources voiced satisfaction at that tactical achievements of an operation that saw a 5-mile-wide swath of northern Gaza reoccupied by troops — although two soldiers and a settler woman were killed at the same time in separate Palestinian attacks nearby.
The fiercest fighting was in Jabalya, a refugee camp of 100,000 inhabitants that Israeli forces had previously avoided out of concern that the camp’s alleyways would put soldiers at a disadvantage.
Relying on precision air strikes, Israel managed to kill several rocket crews in Jabalya with little damage to the surrounding area. One guided missile felled two Hamas terrorists as they sped through Jabalya on a motorbike.
“We hope this will give the Palestinians a taste of the sort of miltiary technology we can bring to bear, if needed, even after the disengagement,” a security source said, referring to the planned pullout from Gaza and four West Bank settlements in 2005.
Signaling the efficacy of the crackdown, Hamas offered Israel a “truce,” in which it would halt Kassam launches if troops were withdrawn from Palestinian areas.
The proposal was rejected out of hand by Jerusalem, consistent with its long-held policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
But Sharon, who is still fighting right-wing Israeli ire at the disengagement plan — even from partners in his own coalition — is under pressure to prove that Palestinian terrorists can be quelled long before the first soldier or settler leaves Gaza.
Last week, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime Sharon rival, said the disengagement could be derailed if there is a catastrophe such as a major terrorist strike or Israeli infighting at the prospect of seeing over 8,000 settlers uprooted from their homes.
But Sharon remained defiant. “Evacuating the Gaza Strip is a plan that will be carried out and all orders have been given to ensure that there will be no fire at the time of the evacuation and I believe not after that either,” he told Army Radio.