JERUSALEM (Sep. 25)
Just two weeks after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, fighting with the Palestinians has resumed with sound and fury — and the potential to evolve into a full-blown border war. Israeli forces answered Hamas rocket salvoes from Gaza with airstrikes, arrest sweeps in the West Bank and, in an unprecedented move, by putting its artillery on standby to fire.
The escalation began with a terrorism-sparked tragedy: At least 15 people were killed last Friday when a munitions truck taking part in a Hamas victory parade in Gaza exploded by accident.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, embarrassed by the chaotic display of arms banned under the U.S.-led peace “road map,” condemned the Islamist faction as irresponsible.
But with its prestige on the line just months before a January election for the Palestinian Authority Parliament, Hamas put its own spin on the blast, calling it an Israeli airstrike or sabotage.
Vowing to “open the gates of hell” on Israel, Hamas launched at least 35 of its Kassam rockets across the Gaza border at the southern Israeli town of Sderot. At least five Israelis were wounded in the strikes.
Israel has braced for such a scenario ever since completing its Gaza withdrawal on Sept. 12.
But the escalation could not have come at a worse time for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, just before the Likud Central Committee was scheduled to vote on a motion by Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a primary election in which the prime minister could be unseated as party leader. Many in the Likud opposed the withdrawal, saying it would both reward and encourage terrorism.
Sharon ordered a counterterrorist offensive on a scale not seen in months. Two suspected Gaza terrorists died and several munitions factories were destroyed in airstrikes. Also, 207 fugitives, including top Hamas officials, were detained in the West Bank.
“I instructed that there are no restrictions on the use of any measures in order to strike at the terrorists, their equipment and where they find shelter. The instructions are unequivocal; we do not mean a one-time action here,” Sharon told his Cabinet.
“I am certain that it is within our ability to halt the terrorist organizations’ actions against us. The activity will not only be in Gaza but will also be against terrorism in Judea and Samaria,” he said.
Sharon received a boost from the United States, with the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, Richard Jones, telling reporters: “We all know that the terrorists are trying to provoke Israel at a very sensitive time and we understand exactly what the government’s position is and the response it has taken.”