Attack in Gaza Signals Escalation of Conflict

- Israel’s launching of a major operation in Gaza marked a new stage in its conflict with Hamas, the terrorist group in control of the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s operation, dubbed Cast Lead, was launched Saturday after several days of intense Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns following the expiration of the informal six-month truce between Israel and Hamas. Israeli war planes struck key Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, including Hamas’ main security compound, military posts, a major prison in Gaza City, and smugglers’ tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt. As the attacks stretched into Sunday, more than 280 people were reported killed, most of them Hamas forces, according to Palestinian sources.

Hamas responded by firing rocket salvos into southern Israel; one rocket struck a house in the Israeli city of Netivot on Saturday, killing Beber Vaknin and injuring several others. Other rockets reached as far north as Ashdod, nearly 20 miles north of Gaza, and Ashkelon, a port city of some 120,000 residents.

The escalation was a long time in coming.

Hamas’ resumption of rocket fire on southern Israel following the expiration of the truce prompted calls in Israel for a major retaliatory strike against Hamas. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the IDF had used the relative quiet of the last six months to prepare for such an eventuality, but he vowed not to be rushed into a decision or submit to political pressures in launching an operation. Barak is Labor’s candidate for prime minister in Israeli general elections scheduled for Feb. 10, 2009.

Israel’s Security Cabinet met last week and approved the operation, which began in broad daylight Saturday. The government also approved a major call-up of reserve forces and mobilized tanks and ground troops for a possible ground operation in the strip. In the meantime, Israel’s three leading political parties, Kadima, Likud and Labor, canceled campaign events.

The bombing campaign, which resulted in the largest single-day Palestinian death toll in decades, elicited condemnation from around the Arab world, and masses of demonstrators poured into the streets from Cairo to Dubai to London to Israel’s own Arab cities to protest the IDF airstrikes. The United Nations, Russia and the European Union condemned Israel’s use of force and called on Hamas to halt its rocket fire on Israel, while the Bush administration placed the onus on Hamas for provoking Israel’s response.

“The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza. The cease-fire should be restored immediately,” the U.S. State Department said.

In its first day, the operation struck more than 100 targets in Gaza, including rocket launchers, factories, and storage and training facilities. Civilians were among the casualties in the airtrikes, but it was not immediately clear how many had died. The Israeli army said about 15 of the deaths were civilian casualties. On Sunday, Israel allowed some humanitarian aid to reach Gaza from Israel even as the airstrikes continued. The International Committee of the Red Cross on Sunday said that Gaza hospitals were overwhelmed by more than 950 people injured in the Israeli operation.

Late Sunday, Palestinians fleeing the fighting breached Gaza’s border with Egypt as Israel bombed some 40 arms-smuggling tunnels along the border. Egyptian forces reportedly used live ammunition to prevent Palestinians from fleeing across the border.

Several hours into the operation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the Israeli public flanked by Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“The lives of our citizens are not forfeit,” Olmert said in a televised address Saturday night, calling on the Israeli public to unite around the IDF operation. “In recent days, it became clear that Hamas is bent on conflict. Whoever heard Hamas’ statements understood that they decided to increase attacks on the residents of Israel by firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately. In such a situation we had no alternative but to respond. We do not rejoice in battle but neither will we be deterred from it.”

As he spoke, residents in southern Israel were advised to remain in or near bomb shelters. The rockets launched from Gaza in the last few days have reached farther into Israel than ever before. In addition to the crude Kassam rockets, which have a range of some 10 miles, militants have fired longer-range Grad and Katyusha rockets, which are capable of hitting as far as the outskirts of Beersheva, Ashdod and Kiryat Gat.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on Hamas to renew its cease-fire with Israel.

“We spoke to them and told them ‘Please, we ask you not to end the cease-fire. Let it continue,’” Abbas said during a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. “We want to protect the Gaza Strip. We don’t want it to be destroyed.”

Abbas condemned Israel’s airstrikes, but he also called the continuing rocket attacks on Israel “acts of foolishness.”

P.A. officials in Ramallah said that Abbas’ Fatah Party was prepared to assume control of Gaza if Israel’s actions toppled the Hamas regime there. Fatah forces broke up pro-Hamas rallies in the West Bank.

Israel’s airstrikes also set off protests by Israeli Arabs. A demonstration against the IDF operation was held in the Arab Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm and other villages in the Galilee. Some of the protests turned violent, with demonstrators hurling stones at Israeli police and police responding with tear gas.

Israel’s Science, Culture and Sports Minister, Arab Israeli Ghaleb Majadele, boycotted Sunday’s Cabinet meeting to protest the IDF operation in Gaza.

The name of the operation, Cast Lead, is a Chanukah reference: The dreidel originally was manufactured by pouring molten lead into a mold. It has a double meaning, because that is how bullets are manufactured.

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