Attack in Gaza signals escalation of conflict

Israeli ground troops moved to the Gaza border to prepare for a possible invasion of the Hamas-ruled territory, on Dec. 28, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli ground troops moved to the Gaza border to prepare for a possible invasion of the Hamas-ruled territory, on Dec. 28, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

(JTA) — 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 an 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 and security compound in Gaza City, Hamas’ Interior Ministry, the Islamic University and smugglers’ tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt. As the attacks stretched into Tuesday, more than 350 people were reported killed, most of them Hamas forces, according to Palestinian and U.N. sources.

Hamas responded by firing rocket salvos into southern Israel, with some rockets reaching as far north as Ashdod, nearly 20 miles from the Gaza border. By Tuesday, four Israelis had been killed in rocket attacks, three of them civilians.

The escalation was a long time in coming.

Hamas’ resumption of rocket fire on southern Israel following expiration of the truce prompted calls in Israel for a major retaliatory strike. 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 troops for a possible ground operation in the strip. On Tuesday, Israeli warships were reported to be massing along Gaza’s shoreline. 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 in its first day, elicited condemnation from around the Arab world. 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. On 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. On Monday, Israel bombed additional targets in Gaza, and a senior Islamic Jihad commander was reported among the dead.

Civilians were among the casualties in the airtrikes, including several children. The United Nations reported Tuesday that at least 60 civlians had been killed, but the number could not be independently verified. Israel allowed some humanitarian aid to reach Gaza from Israel even as the Israeli bombardment 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.

IDF officials said the operation could take several days, and a spokesman for the prime minister said it would last as long as necessary to achieve the goal of restoring quiet to the residents of southern Israel.

Meanwhile, Monday saw more than 70 rockets fired from Gaza strike Israel, some reaching 20 miles inside Israel. On Tuesday, rockets reached the Bedouin Israeli town of Rahat and the mostly Jewish city of Kiryat Malachi, both of which had never before been hit by rockets.

Four Israelis had been killed in the attacks by Tuesday. Beber Vaknin, the first casualty, was killed by a rocket that struck his apartment in the town of Netivot on Saturday. On Monday, an Israeli Bedouin worker named Hami al-Mahdi was killed while working at a construction site in Ashkelon, a coastal city of some 120,000 residents. Irit Sheetrit was killed Monday at an Ashdod bus stop, while exiting her car to take cover during a rocket attack. Sgt. Maj. Lutafi Nasraladin was killed Monday by mortar fire in the western Negev.

Early on during 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.

On Monday, Barak described Israel’s assault on Gaza as "all-out  war."

"I would like to remind the world that Israel withdrew from the entire Gaza Strip more than three years ago. We gave a chance for a new reality, and all we’ve seen is Hamas firing rockets and missiles on our citizens and carrying out attacks against Israel," he said. "The goals of this operation are to stop Hamas from attacking our citizens and soldiers."

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."

A top P.A. negotiator, Ahmed Quriea, said negotiations with Israel would be suspended for the duration of the operation. 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. On Sunday, 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.

In the West Bank, some Palestinians launched revenge attacks against Jews. A Palestinian in the Jewish town of Modiin Illit went on a stabbing rampage before being shot by a paramedic, an 8-month-old baby was injured when the car she was riding in near South Mt. Hebron was stoned, and in eastern Jerusalem an IDF border policeman was run over by a car driven by a Palestinian.

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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