As the Israeli government approved an expanded military operation in the northern Gaza Strip to thwart the launching of improved Kassam rockets — like the one that landed harmlessly Tuesday in a school parking lot in Ashkelon, Israel’s fifth largest city — the Hamas leadership was reportedly on the run to avoid being killed or arrested by Israeli forces.
“The issue is no longer just the Kassams and Shalit, the issue is Israel’s plans to eradicate the Hamas government,” said Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, an analyst of Islam and Arab statecraft. He was referring to Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, who was kidnapped June 25 by Hamas terrorists and is reportedly being held in an underground site in Gaza by captors who have a large supply of food, water and medicine. They are said to be prepared for a lengthy crisis, having cut off all communication after Israel rejected their demand for the release of as many as 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, including all women and children.
Kedar said the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to oust the Hamas government just as the United States changed the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. And he said Israel has made it clear that if Shalit is killed by his captors, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh “is a dead man.”
Haniyeh issued a call Wednesday to the captors, asking them to resume negotiations and not to harm Shalit. A Saudi newspaper said Haniyeh is taking the threats against him very seriously and is moving around frequently and not sleeping at home. The paper said that most Hamas ministers and group leaders have also gone underground and that the foreign minister, interior minister and other Hamas leaders have turned off their cell phones to thwart attempts by Israel to track them down.
Although the Kassam rocket that struck Ashkelon, which has 120,000 residents, was notable because it traveled seven miles — the farthest these rockets have ever flown — more than 200 shorter range Kassams have hit southern Israel in the last several weeks. They have caused damage and minor injuries and terrorized Israeli citizens. Thus Israel’s decision to launch attacks on the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza — including two separate missile attacks on the Interior Ministry building that caused it to collapse and a missile attack that destroyed Gaza’s only power plant — was only partly triggered by Shalit’s abduction, noted Eran Lerman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East Office in Jerusalem.
“There is no good outcome possible for this government and no two-state solution or realignment [withdrawal from areas of the West Bank] if there is no solution” to the Kassam rocket fire, Lerman said. “I expect this to involve the seizure of northern areas of the Gaza Strip for the duration.”
In the last week, Israel has arrested 26 Hamas members of the Palestinian legislature and eight Hamas ministers in a move Kedar said is designed to “undermine the [Palestinian] government and the stability of the regime” so that other Palestinians will take over the reigns of government.
Hamas was the surprise winner of the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January but it has had difficulty governing because of a cut-off of aid by the U.S. and Europe, which considers it a terrorist organization.
“There is an Israeli law that bans belonging to Hamas” because it is viewed as a terrorist group, Kedar noted. “If somebody runs for parliament and serves under the government of Hamas, there is no doubt that Israel will be able to prove in court that he belongs to Hamas and will put him in jail.
”But Lerman said “it is very difficult to envisage what kind of Palestinian power structure” would replace Hamas once it is removed.
Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and coeditor of the Israeli-Palestinian Internet publication BitterLemons.org, said Israel could temporarily “set up a military government and blanket the area” in an effort to put an end to Kassam rocket fire. But he warned that such a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip would be “costly militarily, in human lives and internationally, and it would be an admission that we should not have pulled out of Gaza in the first place, which is problematic for Olmert,” a supporter of the withdrawal plan.
Alpher said Hamas’ decision to fire the long-range Kassam rocket at this time “was a deliberate escalation” of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. Ze’ev Schiff, the military commentator of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, called it “an unequivocal invitation by Hamas to war.” As a result of this rocket, more than 200,000 Israelis are reportedly vulnerable to attack.
Asked if North Korea’s test firing of at least seven missiles this week — including one with the potential of reaching the United States — gives Israel a freer hand in dealing with Hamas, Alpher said, “It doesn’t hurt.”
“The fact that Hamas is in the good company of North Korea in a media sense doesn’t hurt Israel,” he said.
But he said it was unclear whether a stepped-up military presence in the Gaza Strip would be able to avoid military casualties and Palestinian civilian deaths. And Alpher questioned how easily Israel would be able to withdraw once its military operations escalate in Gaza.
But Efraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said the advanced Kassam rocket launching now gives Olmert the “political justification” needed to launch a “large scale invasion of Gaza that was planned before the kidnapping.” He said the operation in Gaza may be similar to the one Israel launched in the West Bank in March, 2002 after the Passover seder suicide bombing that killed 29 in Netanya. In that operation, Israeli troops combed the West Bank and broke up terrorist cells.
“Now whenever there is a problem, they go in and clean it out,” Inbar said. “An Israeli was killed a week ago and Israel already got the murderers because of better intelligence.”
He was referring to the abduction and killing of Eliyahu Asheri, 18, an Israeli who was abducted in the West Bank by Palestinians who reportedly killed him within hours. Three men were arrested this week in connection with the murder; another man was caught last week.
Israeli intelligence in the West Bank was also credited Wednesday with thwarting a Palestinian suicide attack in the Barkan industrial zone west of Ariel. The would-be suicide bomber and the taxi driver who took him to the area were arrested.
Because it controls all of the borders, Israel has been successful in keeping illegal weapons from reaching Palestinians in the West Bank Inbar noted. He said Israel would have less success in the Gaza Strip because Gaza’s border with Egypt makes smuggling easier. But Israel must make it clear to Palestinians that further rocket attacks on Israel are intolerable, he said.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he agrees with Israeli military officials who believe Israel’s Gaza operation “will take weeks or months to unfold.”
“Israel will reassert security control and maintain it until there is a strategic change in the Palestinians, which could take years,” he said.
But he warned that this would only happen if the military’s hands were untied. Despite threats by Olmert to unleash the military, he had not done so by midweek.
“He has a credibility problem,” Steinberg said. “His threats are not matched by actions. … Criticism of that in the Israeli media and among the general public is growing. The army has been sitting outside of Gaza and not doing anything, which is a sign of inexperienced leaders. They are going to have to change that behavior or become politically weaker very quickly.”