‘Calm Before The Storm’


As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to shore up his coalition government this week by adding right-wing lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman, media reports spoke of an imminent showdown between Fatah and Hamas, military tensions on the Syrian border, and threats of a Palestinian attack.

"This is the calm before the storm," Abu Abir, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, vowed at a press conference after Israeli troops reportedly killed seven Palestinians in clashes in the Gaza Strip Monday.

Among the reported dead were Ata Shimbari, a senior commander of the PRC who led its rocket-launching unit in Gaza, and one of his brothers.

"As Israel takes out more and more of their major players, including those who build the missiles, the accuracy and the number of missiles [fired at Israel from Gaza] will go down," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

"Already most of them are falling into places where there are no buildings and they are falling short of their targets," he said. "Some are even hitting Gaza."

Since members of the PRC and Hamas kidnapped Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip June 25, Israeli troops have conducted a large-scale campaign to locate him in the Gaza Strip. That effort was later expanded to include halting rocket attacks on Israel and locating tunnels used for arms smuggling from Egypt.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was quoted this week as telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israeli troops had recently pinpointed at least 100 mile-long tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip. He said anti-tank missiles and large amounts of light weaponry have been smuggled in and that if the arms smuggling does not stop Israeli troops might have to be deployed to the Egyptian-Gaza border.

The former chairman of that committee, Yuval Steinitz, said here last week that he does not understand why the West is treating Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas differently than the way it treated his predecessor, Yasir Arafat.

"Actually, there is not much difference between the two," he told The Jewish Week. "Both of them could speak here and there against terrorism and in favor of a diplomatic settlement, but both were totally reluctant to fight terrorism on the ground or to make even a minimal effort to fight it."

"In a sense, [Abbas] is even worse than Arafat because he enabled Hamas to participate in parliamentary elections and to join the government, which is a clear violation of the Oslo accords," he said. "Arafat never invited Hamas to share power in the government."

Steinitz said Israel "made a grave mistake" by not preventing Hamas from participating in last January’s election, which it won.

"Even today we tell the world that Hamas is like Al-Qaeda, but we don’t treat Hamas like the U.S. does Al-Qaeda," he added. "We don’t arrest its leadership, and I don’t hear the U.S. giving conditions to Al-Qaeda."

Steinberg said he expects the European Union to begin pulling the plug on its monetary support of Abbas after seeing his failure to "stabilize the Palestinian situation, create growth and jobs." The EU has been giving Abbas and his supporters tens of millions dollars each month through the World Bank.

"They are finding that the situation is more chaotic and violent and that there is no leadership," he said. Meanwhile, there were reports of an impending clash between Hamas and Fatah gunmen as Hamas prepares to deploy its militia in the West Bank in defiance of Abbas, the Fatah leader. Just last week, there was an attempted assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh by Fatah gunmen.

Shlomo Aronson, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he foresees a "limited operation along the [Gaza-Egyptian] border." And he said that to prevent new tunnels, "there is no way to go but to flood the area" with water from the nearby Mediterranean. "You have to dig a canal [along the border] and create a dyke at the coast, then bridge the dyke and allow the water to go into the canal," he said. "This is an old concept that has been repeatedly mentioned. It could be done relatively quickly."

Aronson predicted that the military would act before Olmert leaves Israel Nov. 10 to attend the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Los Angeles and to meet with President George W. Bush in Washington.

But others cast doubt on such a scenario, saying Olmert does not want to escalate the situation in Gaza on the eve of his meeting with Bush. Israel’s consul general in New York, Aryeh Mekel, said that although the troops that uncovered the tunnels have now left the Gaza Strip, further military action might be necessary "to act against the terrorists."

And along the Israeli-Syrian border, both Israeli and Syrian troops remained on high alert, with Syria claiming that Halutz’s visit to the troops Monday only served to increase tensions.

These developments came as Israel’s political parties considered accepting Olmert’s proposal to add Lieberman and his 11 Knesset seats to the shaky coalition government. There were reports at mid-week that the Labor Party was prepared to accept the move.

"Olmert’s immediate problem is keeping the government together, and part of the reason for that is that he has no agenda," Steinberg observed.