Israel Ponders Stronger Counterstrikes


The Israeli Air Force continued its targeted strikes this week against Hamas terrorists who are building and firing Kassam rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip while Hamas leaders reportedly disagreed among themselves whether to continue the attacks and some Israeli leaders argued for a tougher response.

On Wednesday, the Air Force reportedly killed two Hamas members when it targeted a group of terrorists who were firing rockets into Israel. That same day, at least one Kassam rocket hit an empty building in Sderot and Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Meshal was quoted in the British newspaper The Guardian as saying Hamas would continue its attacks, which he called defensive measures against “Zionist aggression.” His comments followed a report that one Hamas leader in Gaza had ordered a halt to all rocket fire. Also on Wednesday, Israel’s security cabinet decided to continue with its present level of response, which includes targeted assassinations against those responsible for or carrying out rocket attacks and limited ground operations in the Gaza Strip. The previous day, two Hamas terrorists were killed by Israeli troops during a cross-border raid into Gaza.

Aryeh Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said the Israeli troops who entered Gaza were “special forces who have the capability of going in, doing a job and getting out; they stay just a few hours. They want to punish those who are sending the rockets.”

Although there were some in the security cabinet who reportedly argued for tougher measures to put an end to the rocket attacks, Mekel said he believes the current response will continue for some time.

“I don’t see a major change,” he said.The security cabinet ministers also rejected Hamas’ call for a cease-fire that would include the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas next week to discuss a cease-fire. Abbas has called upon Hamas to implement an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and to worry later about extending it to the West Bank. Olmert has reportedly said Israel’s response to the rocket attacks, which by mid-week had killed two Israelis, was effective and that he did not favor an escalation. It was noted that there were only three rocket attacks on Tuesday compared with dozens last week. Despite Hamas’ ability to re-arm by smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egypt, Mekel said the Israeli leadership is against ending it by deploying troops along the Gaza-Egyptian border.

“We got out of Gaza not to get back in,” he said, referring to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.Israeli leaders have not ruled out, however, a multi-national force along the border. Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said there has also been talk of establishing permanent military outposts in the Gaza Strip similar to those in the West Bank.“The fact that there are so many suggestions means that there’s no good answer,” he said. “I think we’re in the middle of a war of attrition, where the Israeli goal must be to grind down Hamas enough so that the Palestinians will force a quasi-ceasefire like before. People in Gaza are tired. There’s a significant body of Palestinians who see the use of Gaza as a launching point against Israel as counterproductive.”

Ben Fishman, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Israeli leaders are also mindful of the “brutal” manner in which Hamas has fought its Palestinian rival, Fatah, in internecine warfare the last several weeks in Gaza.

“Israel recognizes this, which is another reason it doesn’t want to get sucked in,” he said, adding that Hamas launched the rocket attacks as a way of uniting Palestinians “at a time when it was largely viewed as provoking internal violence.”

But Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Gillerman, told reporters at an Israel Project luncheon here last week that he viewed Hamas’ rocket attacks as an “act of desperation.”

“It comes out of weakness, not strength,” he insisted. “The only reason Hamas entered into the so-called national unity government [with Fatah] was precisely because international pressure [against it] worked. Now is the time for the international community to stand fast and not be lured by the façade of unity. … Maybe that will bring about a situation where Hamas will collapse.”

In the meantime, the impact of the constant rocket attacks on Israel’s southern communities — particularly Sderot — is considerable, according to Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“About half of the people [in Sderot] have left,” he said.“I do see a very limited war that we can sustain,” Aronson added. “The damage is mainly psychological and it is sustainable. But should a rocket from Gaza land on a kindergarten, God knows what will happen then.”

He added that should former Prime Minister Ehud Barak win a June 12 runoff primary for Labor Party leader against former internal security chief Ami Ayalon, Barak would likely become defense minister in Olmert’s government but would be unlikely to change Israel’s military response. Barak captured about 35 percent of the votes — 5 percent more than Ayalon — in this week’s party primary, but failed to secure enough votes to avoid a run-off. The current party leader, Amir Peretz, finished third in the five-man race with 22 percent of the vote. Analysts say Peretz is now in a position to be the kingmaker and can be expected to trade his support for another plum post in Olmert’s government. He is currently the defense minister but has said he would give that up to become finance minister. The Israeli media reported that although Olmert has ruled out appointing Peretz finance minister, he could be expected to create a post that would satisfy Peretz’ desire to have influence in socioeconomic matters.

In another development, Shimon Peres, Israel’s vice premier who turns 84 in August, announced Wednesday that he would run for the presidency of Israel for a second time, after having lost in July 2000 to Moshe Katsav. It is a seven-year term.

“This may be my last chance to serve the country,” Peres said after his Kadima Party endorsed him for the June 13 race. He said he was acceding to the requests of many, including Olmert, to run for presidency, a position that is selected by the 120-member Knesset in a secret ballot. Peres served as prime minister on three occasions during his 60-year political career but was never elected.Peres, the architect behind the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians for which he shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, is challenging Colette Avital of the Labor Party and Reuven Rivlin of the Likud Party in the race for president.