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Storm Clouds Over Gaza

Prime Minister Olmert: "This may be the last minute for Palestinians in Gaza to halt the rocketing of Israeli civilians"

Hamas replies immediately with another barrage of 30 Qassam rockets and mortars

Countdown may have began for major IDF operation after winter storm passes over the area

Appeals by Israeli leaders, from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and even Egypt have apparently gone unheeded by the Hamas leadership of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian terrorists who govern Gaza have continued to fire scores of Qassam rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians in the towns and villages just over the border. It has been a time of terrorizing the Israeli children, women, and men who live in the area, many of whom have fled their homes. Unless there is some dramatic halt to the terrorism by Hamas it will only be a matter of time and the weather, before Israel finally launches a counter-terror operation to suppress the attacks.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Israel is apparently on the verge of launching a major counter offensive against Palestinian terrorists in the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip. Before and after Hamas officially announced an end to its 'tahadiya' truce on December 19th, the terrorists have escalated their rocketing from Gaza. After launching over 70 rockets and mortars on one single day, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a 'last minute' appeal to the Palestinians to halt the attacks before it was too late. Even Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has called on Hamas to stop it and invited Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Cairo hoping for some peaceful resolution. However, despite the Israeli appeals and the Egyptian feverish effort to avoid further escalation in violence,  Hamas responded by launching some 30 more rockets and mortars at Israel. This despite Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision to allow two convoys of 70 trucks carrying food and fuel to enter Gaza from Israel. Barak, who has been resisting angry public demands for a major ground offensive, has now declared: ' The time for talk is over, anyone who harms Israeli citizens or IDF soldiers must pay the price!' 

Military pundits say that when the current rainstorm passes over Gaza and the western Negev, the IDF final countdown is likely to begin. The bad weather obviously hinders Israeli air operations against Hamas targets. On this score, Hamas has exploited the six month truce in order to build up its rocket workshops, arsenals and other 'assets' in Gaza. However, this also provides the IDF with what is termed a 'bank of targets'. At the same time, Israeli military sources have also informed the media that Hamas will be capable of launching from 100 to 200 rockets at Israel on a daily basis, if and when the winds of war sweep in after the current rain clouds. This weeks firing of over 70 rockets within a 24 hour period is an example of the Hamas firepower in Gaza. 

Israeli civil defense officials are taking this into account and have just extended the 'Color Red' early warning system to more towns in the western Negev, which were previously thought to be out of range from Gaza. This week's disclosure by Shabak security chief Yuval Diskin that Hamas may have a rocket capability of hitting Beer Sheba, some 40 km from Gaza, has several implications. Not only have civil defense precautions been extended, but the quantity and range of the Hamas rocket arsenal will require that the IDF respond with massive and effective tactics to suppress the rocketing within a relatively short period. This was one of the gravest failures in Israel's  conduct of the Second Lebanon War more than two years ago. IDF Chief of Staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has said his General Staff have learned the lessons. There is another aspect to the evolving situation. In that war, Israel responded immediately to the cross-border attack by Hezbollah which killed eight IDF soldiers and abducted two more. In the current case,  rather than reacting in full force to the Hamas provocations, the IDF was ordered to take out only the Qassam rocket teams or terrorists trying to shoot across the border and presented a 'clear and present danger'. 

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Defense Minister Barak has conducted a carefully crafted policy in trying to avert an all-out guerrilla war with Gaza. This is another lesson from what happened two years ago on the Lebanese border with Hezbollah. On a wider regional scale and also internationally, Israel's conduct of a guerrilla war requires the blending of both political and military tactics. Clearly Israel has been absorbing the Hamas provocations while trying diplomatically to forestall a full fledged flare-up. Middle East analyst Oded Yinon says it recalls the waiting period back in 1967, when Israel tried diplomatically to resolve a highly volatile crisis while preparing for the Six Day War, if there was no other alternative. In Yinon's assessment, the current crisis is following the same course. This approach by the way has enraged much of the Israeli public and allowed the Defense Minister right wing critics to haul him over the calls for failing to defend Israeli civilians in Sderot and along the entire border with Gaza. Even the far left Meretz party in Israel passed a resolution calling for a military action to protect Israelis combined with a diplomatic effort - the latest poll indicates that 65% of Israelis favor striking back hard at Hamas. 

Even across the border,  Egypt's Foreign Minister Abu-Reit publicly called on Hamas to halt the rocketing. Moreover, the West Bank Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has also called on his Hamas rivals to resume their 'tahadiya'  truce and reportedly called the Hamas leaders a gang. At the same time, Abbas and the Egyptians say Israel should not 'punish collectively innocent Palestinians in Gaza '. The fact is that Hamas is the democratically elected government of Gaza and as such behaves in every way as a full fledged government. Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and all other Hamas spokesmen always refer to the Hamas government of Gaza and they do have a case - as Jimmy Carter has testified.  Just days ago, hundreds of thousands of Gazans turned out for a huge rally in support of their Hamas government which as in fact turned Gaza into 'Hamastan'. While the rocket teams often use their own people for cover, launching the rockets from next to schools, mosques or residential areas, the Hamas leadership has gone into hiding, possibly in some of those tunnels which smuggle in arms from Egypt. 

President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: Amit Shabi)

President Abbas, who has chosen negotiations with Israel rather than terrorism, has cashed in a peace dividend for Palestinians in the West Bank, who now enjoy a far better standard of living than those in Gaza. This development was highlighted this week when tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims from abroad visited Bethlehem this year for Christmas. This at a time that prospects for Palestinians in Gaza appear bleaker than ever and by their own choosing in their attempt to impose their will on Israel by launching  rockets and mortars across the border at Israeli civilians.

It is miraculous that no Israelis have been killed in the current flare-up, although scores have been terrified and treated for trauma at Israeli hospitals. Clinical psychologists see indications that many children will suffer from long term personality disorders after living for seven years under the threat of rocketing and all that implies. During that period over 7,000 rockets and Qassams have been launched at them from Gaza. In several cases this week, Qassam rockets scored direct hits on the homes of families asleep in their beds. In Sderot, the children and adults there have some 15 or so seconds to make it to a nearby reinforced safe room before the rocket hits. Apparently now, the residents of Beer Sheba, Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat and other towns farther away will be luckier - they will have all of 45 seconds to make it to safety after the sirens sound and before the rocket hits! 

David Essing

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