Fighting Erupts Between Hamas and Israel
By David Dolan
The long and bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage once again during November as a new barrage of Hamas rocket attacks upon Israeli civilian centers provoked a major military response. The operation, dubbed Pillar of Defense, began mid month, leaving fresh casualties on both sides of the conflict and many damaged or destroyed buildings and homes. A full army ground incursion into the small Gaza Strip coastal zone was only narrowly averted via indirect negotiations brokered by, of all parties, the new Muslim Brotherhood government ruling Egypt. However all admitted the unofficial ceasefire that went into effect on November 21 was tenuous at best. Near the end of the military campaign, terrorists exploded a bomb placed on a Tel Aviv bus¡ªthe first bus bombing to rock Israel since 2008.
The eight-day mini-war was similar to previous armed skirmishes between the radical Palestinian Hamas movement and the Israeli Defense Forces. In almost all cases, Hamas gunners sent locally produced Kassam rockets and mortar shells crashing into Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip. However each time, the flying range of the rockets has always proved to be farther than the previous encounter. This pattern was repeated during the recent flare up, with Iranian-produced Fajr three-stage rockets striking the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. Attacking Israel's major urban center located due north of the Gaza Strip along the coast, and the country's capital city, crossed a serious red line that government leaders had always made clear would not go unpunished. Indeed, IDF army, navy and especially air force responses were swift and punishing, hitting multiple rocket-launching sites and other Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions and personnel.
Following three days of multiple Palestinian rocket attacks during the second week of November, the latest armed conflict sharply escalated after IDF missiles successfully targeted a vehicle carrying what many considered to be the main Hamas militia leader, Ahmad Jabari. He was said to have been behind the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He also organized thousand of previous Hamas rocket assaults upon Israeli civilian communities. The new round of fighting naturally left many civilians dead and wounded on both sides, especially in the crowded Gaza Strip. As before, the IDF said it did everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, dropping leaflets to warn of impending attacks and even making phone calls and sending text messages to do the same. Despite this, dozens of non-combatants were, as usual, wounded and killed in the conflict. Also as usual, the international media tended to focus on the Palestinian casualties, constantly noting that many more Arabs were being slain or wounded than Israeli Jews. This downplayed the fact that Hamas terrorists were deliberately firing rockets from their own civilian neighborhoods, apparently seeking shelter behind their fellow Palestinian people. More than that, Israeli military and government spokesmen frequently pointed out that Hamas and its Islamist comrades were deliberately targeting civilian centers, while the IDF was doing everything possible to avoid non-combatant deaths and injuries.
Israeli leaders noted that if the new Iron Dome anti-rocket system's five batteries had not been in operation, many of the nearly 1,500 rockets fired at Israeli targets from the Gaza Strip during November would have exploded on the ground, undoubtedly substantially raising the Israeli civilian casualty toll, which would have sparked off a substantially stronger IDF response. Despite this, six Israelis, four of them non-combatants, were killed by rocket and ground fire. Dozens were wounded, several seriously. Among Israeli targets hit by Palestinian rockets were two apartment buildings and a regional school, whose young students were thankfully not inside at the time since regular daily life in the area had earlier come to a screeching halt. The sophisticated Iron Dome system, partly funded by the United States, was said to have successfully intercepted over eighty per cent of the incoming rockets it was aimed at. In fact, the Israeli defense company manufacturing the system revealed they are already receiving inquiries from various countries about the possibility of purchasing the intricate anti-rocket defense system for their own domestic use.
Israeli government officials constantly pointed out that Iranian-produced rockets were being heavily deployed by Hamas during the short but intense conflict. This raised the very likely prospect that Iran's extremist Shiite Muslim leaders had ordered the rocket strikes in order to test Israel's ability to intercept and destroy them. If so, the Iron Dome's overall operational success might help to deflect future attacks from the Palestinian coastal zone, and also from Iran's main regional puppet force, the heavily armed Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia. Meanwhile the substantial, pinpoint IDF counterstrikes certainly served to weaken Hamas' overall military capabilities, which might prove strategically important if Israeli leaders order an assault upon Iran's sprawling nuclear production facilities in the coming months. However several days after the conflict ended, foreign and domestic media outlets reported that Iran was rushing fresh rocket shipments to Gaza via Egypt and Sudan. The IDF warned its naval vessels would intercept the weapons at sea, as it has done before.
Along the tense northern border, mortar shells were fired at Israeli army positions from Syria and Lebanon on several occasions during November. This came as Syrian government opposition groups announced they had formed a "unified coalition" to continue their armed rebellion against the Assad regime, which some reports say has left nearly 40,000 people dead so far. To the north of Syria, Turkey deployed additional anti-rocket batteries along its southern border in order to respond to provocative attacks from the Assad regime forces. Lebanese army sources announced they had halted planned Hizbullah rocket attacks directed at Israeli positions as the fighting raged in and around the Gaza Strip. In neighboring Jordan, anti-government protests intensified as additional Syrian war refugees poured into the country.
Visiting family in the United States as I was this autumn¡ªand in a place without easy internet access¡ªthis Jerusalem-based reporter found it difficult to keep up with the news from Israel. It seems the electronic American media in particular tends to only report on Palestinian rocket attacks after Israel begins to respond to them. I know this is also the case in the UK, and probably also in most other countries around the world. Indeed this was the exact scenario during the first half of the month, when nearly 80 rockets were fired at Israeli civilian areas without much international media coverage or attention. Most of the rockets actually landed in the three days prior to the launching of operation Pillar of Defense, causing casualties and destruction in their wake.
Nearly 400 Palestinian rockets were fired at Israeli targets last year (when the Iron Dome system was first deployed), spiking with a barrage of 155 rockets in August alone. In fact, not one single month went by since January 2011 without at least one rocket assault upon neighboring Israeli civilian areas. Almost 100 Palestinian rockets exploded inside Israeli territory during 2010. Every time a rocket firing was detected by Israeli radar, air raid sirens sounded in the targeted areas, sending Israeli men, women and children scrambling to bomb shelters or to reinforced protective rooms in their homes. During the previous five years¡ªfollowing the traumatic Israeli military and civilian withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005¡ªnearly 4,000 rockets were shot at mostly Israeli civilian centers from the Hamas-ruled coastal zone. As current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned when his longtime Likud party colleague Ariel Sharon ordered the controversial and painful evacuation mid-decade, Hamas has turned its "liberated" zone into a massively armed camp from which to carry on with its self-declared jihad war designed to annihilate the world's only Jewish State.
During November's IDF Pillar of Defense operation, rocket attacks peaked on the second and third day. A total of 179 rocket firings were detected on November 15, with 180 launched the next day. One rocket hit a transit bus in the besieged city of Beersheva, injuring the driver but no passengers since the bus at the time was empty. City residents were mostly obeying orders¡ªand common sense¡ªto stay off of the streets, with most shops, businesses and government offices closed. All schools in the region, including Beersheva's Ben Gurion University, had earlier been shut down for the duration of the crisis. Iron Dome rockets thankfully intercepted most of those rockets that the system's advanced radar and computers projected were heading toward built-up civilian areas like the cities of Ashkelon, Beersheva and Ashdod. By the end of the military operation, the IDF said Iron Dome defensive rockets had successfully intercepted and destroyed over 300 rockets aimed at built-up areas. At least 10 of the rockets were advanced Iranian-produced Fajr-5 rockets, which have a range of around 50 miles¡more than enough to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, not to speak of the much closer metropolitan areas mentioned above.
For the first time, several Gaza-based rockets were in fact aimed at Israel's two largest cities. Residents of the south Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, located very close to the Palestinian Authority-controlled city of Bethlehem, reported that one of the rockets landed in their vicinity. That provocative attack sparked off the first sounding of air raid sirens across the Holy City during an actual hostile rocket attack since the War of Attrition was fought with Egypt in 1970. The jarring rocket explosion could be heard in many southern parts of Israel's capital city, followed by the wail of sirens perched on first responder police cars and ambulances. Thankfully no one was hurt in the unprecedented Hamas attack. On the next to last day of the conflict, two more Iranian-made rockets were directed at Jerusalem, with one landing in the Gush Etzion settlement block just south of the capital city and another a bit further south near the ancient city of Hebron, sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
The extremist Hamas movement claimed responsibility for most of the hostile rocket firings during November. Middle East analysts said the movement, which violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in August 2007 (not achieving that control due to earlier Palestinian elections, as many American commentators falsely claimed), was in fact behind most of the assaults. However several other radical Palestinian organizations that operate in the coastal zone with the compliance of Hamas also took "credit" for the deliberate attacks on Israeli cities and towns. Among them was the so-called "Popular Resistance Committees," which is largely made up of Hamas operatives. The PLO's "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine" also claimed that it fired rockets at Israel, along with the "Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine" and the PLO Fatah-linked "Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade." Several smaller groups loosely related to Al Qaida also boasted that they had fired into Israeli territory, a claim that cannot be verified but may well be true.
Whatever the case, the Israeli government continued to hold the Hamas terrorist movement responsible for all of the rocket firings since the other Palestinian groups only operate in the Gaza Strip because extremist Hamas leaders turn a blind eye to them, at the very least. Therefore any rocket firings were considered fair game for IDF counterstrikes upon Hamas targets, whoever was actually behind them. "If you seize control of an area of land, you are ultimately fully responsible for what goes on in it," noted one Israeli Knesset member.
PILLAR OF DEFENSE
After several days of nearly incessant Palestinian rocket strikes upon one-sixth of their country's civilian population, Israeli government leaders launched an extensive air and sea bombing campaign¡ªdubbed Operation Pillar of Defense. Officials said it was designed to halt the Islamic attacks and weaken the Hamas hold over the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also made abundantly clear he was ready and able to launch another major ground incursion into the Gaza Strip if necessary to halt the escalating attacks. To show he meant business, tens of thousands of IDF reserve soldiers received urgent call up notices, with many heading to the Gaza border to join a large regular army force already gathering there.
In the end, a ground incursion was narrowly averted when the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government successfully brokered a series of "understandings" between Israeli and Hamas officials, who met separately with Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi and other negotiators (Morsi later assumed emergency powers over his people that were declared dictatorial by many protesting Egyptians). The agreement included a Hamas pledge to halt all rocket firings, at least for now. Israelis leaders agreed to hold discussions with Egyptian officials over the Palestinian demand that they further ease the IDF military blockade of the Gaza Strip. Fishing restrictions were removed off the Gaza coast. The blockade was imposed in 2007 after Hamas seized control over the Mediterranean coastal zone from the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak later made clear the agreement was not technically a ceasefire accord, but merely several commitments made by both sides to their Egyptian interlocutors in the presence of American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who rushed to the region to help negotiate a ceasefire deal. Barak stressed that Israeli officials had not dealt directly with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group in Israel since its founding charter calls for continual Muslim attacks upon the Jewish State until it is totally destroyed.
Subsequent opinion surveys showed that around two-thirds of the Israeli public did not support the unofficial ceasefire accord. Instead, they wanted to see IDF ground forces enter the Gaza Strip in order to finish the job they started, despite the fact that all realized this would have undoubtedly resulted in significant military casualties, along with a much larger Palestinian civilian death toll. Hamas officials earlier stated that 161 Palestinians had been killed during the Pillar of Defense operation, claiming half were civilians. Israeli leaders admitted some civilians had perished in the fighting despite their best attempts to prevent non-combatant casualties. However they also noted that Western journalists stationed in Gaza City had confirmed IDF reports that Muslim militants were firing rockets from Palestinian civilian neighborhoods close to homes, schools, hospitals, etc, obviously using their own people as human shields. Six Israelis were killed in the short conflict, four of them civilians slain by exploding rockets, including a young mother whose son lost several fingers when a rocket destroyed their home. Scores more were wounded on both sides of the Gaza border.
Israeli political analysts said PM Netanyahu had decided against a ground incursion for several reasons. With national elections just two months away, he did not want to risk that such an operation would go awry or lead to excessive Israeli army and civilian casualties. He also understood that a blood-soaked ground operation would probably lead to a change of tone from many international leaders who at least expressed some understanding for Israel's right and need to halt recurring Palestinian rocket assaults. Still, the Premier made clear at the end of the operation that he was ready to launch a ground campaign if the rocket firings resumed¡ªwhatever political cost this might incur both domestically and internationally.
The army reported that around 1,500 air and sea strikes had been launched against Palestinian targets during the eight-day Pillar of Defense campaign. That was roughly equivalent to the number of Palestinian rocket attacks aimed at Israel during the short but intense conflict. Among the targets hit by IDF fire were Hamas government offices, along with a site the IDF said was being used to construct Palestinian pilot-less drone aircraft. A major communications building in Gaza City used by the local and foreign press was also struck, along with the Hamas-linked Islamic National Bank, the Hamas national security headquarters building located in the Saraya government compound, several police stations, arms depots, rocket launching sites and vehicles, and dozens of weapons smuggling tunnels dug under the southern Gaza border with Egypt.
WHO WON THE BATTLE?
At the end of the eight day operation, IDF officers said they had succeeded in their goal of greatly weakening the Hamas movement on the ground, even if the military strikes seemed to raise the radical group's popularity among many Palestinians and other Arabs all over the turbulent Middle East. Many Israeli commentators doubted that Hamas had been seriously harmed by the IDF strikes, noting that most Hamas agents operate out of the thousands of mosques that dot the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government apparently decided not to attack such Islamic sites out of concern this would further ignite millions of anti-Israel Muslims around the world. One thing seemed clear¡ªthe IDF operation against Hamas has gone a long way towards reuniting the divided Palestinian people, with most Palestinian Authority supporters in the West Bank saying they were standing with their Hamas brethren in the "liberation struggle" against Israel. Large rallies in support of their Gaza Strip compatriots were held in many PA-ruled cities and towns. Analysts said growing public support for the anti-peace Hamas terrorist group has left the PA weaker than ever, meaning any future international attempts to unthaw the frozen "land for peace process" is undoubtedly doomed to failure.
Many Palestinians cried foul when they heard that the second floor of the Al Shorouk media tower in the heart of Gaza City had been badly damaged by Israeli airborne missiles on November 20. They characterized this dramatic action as a deliberate and unprovoked attack upon the Palestinian press. Many noted the landmark building houses the broadcasting facilities of one of the main Hamas-controlled television stations that transmits news and other programs to the small coastal zone. Only later did it emerge that the IDF was accurately targeting a senior Islamic Jihad activist who had apparently sought protection from attack in the media center. Arab and foreign journalists working in the tower later confirmed his presence on the second floor of the struck media tower. The attack came after Islamic Jihad¡ªconsidered by most Middle East experts to be Iran's main surrogate Palestinian force in the Gaza Strip¡ªtook a more active role in launching rockets at Israeli cities and towns. Some speculated the extremist terrorist group did so on orders from militant Iranian clerical leaders who have repeatedly vowed to wipe the Jewish State off of the world map. Soon after the IDF campaign ended, Iranian officials boasted they had supplied many of the longer range rockets fired in the conflict after earlier training Palestinian militiamen how to fire them. This came soon after the head of the UN's Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said while visiting Paris that Western economic sanctions against Iran are not slowing down the regime's nuclear uranium enrichment program, admitting "We do not see any effect."
The pinpoint accuracy of most of the IDF air strikes fanned charges that a number of local Palestinians were Israeli-recruited traitors who were secretly paid to feed real-time targeting information to Israel. The following day, six males were forced at gunpoint to lie down in a major Gaza City street as hundreds of bystanders looked on. They were then shot dead in the head at close range. Following this barbaric scene, their lifeless bodies were hideously dragged by motorcycles through the streets. Cheering Palestinian mobs one the sidewalks chanted that the dead men had been slaughtered because they allegedly collaborated with Israeli security agents. The ugly scene caused some of the most hardened Western journalists reporting from the city to declare that Hamas-style "swift justice" is clearly both primitive and severe.
After the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire took effect on November 22 (followed by one more day of occasional Palestinian rocketing of regional cities and towns), Hamas leaders claimed the operation had been a roaring success, prompting many Palestinians to take to the streets in "celebration" of the self proclaimed, if hardly apparent, 'victory.' Earlier many of them had gathered to toast the fact that uninvolved Jewish civilians were being killed or wounded in the vicinity of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. News of the bus bombing in Tel Aviv, which left over 25 people injured, also prompted thousands of jubilant Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank to take to the streets. An Arab citizen of Israel was later arrested and charged with carrying out the terrorist assault. The young man later confessed he had planted a bomb connected to a cell phone detonator on the city bus. Police said he was sent to carry out the crime by a West Bank terrorist cell affiliated with both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.
With the quaking Middle East once again at the top of world headlines, it is a good time to remind ourselves that Israel's Sovereign Lord will have the final say over what transpires in this troubled, teetering world: "For He is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall not be destroyed, and His dominion shall be without end (Daniel 6:27).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.