All Out War
As I wrote in last weeks monthly Israel news review, with new national elections scheduled to take place in Israel in just six weeks, the Israeli government would be reluctant to respond to renewed Palestinian rocket assaults upon Israeli civilian centers around the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
But as I also warned, the decision to launch an assault was entirely in the hands of the Iranian-backed Hamas group. If it continued to allow the firing of dozens of rockets at nearby Israeli cities, towns and farms, then a IDF major response would prove unavoidable, even if the timing was not so good in a political sense.
After a week of such unprovoked and sustained Palestinian attacks, involving over 200 rockets and mortars that sent thousands of Israeli civilians to bomb shelters every day, the decision to act was made.
Just before noon on Saturday--the Jewish Sabbath during the eight day Hanukkah holiday--the Air Force launched its largest internal operation since 1967, striking hundreds of Hamas security targets in the southern Gaza Strip. Around 60 aircraft were reportedly involved in the initial air strike, destroying dozens of carefully selected Hamas and Islamic Jihad militia positions.
A second wave of some 20 warplanes then hit selected targets in the central and northern part of the small coastal zone, killing the senior Hamas Police commander in the Gaza Strip and other top Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives and militia personnel.
Additional air strikes occurred on Sunday and Monday, raising the Palestinian death toll to over 300. Almost all were Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters or political figures, although some 15 civilians were also killed by the widespread bombings.
Civilian casualties are basically unavoidable since the extremist groups which violently seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority security forces in a coup launched in June 2007, deliberately places many of their military and police positions in the middle of civilian neighborhoods, as is also the case with Hizbullah in Lebanon and even the Syrian and Iranian governments (Iran's nuclear program is centered in such neighborhoods, as is Syria's main chemical weapons outposts).
Hamas has responded by launching dozens of additional rockets upon Israeli population centers, killing two civilians by Monday, including an Arab construction worker slain in an attack by an Iranian-supplied grad missile on the large coastal city of Ashkelon. Over a dozen others have been wounded in the Palestinian attacks. Four other civilians had been killed by Palestinian rocket fire earlier in the year.
More rocket and mortar attacks are being threatened and anticipated, along with possible terror attacks from cells operating inside Israeli cities.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an emergency Knesset session on Monday that Israel was engaged in "all out war" with Hamas and its radical Islamic allies. He said the operation will continue and widen until the government's goals were achieved. He noted that the widening conflict was forced upon Israel by Hamas and its Muslim allies. He said Israel will try to avoid civilian casualties, unlike Hamas which deliberately targets civilian centers.
"I want to remind the world that Israel withdrew from the entire Gaza Strip more than three years ago. We gave a chance for a new reality, and all we've seen in return is the Hamas government firing rockets and missiles on our citizens and carrying out attacks against Israel."
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, called upon Muslims everywhere to rise up and defend the Arab residents of Gaza "in any way possible." Iranian volunteers are already being recruited to join the battle on the ground. This comes as several Islamic clerics around the world declared the situation a "jihad" that obligates all Muslims to come to the aid of Hamas.
Israeli officials are concerned that the Lebanese Hizbullah militia, Iran's surrogate force operating along the country's northern border, might be ordered by Khamenei to back the radical Hamas group by launching far more powerful Iranian and Syrian-supplied missiles at Israeli targets, which could include Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, if not Israel's nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.
While vowing to fight to the death against the supposed "Israeli massacre," a Hamas spokesman called for such active "support" from regional Arab powers, saying Hamas would not be satisfied with "just condemnations." Analysts warn that Iran may be eager to order Hizbullah into action in an attempt to wear down and preoccupy the IDF with a two front conflict, and thus possibly avert an Israeli air strike next year on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israeli army leaders say that the operation against Hamas will be prolonged and intense. In an indication that a major ground operation will probably be forthcoming into the Gaza Strip in the coming days or weeks, some reserve army units are already being called up. This may also be partly in anticipation of a possible missile response from Hizbullah and/or Syria.
All this to say, another serious chapter is apparently unfolding in Israel's long and difficult struggle to survive and thrive in the mainly Muslim Middle East. Whatever occurs, it is definitely an appropriate time to get down on our knees in prayer.
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.