Countdown to the offensive
Israel is waiting callously for the Annapolis meeting to pass before wreaking intended destruction on Gaza, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Middle East Quartet's envoy Briton Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Last Sunday Zaher Al-Orr had a surprise for his son Ashraf and his friend Mohamed Abu Herbid. He prepared breakfast for them before going home, after their night shift. The three worked as guards in a bathroom fittings factory near Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Normally they would have breakfast after returning from work. But this was going to be a special morning. Another worker who clocked in early joined them in the meal. Things didn't go exactly as Al-Orr planned. Minutes after the men sat down to eat an Israeli artillery shell exploded on their dining table. All four men died.
Not only has Israel's shelling of Gaza grown more brutal, the targets have also changed. Now the Israeli air force is shelling the offices, positions, and patrols of the Palestinian police. Five policemen were killed at two different police stations. Dozens others were wounded. Citing sources at the Israeli staff command, Israeli radio said that the intensification of military operations in the Gaza Strip aims at "punishing" Palestinians for the shelling of nearby Jewish settlements.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak says that an incursion into Gaza is "imminent". Israeli television Channel 10 said last Friday that the international community was siding with Israel. Offer Shelah, presenter of the "Harvest of the Week" on Channel 10, said that, "despite the casualties among Palestinian civilians, the world is showing sympathy and tolerance for Israel's action. This is due to the fact that Abbas is continuing to meet Olmert at a time when the Israeli army is killing the Palestinians. Why be more royal than the king?"
Amnon Abramovic, an announcer at the Hebrew-language Israeli television, put it in a nutshell: "our army killed in 24 hours 10 Palestinians, including children, and yet we didn't hear anyone protesting."
The continued shelling of the Palestinians in Gaza is not a substitute for an Israeli incursion. Most likely, it is a prelude. In its Friday issue, Haaretz cites Israeli military sources as saying that the likelihood of waging an all-out military campaign in Gaza has grown since the military realised that the collective punishment Israel is imposing on the Palestinians wasn't stopping the firing of homemade rockets.
According to Israeli television Channel Two, a heated debate is taking place within the Israeli Joint Chiefs of Staff over military attacks on Palestinian police stations. Although the police stations are an "easy target", army generals note that attacking them may undermine security in Gaza and thus cause further complications for Israel. The generals want any incursion into Gaza to be postponed until the Annapolis summit is held, for fear of weakening the Israeli negotiating position.
Israel has already rallied international support for a military operation in Gaza. In its Sunday issue, Maariv reported that during his recent visit to Washington, Barak obtained a US green light for an offensive in Gaza. Barak, the newspaper says, brought intelligence officials with him. Reportedly they told the Americans that Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza were stockpiling weapons and that Hamas now has a virtual army.
According to Israeli intelligence reports, Hamas has stepped up the smuggling of weapons in an unprecedented manner to consolidate its military capabilities. The Islamic Jihad movement is also said to have doubled its arsenal of weapons and succeeded in recruiting a large number of security officials in Gaza following the Hamas takeover. Meanwhile, the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades are believed to have received considerable assistance, partly from Lebanon's Hizbullah.
Israel's retired army generals have reservations about a major campaign in Gaza. General Yaeir Naffe, a former commander of Israeli occupation forces in Gaza, believes that an incursion would be "useless unless it lasts for a minimum of two years." He warns that unless the Israelis stay for a long time in the Strip, the firing of rockets will resume. Speaking to Israeli Hebrew- language radio last Sunday, Naffe argued, "contrary to the situation in the West Bank, in Gaza we don't only need to stop the firing of rockets, but to guarantee that the Palestinians won't be able to produce rockets in the future." If the Palestinians succeed "to fire one rocket after our withdrawal, the whole operation would be seen as a failure," he added.
Some Israeli politicians linked the escalation in Gaza with Barak's personal motives. Former Israeli Education Minister Shulamit Aloni said that Barak was using Gaza to become prime minister. In an interview with the Nazareth- based newspaper Events, Aloni described Barak as "the most dangerous man for Israel, because of his nature, because he is a man of war, and because of his arrogance. He is taking an extreme position because he thinks that by committing crimes he would be able to defeat Netanyahu in the upcoming elections." Aloni called for Barak to be tried as a war criminal in The Hague.
The Palestinians are taking Israel's threats seriously. Dismissed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Sunday that he was aware that the US administration gave Israel a green light to attack Gaza, and warned that Gaza would "be a tomb for the invaders". The Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, called on other resistance groups in Gaza to form a "joint operations room" to confront Israel's escalation. Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Al-Qassam Brigades, said that Israel's invasion of the Strip would be a "great folly... they will know that they had committed a big mistake by invading the Strip. They say they're angry at the abduction of soldier Gilad Shalit. Let me assure them that we will kidnap many more of their soldiers if they invade the Strip," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Palestinian Ministry of Interior maintains that Israeli attacks on the Palestinian police are designed to throw Gaza into "chaos". Interior Ministry spokesman Ihab Al-Ghosein told the Weekly that the ministry has no plans to evacuate police stations in anticipation of further shelling, but he didn't rule out such a move in the future.
Abu Ahmed, spokesman for Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement, promised that the firing of rockets at Israel would continue, both during and after any Israeli offensive. For Gaza's beleaguered Palestinians, one thing is clear: following the Annapolis meeting, Israel will attack.