Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

To invade or not to invade

Israel's policy of assassinations in lieu of re-occupation in Gaza is doomed, argues Saleh Al-Naami

Last Thursday at 8pm, in a home in an alley of the eastern quarter of the Al-Bureij Refugee Camp, a very human scene was taking place between a mother and her eldest son. The mother was trying with all her power to prevent her son, who is wanted by the occupation forces, from leaving the house. She had noticed pilotless reconnaissance planes flying in the area and was worried that harm would befall him. Yet her efforts were to no avail. Mohamed Abdullah Abu Murshid, 30, a military leader for the Islamic Jihad movement in central Gaza Strip, insisted on going out to join some of his colleagues on a visit to a comrade who was in hospital after an Israeli shelling.

Murshid and his three colleagues left his home for Shuhada's Al-Aqsa Hospital on the eastern edge of the nearby city of Deir Al-Balah. After their car had travelled two kilometres, one of the reconnaissance planes in the area fired two missiles at the vehicle, killing the four and injuring 10 bystanders, one of whom died from his injuries three days later. The car was turned into a pile of scrap metal. Not an hour passed before Israeli reconnaissance planes attacked another car transporting four others. This targeting of Islamic Jihad activists came two weeks after another assassination campaign in which 11 members of the military department of Islamic Jihad were killed, including Majed Al-Harazin, the leader of the movement's military wing, which calls itself Saraya Al-Quds.

The Israeli army has justified its wide-scale targeting of Islamic Jihad activists citing the movement's claim to sole responsibility for most of the missile attacks on Israeli settlements near the Gaza Strip. Yuav Gilant, occupation army commander of the southern region said the targeting of Islamic Jihad activists will continue until the movement halts its missile attacks on Israel.

Yet Matan Velnai, the Israeli deputy defence minister, suggests another goal Israel is seeking to achieve through targeting the military leaders of Islamic Jihad. Velnai suggests that the assassination operations that have been carried out against Islamic Jihad also seek to deter Hamas and prevent it from resuming the firing of missiles on Israeli settlements. Hamas does not currently fire Al-Qassam missiles, only mortar shells that are fired only at the occupation forces that invade the Gaza Strip and at military sites located on the border between the Strip and Israel. Velnai notes that the escalation against Islamic Jihad aims to convince Hamas to agree to a truce in which all missile operations against Israel would stop in return for a halt in assassinations and Israeli invasions of the Gaza Strip. Yet Israel refuses to guarantee a halt to Israeli operations in the West Bank or a lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip.

Rufin Bidhitsor, a retired general and Israeli military expert, says that there are other reasons that have motivated the Israeli army to intensify its assassination operations against Islamic Jihad. The main one is an Israeli decision to delay the wide-scale military campaign that Israel had planned to wage against the Gaza Strip, and which would have undoubtedly resulted in Israel's re-occupation of the Strip. According to Bidhitsor, who is supported by most of the military commentators in Israel, intensifying assassination operations against Islamic Jihad activists in this unprecedented manner seeks to deter Islamic Jihad from firing missiles and convince the Israeli public that there is no need to wage a wide-scale military campaign against the Gaza Strip that might bring the opposite results of those desired.

The Israeli press has indicated that the Israel army leaders have told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that any military operation against the Gaza Strip would result in the death of scores of occupation soldiers with no guarantee that such a campaign would lead to a halt in the firing of missiles. Ron ben Yeshai, the well-known Israel commentator, holds that Olmert fears facing the same scenario he faced following the end of the second Lebanon war, when the official Winograd Commission report accused him of shortcomings in the conduct of the war. This led to Israel's failure to disarm Hizbullah even though the power balance was clearly in its favour. There is no dispute in Israel that any military campaign against the Gaza Strip that leads to the deaths of a large number of occupation soldiers or fails to halt the missile-firing operations would be seen as an absolute failure.

Israeli concern over the possibility of a wide-scale military failure has increased following the evaluation of recent military confrontations during the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel. In these confrontations, Hamas used military tactics that could tip the current military power balance in its favour. The result of clashes between Hamas fighters and occupation soldiers in the Strip's central region raised the Israeli army's suspicions that Hamas has obtained missiles capable of penetrating Merkavah 4 tanks, which are the most secure in the world and without which Israel can't wage any military campaign.

Army leaders say that Hamas has recently used missiles with explosive heads that can penetrate Israeli armour and the structures that shelter soldiers during their operations in the Strip. They note that this kind of missile was used by Hizbullah during the second Lebanon war, and that this led to the death and injury of large numbers in the occupation army. Further increasing Israeli worries is the Palestinian resistance's first-time use of land-based anti-aircraft devices against American-made Apache helicopters widely used in surveillance of areas the occupation army plans to invade.

Yet what really makes Israelis afraid to wage a wide-scale campaign against the Gaza Strip and re-occupy it is fear of shouldering responsibility for all the services and infrastructure in its capacity as the occupying state. The Israeli press has revealed that the legal department in the Israeli Foreign Ministry has prepared a paper about the legal status of the Gaza Strip following re-occupation by Israel, and that it stressed that it would mean the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and its institutions. This would make Israel, according to international law, fully responsible for providing services to the Palestinians there because it would be the occupying state. It is clear that re- occupation of the Gaza Strip would undermine the achievements that Israel has made since Hamas won the elections in January 2006, which allowed Israel to build a regional and international front against Hamas rule in Gaza. Ori Saghi, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, warns that re- occupation of the Gaza Strip would end the ideological differences between the Palestinian factions, uniting Palestinians around the most extreme stance against Israel.

Yacouv Birri, former head of Shin Bet (Israeli domestic intelligence), suggests that even if Israel overcame all of these problems, a greater problem still lacking a solution would be finding a party that would take over the Strip after Israel did away with Hamas. Birri notes Abu Mazen's inability to control the Gaza Strip, and suggests that any Palestinian party that agreed to take over the Strip from Israel would be seen by Palestinians as a collaborator with Israel and would lack the legitimacy required to run Palestinian affairs. Birri recalls the 1982 war when Israel tried to establish a government there that would cooperate with it, following its defeat of the military liberation organization in Lebanon and after it occupied more than half of Lebanon including Beirut. Birri reminds us that Israel, with its "inane steps, created the conditions necessary for the rise of Hizbullah's star". He warns that the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip would result in the rise of a power more extreme than Hamas and more insistent on continuing the struggle against Israel.

Khaled Al-Butsh, a prominent leader in Islamic Jihad, holds that Israel will eventually realise its errors. He notes that Israel previously assassinated everyone it was able to among the leaders and cadres of the resistance movements, and the result was that the resistance grew, contrary to the hopes of Tel Aviv. In a statement to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Butsh stressed that Israel will "be surprised by the failure of its bet on intensifying assassination operations against Islamic Jihad". He noted that Israel previously assassinated the movement's founder and leader, Fathi Al-Shiqaqi, and that "this did not affect the movement other than by increasing its strength and well-being."

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