Tuesday, January 6, 2009

International Christian Embassy Jerusalem News

UPDATE: Israel enters Gaza to end Hamas rocket threat
IDF’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ splits Strip in two
By David Parsons, Editor ICEJ News

Some 18 months after Hamas seized control of Gaza, reluctant Israeli leaders finally decided to take serious military action against the growing rocket threat on its southern towns, launching a week-long aerial campaign on December 27 followed by a ground offensive now in its third day, both of which appear to have taken the Islamist militia by surprise.

Gaza City Airstrikes, Dec 08 (IDF)

The Prelude to War
After unilaterally pulling out of Gaza during Disengagement in August 2005, Israel’s leaders hoped for a quieter border but got instead a four-fold increase in the rate of rocket fire onto neighboring communities, with over six thousand rockets and mortars pounding the western Negev over the past three years alone. Since Hamas seized control of the Strip 18 months ago, the number, range and payload of those rockets have all been on the rise.

Hamas has also built up a paramilitary force of nearly 20,000 trained fighters and honeycombed Gaza with a network of underground fortifications and tunnels, while also smuggling in rockets with extended ranges of over 25 miles, along with anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets and tons of high-grade explosives.

An unwritten six-month truce brokered by Egypt brought a ‘lull’ in fighting but it effectively ended in early November, and Hamas has been anxious to display its expanded arsenal of weapons with renewed Kassam barrages. Thus Israel’s caretaker government felt it had little choice but to take action, despite its long-standing reticence and the approach of national elections.

Hamas anti-tank squad in Gaza

Caught Off Guard
Now in its second week, the IDF’s “Operation Cast Lead” began just two days after Christmas with a wave of air strikes that targeted Hamas militia commanders, as well as Kassam rocket factories, warehouses and launch sites. Over the next seven days, the Israeli air force expanded its target list to include weapons smuggling tunnels along the border with Sinai, as well as the homes of senior Hamas leaders and even a university building and three mosques known to be used for arms production and storage.

The initial air assault appeared to have caught Hamas off guard, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak employed diversionary tactics to hide the fact that a political decision had already been taken to order a large-scale IDF military campaign in Gaza. Although 90 rockets and mortars struck the western Negev on Christmas Day, Barak ordered the Gaza crossings opened the next day a Friday and put out word that a Gaza operation would only be discussed at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. Thus, Hamas was not expecting the IAF bombardment that came on the intervening Saturday also the Jewish Shabbat.

The initial wave of air strikes killed 150 Palestinians, mainly Hamas combatants, including some 70-80 ‘police’ cadets gathered for a graduation ceremony from their training academy. Hamas later admitted it was caught by surprise but claimed that its military wing was already in hiding and had survived largely unscathed. That appears to be the case, although several senior Hamas militia commanders have been killed in targeted air strikes.

Paramedics in Ashkelon following a Hamas rocket strike (TIP)

In response to the Israeli “aggression,” Hamas began firing longer range Grad rockets supplied by Iran deeper than ever into Israel, killing three civilians. The Chinese-made missiles started raining down on Ashdod and Beersheva, large Israeli cities some 40 kilometers away from Gaza. But the move only seemed to galvanize public support for the IDF operation, which entered phase two this past Saturday with the launching of a ground offensive.

Just before dusk the IDF first laid down an artillery barrage in order to take out mine fields and Hamas fortifications just inside the border. Shrouded by a smoke screen, a column of 150 Israeli tanks and APCs then swept across the border after dark, in search of Hamas forces hopefully staggered by a week of intense airstrikes. Again, the IDF had foiled Hamas plans to inflict heavy casualties at the outset, with only one IDF soldier killed in the opening clashes.

IDF sources said that the immediate goal was to cripple the Hamas terror network and to grab and hold areas in northern Gaza where most of the rocket launch sites are located.

Yesterday, the head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, gave the Israeli cabinet an upbeat assessment of the military campaign so far, claiming that “hundreds of terrorists have been killed and weapons and ammunition stocks have been destroyed, along with tunnels and rocket manufacturing facilities. The Hamas government isn't functioning, and the group's leaders aren't serving the citizens but themselves alone. There is much criticism of Hamas amongst Palestinians for bringing on this situation."

Hamas kassam rocket trails over Gaza (IDF)

Shades of Lebanon
Indeed, the Palestinian terror militias have been bloodied, as over 80 percent of the 500 Palestinian casualties so far have been Hamas combatants, according to Palestinian and UN sources inside Gaza.

But the IDF’s claims of success, however, have reminded some of the Second Lebanon War, which most Israelis consider a draw at best. When hostilities erupted in July 2007, there was an initial euphoria amid IDF boasts that it had inflicted major damage to Hizbullah through air strikes, while ensuing ground operations were limited to short probes that repeatedly captured and lost the same territory several times over.

But Israeli security forces appear to have implemented the lessons of that conflict this time around with a swift and determined ground thrust, while Israel’s political echelon is trying to do a more credible job than in the Lebanon conflict at defining the goals of the operation and the ultimate exit strategy from Gaza.

The stated aim is not to re-occupy the Gaza Strip, thereby providing Hamas with static targets for its terror cells. Rather, Barak has stated that the operation is meant to change the “strategic equation” in terms of Hamas having a base to smuggle in heavier weapons and establish a permanent threat to Israel’s southern half.

In this regard, it is clear that Israel is trying to keep Hamas from building itself into as large a threat as Hizbullah now poses to the North, with its rebuilt arsenals now exceeding 40,000 rockets, including longer range missiles capable of striking most of Israel.

But the Israeli cabinet is apparently split over whether to simply stop the rocket attacks and leave a weakened Hamas in power, or whether the end-game is to cripple Hamas to the point that Fatah can regain control of the Gaza Strip, perhaps backed by international or NATO troops.

Gaza Conflict Appeal Sidebar

The Battle for World Opinion
Meanwhile on the diplomatic front, the UN Security Council has tried several times to pass Arab-sponsored resolutions that denounce Israel and demand an immediate ceasefire. But the US has blocked the drafts so far, with Washington insisting the language must condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization that seized power in Gaza from the legitimate Palestinian Authority.

The outgoing Bush Administration has also called for a “durable” and “sustainable” ceasefire that would be “respected” by Hamas, and not just some temporary truce that allows the Islamist terror militia to continue arming itself with longer range rockets.

The Arab League met last Wednesday at the foreign minister level and condemned Israel’s actions. But several Arab leaders also were critical of Hamas for giving Israel the pretext to attack due to its “irresponsible” Kassam rocket fire, as well as its blocking of efforts at Palestinian unity by wrecking reconciliation talks with Fatah.

Egyptian officials in particular have been scathing in their response to disparaging comments from Syria and Iran, and were especially livid when Hizbullah sheikh Hassan Nasrallah urged Egyptians to take to the streets and basically topple the Mubarak regime.

Meantime, anti-Israel protests have spread from Arab to European capitals, but they seem to have misread the lack of sympathy for Hamas among world leaders. Not only is there widespread concern about the group’s totalitarian and Islamist agenda for Gaza, but also its close ties to Iran, which is racing for the nuclear threshold in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

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By the Numbers
On Dec. 27, Israel began "Operation Cast Lead" to stop Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza from continuing its decade-long campaign of attacking Israeli civilians with thousands of rockets, missiles and mortars:

8 years of rocket terror from Gaza
10,000 rockets and mortars fired
1,000 Israelis injured
750,000 civilians now at risk

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