Israel Update for June 2006

David Dolan
David Dolan

The powerful Palestinian Hamas movement effectively declared war on Israel in June by announcing the end of a sixteen month halt in violent Hamas attacks against the Jewish citizens of Israel state. The ominous declaration by the radical Islamic group, which took control of the Palestinian Authority government in March after a stunning parliamentary victory in January, came as Israeli military forces responded to stepped up Palestinian rocket attacks upon Israeli soil. During one such IDF operation in the northern Gaza Strip, a Palestinian family picnicking on a Gaza beach was killed by what PA officials charged was an Israeli artillery shell. However Israeli leaders later denied that the deaths were their responsibility, saying tests on shrapnel from the incident showed conclusively that it was either a Palestinian landmine or rocket that had killed the victims, not Israeli ordinance.

Hamas made good on its declaration of war several weeks later when eight highly trained Palestinian militiamen-including at least two Hamas operatives-brazenly attacked an Israeli army outpost on June 25th. The terrorists emerged just before dawn from a long tunnel that had been secretly dug in recent weeks under the southern Gaza border with Israel, lobbing hand grenades and firing automatic weapons at the shocked Israeli soldiers. Two of the ambushed servicemen were quickly killed in the assault, and several others wounded, one seriously. Adding to the gravity of the attack, one solider holding duo French-Israeli citizenship was captured alive by the Palestinians. Three of the Palestinian attackers were also killed during the ambush. A fierce battle followed for many hours, featuring the first IDF military ground incursion into the Gaza Strip since Israeli soldiers and civilians were pulled out of the area nearly one year ago.

The Israeli government blamed the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority for the assault, with all that implies. They warned that a major military operation would be launched if the kidnapped soldier is not immediately released. As of this writing, a massive buildup of troops and equipment continues along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, with Israeli officials warning their patience was wearing thin. Many politicians and security analysts said the audacious Palestinian ambush, and continuing rocket attacks upon Israeli cities, might make it necessary for Israel to at least temporarily reoccupy some of the abandoned coastal zone. Analysts said such talk is a great embarrassment for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had been the loudest Likud party proponent of the controversial Gaza withdrawal, which many politicians and security analysts say has now proved to be an utter failure.

While action was escalating between Palestinian and Israeli forces, rival Palestinian factions continued to exchange fireclash on Gaza streets. This came as PA security forces and medical workers held violent demonstrations in the Gaza Strip and Ramallah to demand payment of long overdue salaries.

While pleading for additional foreign aid to help rectify the severe financial crisis brought on by the Hamas electoral victory, Palestinian politicians were engaged all month in ongoing attempts to prevent a full-scale civil war inside PA zones of control.

Meanwhile just south of Ramallah, in Jerusalem, Israeli officials and legislators in Jerusalem continued to debate the merits of PM new Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "convergence" withdrawal plan from wide portions of Judea and Samaria, with some saying the chances it would actually be implemented in the end were significantly reduced by the hostile Hamas declaration. This came as fresh opinion polls revealed that a solid majority of Israelis oppose the plan.

Suffering Sderot

As has been the case for several years now, June's Palestinian rocket assaults especially targeted the beleaguered Israeli town of Sderot, located close to the PA-ruled Gaza Strip. However the scale of such attacks during the month was unprecedented, with Palestinian Kassam rockets landing nearly every day somewhere in the town. One rocket actually landed close to the home of Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who once served as mayor of the mainly Moroccan Jewish town. Two Sderot apartment buildings were damaged during the first week of June alone, while another rocket later in the month landed just outside of a school full of children.

With opposition Israeli politicians increasingly crying foul, not to mention members of the mainly Moroccan Jewish Orthodox Shas party that is an integral part of the ruling coalition-the ongoing attacks prompted the Olmert government to order stepped up military countermeasures. Despite that action, rocket attacks continued and were launched almost dailyapace, throughout the month, prompting Israeli officials to warn that the continuing strikes could spark a major military operation inside of the northern Gaza Strip, from where most of the Kassams were being launched. .

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter went even further, saying the army may need to permanently reoccupy portions of the northern Gaza Strip if the rocket barrage continues. "Just as the army responded harshly to Katyusha rockets in the north" (i.e. Russian-made rockets fired into the Galilee region by the PLO, which sparked the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon), "so it should wield a strong hand against Kassams in the south," he said. However the suggestion was rejected by senior government leaders who maintained that while such action would probably halt most rocket assaults, it would also bring down the wrath of the world upon Israel.

Meanwhile unnamed "senior IDF officials" were quoted by the Associated Press as giving advance details of Israel's five year military plan, due to be publicly released in July. The plan reportedly anticipates that Palestinian violence will not be reduced by Olmert's planned evacuation of Israeli soldiers and civilians from most of Samaria and Judea. In fact, such violence is expected to increase after a period of relative calm, said the quoted sources (the sources were speaking before Hamas declared an end to its ceasefire and then participated in the June 25th tunnel attack, indicating that the period of "relative calm" may already be behind us). The IDF Intelligence report however considers the Palestinian threat as second to the Iranian nuclear program, which it reportedly predicts will have to be dealt with in the coming five years.

Commandos In Action

One Palestinian rocket blitz upon Sderot on the morning of June 5th destroyed a bedroom that had been occupied only minutes before by a 17 year old Israeli teenage boy. Psalms were recited in area synagogues later in the day to mark what many rabbis called a "miraculous escape from death." But a female resident of the apartment building was not so fortunate, sustaining serious injuries. Another Israeli was also hospitalized following the attack, suffering from shock.

The rocket assault was claimed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group backed by Iran and Syria. It followed an unusual Israeli military ground operation in the Gaza Strip the night before that left four Islamic Jihad members dead-two of them senior commanders of the Palestinian "Popular Resistance Committee," which is comprised of Hamas and several dissident PLO factions. An army statement said the men were ambushed after they were spotted on their way to launch Kassam rockets at Israeli targets. Military analysts said the Israeli operation was carried out by specially trained commando forces that were airdropped into the Gaza Strip-signaled that the Olmert government may now be ready to return troops there if necessary nearly one year after the previous Sharon government evacuated all Israeli soldiers and Jewish civilian residents from the contested coastal zone.