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MIDEAST: Amid Rocket Attacks, Israel Ponders Peace

Peter Hirschberg

JERUSALEM, May 16 2008 (IPS) - A rocket attack on the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon this week has again ignited calls in Israel for an invasion of Gaza, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert still seems more inclined towards an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire proposal with Hamas in the coastal strip.

For the first time, an attack from Gaza on a major Israeli city – Ashkelon is home to some 120,000 people – resulted in a high number of casualties when a rocket ploughed into a shopping centre on Wednesday afternoon injuring 16 people, three of them seriously. In the days preceding the attack, two Israelis were killed in separate rocket strikes on communities close to Gaza.

Angry residents gathered at the site of the Ashkelon attack, demanding the government hit back in Gaza. Opposition politicians made similar noises.

Some government ministers called for harsh retaliation. Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit, who is a member of Olmert’s ruling Kadima party, said Israel should target the Hamas leadership and also bomb those areas from where the rockets were being fired, including civilian homes. “We should warn the residents and tell them they have 24 hours to leave their homes,” he said. “If they don’t, then the responsibility for staying is theirs.”

Olmert was far less specific. “We hope we will not have to act against Hamas in other ways with the military power that Israel hasn’t yet started to use in a serious manner in order to stop it,” he said, referring to the Islamic movement which controls Gaza.

For now, the Israeli Prime Minister still seems to prefer a truce over a broad military operation. Besides the fear that Israel would incur a large number of casualties in a wide-scale, lengthy incursion deep into Gaza, the military and political leadership are worried that there is no clear exit strategy once the operation is over. Israel’s deterrence, they contend, would be badly undermined if Hamas reasserts its control in Gaza and the rockets again begin flying the day after the army withdraws from the coastal strip following a massive incursion.

Speaking a day after the Ashkelon attack, Defence Minister Ehud Barak seemed to reflect the government’s reticence to re-invade the coastal strip with its 1.5 million residents. “After the events of yesterday the blood boils and the gut wants to react,” he said. But, he added, it was “more important to exercise judgment and to follow a policy of think first, act later.”

After securing a truce commitment from all the Palestinian factions in Gaza, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was in Israel earlier this week in a bid to get Israel to buy into the deal. Israel told him it had three conditions: an end to rocket fire, an end to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza from Egypt by militants, and the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who has been held captive in the strip for almost two years after having been abducted inside Israel by Palestinian militants.

But Hamas leaders were quick to reject any linkage between the freeing of Shalit and a halt to the fighting. “Whoever thinks that the Shalit issue will be settled for free as part of the period of calm is completely wrong,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza. “The issue of a prisoner exchange is completely separate from the period of calm.” (Hamas has demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange for Shalit.)

Israeli leaders believe Hamas is desperate to reach a truce that would include the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and alleviate the intense pressure of a prolonged Israeli blockade on the strip. After the Islamic movement, which refuses to recognise Israel, forcibly subdued the more moderate Fatah party in June last year, Israel imposed a choke-hold on Gaza, limiting the flow of essential commodities into the strip, including goods, electricity and fuel. It also declared Hamas-controlled Gaza an “enemy entity.”

Israeli leaders insist the blockade has been effective in putting pressure on Hamas, and are concerned that lifting it as part of a truce will provide the Islamic movement with a lifeline Israel doesn’t want to give it. But opinion polls show that despite the ongoing Israeli blockade, Hamas’ popularity has not eroded. If anything, it is the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, which controls the West Bank, that continues to lose credibility among the Palestinian public.

But Israel’s key concern regarding a truce – or period of calm, as Hamas defines it – is that the Islamic movement will use the hiatus in fighting to rearm itself for the next round of hostilities with Israel. If Israel agreed to a ceasefire, said Sheetrit, “we will meet them (Hamas) in six months time after the truce when they are better armed and better protected.”

The government also fears that the ongoing smuggling of weapons into Gaza will ultimately result in Hamas obtaining rockets with longer ranges. The Grad rocket that hit Ashkelon, which is some 16 kilometres north of Gaza, had a bigger payload and longer range than most of the rockets fired into Israel in recent years. Israel believes these rockets have been supplied by Iran.

Army Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told the daily Haaretz newspaper this week that if weapons smuggling into Gaza was unchecked, within two years Hamas would possess rockets with a 40-kilometre range. More major Israeli cities like Ashdod and Beer Sheva would then be vulnerable to rocket fire. “If this matter is not dealt with, Hamas will bring more cities within its range of fire,” Yadlin said.

But some Israeli military observers have suggested that Israel could also benefit from a truce, which would allow it time to complete an anti-rocket defence system that would provide a partial answer to the attacks from Gaza.

Several prominent Israelis have suggested that Israel should try to engage Hamas directly. Among them are former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and the former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Ephraim Halevy. But President Shimon Peres recently captured the sentiment of Israel’s current leadership, when he said that “talking to Hamas is like talking to the wall.”

Neither Israel nor Hamas views a truce as anything more than a tactical break in the fighting until the next round of warfare inevitably erupts. For now, though, the Israeli government still seems more disposed to a truce in Gaza than a major military incursion into the strip. If the casualties continue to mount, that could change.

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