Israel says ground invasion of Gaza is underway – UPDATED

The announcement was made on Israeli television shortly after 8:30p.m. in Jerusalem — and Gaza. The TV showed soldiers, through a night-vision lense, walking in single file, wearing olive green uniforms and carrying backpacks. One soldier had a dog on a leash. They were walking on a dirt road — but it showed no signs of recent battle, no tank tread marks, and it had not been dug up. There were trees beside the road.

No special protective devices were visible. No tanks, either.

The announcer said he could not say where the soldiers were, but he indicated they were still at the Gaza periphery, or perimeter. Israel’s Channel Two Television was using some footage from Gaza supplied by the Gaza-based and Palestinian-owned-and-run Ramattan News Agency.

Leaflets had been dropped earlier, advising Gaza City residents — particularly those in the western part of the city — to leave their homes. But it was not clear where they should go. It is winter. There are almost no support services available. Gazans have large families with many young children and elderly parents.

AP reported that “Heavy gun battles were reported as Israeli tanks and infantry soldiers entered Gaza after dark. The forces stayed close to the border area, witnesses said. Heavy artillery fire hit east of Gaza City in areas where Hamas fighters were deployed. ‘We have many, many targets’, Israeli military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich told CNN, adding that Hamas has been digging smuggling tunnels and other facilities. ‘To my estimation, it will be a lengthy operation’, she said. She said the goal of the operation was to take over the areas used by militants to launch rockets against Israel … Defense officials have said around 10,000 soldiers massed along the border in recent days. Heavy artillery fire in the early evening was intended to detonate Hamas explosive devices and mines planted along the border area before troops marched in. It was not immediately clear how deep into Gaza the Israeli forces would go”.  This AP dispatch can be viewed here .

UPDATE: The IDF Spokesperson later sent around a message explaining that “The goal of the operation is to continue advancing the goals that the Government has set for the operation as a whole, including striking hard at Hamas’s terrorism infrastructure and changing the security reality for residents of the south.  IDF forces plan – inter alia – to take control of the launch areas from which most of the missiles that have hit Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod in recent weeks and months have been fired from.  The Committee decided that the timing of the plan’s implementation would be determined by the security establishment in accordance with its operational judgment; this was determined for this evening (Saturday), 3.1.09.  The Ministerial Committee further instructed the IDF to prepare for additional stages of the operation and to maintain alert in other areas, and, to these ends, to mobilize the necessary reserve forces – tens of thousands of soldiers”.

Israeli officials argue non-stop — and the Israeli public is convinced — that Iran is behind everything in Gaza. It is difficult to explain, however, how Iranian missiles — even disassembled, and in parts — could come into Gaza through tunnels in the Egyptian Sinai that the Egyptian government is aware of, while at the same time President Mubarak and his government are among the more anti-Iranian countries in the Arab Middle East.

In any case, a wire service reported after Friday prayers yesterday in Tehran that: “[Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s most powerful politician-clerics, said in a sermon to several thousand worshippers that an Israeli military defeat in Gaza would be a scandal for its government and that, even if the Hamas government there collapses, Palestinian resistance will only expand. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned Israel that entering Gaza by land will be the biggest mistake of the Zionist regime. He vowed Israel would be defeated in a ground attack. Iran is a major backer of Hamas, giving it millions of dollars. Israel and the U.S. accuse Iran of providing the Palestinian militant group with newer, more sophisticated rockets, but Tehran denies arming the group. In his prayer sermon, Rafsanjani said Hamas had a new anti-tank weapon that it had not used before but would unleash if Israel ground troops move in, but he did not elaborate“.

There are early reports of dozens of Palestinians killed in clashes with the IDF ground forces.

Nevertheless, Juan Cole wrote tonight on his blog, Informed Comment, that he cannot see anything of lasting advantage for Israel in this venture: “The Israelis used to assassinate and attack Hamas when they controlled Gaza, with no success in destroying the movement. So how can they destroy it now when they don’t control Gaza and are just making a temporary incursion into a heavily populated, complex territory?” See Juan Cole’s blog here.

In a statement to the media on Sunday night, Israel’s Defense Minister said ” ‘It won’t be easy and it won’t be brief … We’re continuing to expand the operation while being well aware that this move will include challenges, difficulties, and also victims. We are doing it because of the faith that at this time this is our duty to citizens of the country.” His remarks were reported on YNet. Barak said in the statement that : “Several hours ago, IDF troops entered the Gaza Strip … So far in the operation, the IDF, the Air Force, and the Intelligence Corps delivered a harsh blow against Hamas”.

YNet reported here that the decison to launch the ground invasion was taken on Friday night at a meeting of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Barak.

The UN Security Council was set to meet again on Monday, as ministers of Arab countries were trying to find a way to stop Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (or Operation Solid Lead) attacks on Gaza. It may now meet even sooner. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is on his way to New York, according to the Palestinian media, for the UN Security Council discussions. Many — but not all — Palestinians would find it completely unacceptable for the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority to ride into Gaza “on Israeli tanks”. But, this ground invasion may deflect an inter-Palestinian crisis looming over the 9 January date that Hamas has said it believes is the end of President Abbas’ term of office.

Helena Cobban wrote in a posting yesterday here yesterday on her blog, Just World News, that: “The ‘strategy’ of the Israeli government, if it can even be called that, now seems to have shifted from ‘taming’ Hamas to decapitating or even completely dismantling Hamas. As I noted last Monday, a dismantling/decapitating war, which was then being advocated by Ehud Barak, implies a very different approach to both operations and diplomacy than a ‘taming’ war … Many of the heavily populated areas of Gaza City, Rafah, and Jabaliya now look, from the photos, very similar to Beirut’s southern ‘Dahiyeh’ suburbs after the US-supplied Israeli warplanes started blasting into it in July 2006. But at least the residents of the Dahiyeh had places elsewhere in Beirut and Lebanon that they were able to flee to (and they found that Lebanese of all stripes including previous critics of Hzibullah, were very eager to help give them emergency shelter and emergency aid.) Now, where can the residents of blasted areas inside Gaza flee to? And remember: the winters can get very cold in that corner of the Mediterranean”.

Helena added: “I note there is a key difference between the situation of Hamas under Israel’s assault in Gaza today and the PLO when it came under a very similar Israeli assault in Lebanon, in 1982. On that earlier occasion, the Palestinians received considerable help from a portion of Lebanon’s population. But as the assault — and particularly the seven-week siege of West Beirut — dragged on, many of the PLO’s Lebanese allies became very depressed because of the continued battering their city was taking. (In Lebanon, too, there was always a large chunk of the populace that hated the Palestinians and was working very actively indeed to support Israel’s attacks against them.) Finally, after eight weeks of that war, Lebanese PM Shafiq Wazzan, who had been a long-time, if never very enthusiastic, supporter of the PLO presence in Lebanon, persuaded Yasser Arafat to negotiate a ceasefire that saved some of his forces but sent them sailing off to some very distant Arab countries. (Sharon’s massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila ensued.) This time Gaza’s defenders are fighting to defend a small portion of their own country. Adding to their current determination are these other facts about them:
(1) The status quo ante they had to live in prior to this war was itself quite unacceptable– as were, too, the lengthy preceding years of direct Israeli occupation. So the Gazawis don’t even have as much ‘stake’ as, for example, Hizbullah’s people did in 2006 in seeing a ceasefire that would give them a return to the status-quo-ante;
(2) Though Gaza is a part of Palestine, some 80% of its people are refugees from other parts of Palestine. So though many Gazans do have a deep concern for the physical infrastructure of the Strip, still, many of them also harbor very long-held and deep claims against Israel, including very large property claims, along with a correspondingly deep sense of resentment that these claims have never been seriously addressed in the many rounds of alleged ‘peace diplomacy’ that have occurred over recent decades.
But all these socioeconomic facts about Gaza’s population would count for nothing if Hamas and its antecedent movements had not been working hard for the past 25-30 years to organize their supporters in such a way as to build and rebuild the resilience of their constituency. In the west, too many people think that Hamas is ‘only’ the ‘terrorist organization’ that it’s designated to be by the US State Department. They imagine it is made up of wild-eyed, implacable Islamist radicals who have much more in common with the Afghan Taliban than with any movement that is considered ‘civilized’ in the west. Not so. Hamas’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, always placed a lot of emphasis on the need for education, self-restraint, and the need to rebuild the social fabric of Palestinian constituencies torn apart by years of Israeli attacks, occupation (including the heinous divide-and-rule tactics of the Shin Bet), and physical and social dispersal. Gaza Islamic University (badly bombed by Israel earlier this week) was just one of an entire network of educational and social-welfare institutions with which Hamas sought to rebuild Gazan society. Those institutions preceded the creation of Hamas as an armed political movement, which happened in 1987; and they have continued to operate alongside Hamas ever since … Another indicator of the resilience of Hamas is that the movement has suffered numerous rounds of extremely serious decapitating attacks in the past 15 years– including the assassinations of Ahmed Yassin and numerous other top leaders in 2004– but still, its systems for educating successive generations of youth and for cultivating leadership skills in a broad array of skill-sets, not just the military, means that those leaders were replaced by others of considerable experience. Those assassinations never resulted in the breaking up of the movement. Indeed, the leaders who have survived– and their followers– now have an even flintier sense of dedication to their nationalist/Islamist cause because of the fires they’ve lived through and the colleagues and former mentors whom they’ve lost”.

We mused, though in less depth, on the same issues in a posting on 1 January, “A New Year’s message from Gaza here .

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