Today, Thursday, is Christmas day, and much of the world’s focus is on Christian celebrations in Bethlehem, believed to be the birthplace of Christ.
But not far away, one of the most densely-populated areas on earth — Gaza, worn down after more than a year of tightening Israeli Defense Ministry sanctions, and nearly three years of international sanctions imposed after the Hamas victory in Palestinian Legislative Council elections — prepares for what appears to be an imminent Israeli invasion.
On Wednesday, the Israeli cabinet cabinet appeared to approve a military response to escalating “projectile” fire from the Gaza Strip. A report in Haaretz said that “The cabinet discussed the situation in the Gaza Strip for about an hour [on Wednesday], during which the ministers were presented with various options for an Israel Defense Force response to ongoing Qassasm missile strikes in the western Negev. The actions are to constitute a gradual escalation, particularly from the air to hit Hamas government and military ‘assets’ in the Gaza Strip”. This article can be read in full here.
Israeli Prime Minister Olmert warned today in an interview with Al-Arabiyya television that this could be the “last minute”, as his successor as head of the Kadima Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, flew to Cairo to discuss the situation with Egyptian President Husni Mubarak.
In the interview, Olmert called on the people of Gaza to rise up and stop Hamas, just as George Herbert Walker Bush wanted the Shi’a to rise up against Saddam Hussein just after the Desert Storm action was stopped against Iraq in 1991. Olmert said, according to a transcript provided by the Israeli government press office, that: “Israel withdrew from Gaza approximately three years ago not in order to return to it. I appeal to the residents of Gaza: I speak to you as a father and grandfather and I know that there is nothing I want less than to put my children and grandchildren in danger. Is it the spirit of Islam to kill innocent children? To shoot rockets at kindergartens and at civilians? I do not think that this is the spirit of Islam. Hamas, which does this against the spirit of Islam, is the main reason for your suffering – for all of ours. I say to you in a last-minute call, stop it. Stop it. You the citizens of Gaza, you can stop it. I know how much you want to get up in the morning to quiet, to take your children to kindergarten or school, the way we do, the way they want to in Sderot and Netivot. Hamas is the enemy of the residents – not only in Israel but in Gaza. We want to live as good neighbors with Gaza. We do not want to harm you. We will not allow a humanitarian crisis and that you should suffer from a lack of food or medicines. We do not want to fight the Palestinian people but we will not allow Hamas to strike our children. We have very great and destructive strength – which we do not wish to use. I think of the tens of thousands of children and innocents who will be in danger as a result of Hamas’s actions. Do not let the murderers of Hamas, which is acting against the values of Islam, put you in danger. Could I allow more missiles against the residents of Israel? More strikes at children and civilians and do nothing? Certainly not. Hamas is firing at us and at the power station that is supposed to supply electricity to Gaza. Stop them. Stop your enemies and ours. Tell them to stop shooting at innocents. I did not come here to declare war. I have said in the past – as long as I am Prime Minister, I intend to reach peace with, not fight, the Palestinians. But Hamas must be stopped – and so it will be. I will not hesitate to use Israel’s strength to strike at Hamas and Islamic Jihad. How? I do not wish to go into details here.”
One major deterrent against a major Israeli military operation in Gaza, until the increase in fighting and counter-attacks in recent weeks has changed the calculation, was the estimated cost for an Israeli “re-occupation”: 17 million shekels a day, or $500 million shekels a month, not counting the costs of supporting the military, but just for basic necessities like Pampers and food for 1.5 million Gazans.
It was later reported that Mubarak told Livni that Israel should exercise “restraint” — this is not exactly asking Israel to desist.
In fact, it looked as if Mubarak was condoning an Israeli military action, so long as it would somehow be conducted with “restraint”. Indeed, Mubarak expressed concern about the “humanitarian” situation in Gaza.
According to another report in Haaretz, “Egypt has informed Israel that it would not object to a limited Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi reported Wednesday.The paper claimed that Egyptian Intelligence chief, Omar Suleimanm, met last week with Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic-security department, and rejected Gilad’s request that Cairo use its influence to persuade Hamas to extend a truce with Israel that expired last Friday. At the same time, the paper said, Suleiman told Gilad that Egypt would not object to a limited Israeli operation in Gaza aimed at toppling the Hamas government … According to the report, which has yet to be confirmed by any other source, Cairo is furious with Hamas for having torpedoed Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks between the Islamic movement and the rival Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, last month [9-10 November]. The paper said that Suleiman accused ‘Meshal’s gang’ – a reference to the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal – of behaving arrogantly toward Egypt, and added that there was no choice but ‘to educate the Hamas leadership – even in Damascus’. The report sparked outraged reactions in Hamas, and the movement’s Al-Aqsa television station interviewed several senior Hamas officials who lambasted Egyptian policy”. This report can be read in full here.
Livni said later that she would not presume to ask Egypt’s permission to “invade” Gaza.
Ma’an news agency reported that “Former deputy Israeli defence minister, Efraim Sneh [who is still a member of the Israeli Knesset] on Wednesday called on the Israeli government to carry out a military mission against Hamas offices in Damascus if the Palestinians continue to shell Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip. He added that Syria must dismiss Hamas officials or at least leash Hamas”. This can be found here.
The Israeli press and the international news agencies which report from Israel reported this morning that “The defense establishment is currently preparing for a military move against Hamas targets in Gaza, after the Islamist group launched more than 80 rockets into Israel on Wednesday. As an initial retaliatory measure, an Israel Air Force strike killed a Hamas gunman in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Israel’s response will go beyond the air raid, an Israeli official told Haaretz. ‘Our response will be substantial and painful to Hamas’, the official said … During a cabinet meeting about the situation in and outside the Gaza Strip, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer gave ministers in attendance an overview of the potential retaliatory moves that the defense establishment is planning against Hamas’ regime. Most strikes will come from the air and be aimed at facilities believed to be of strategic importance to Hamas’ political and military leadership. However, the officer said that weather conditions are currently preventing the air force from launching the raids … Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government said it had shown restraint until now but vowed to act if the salvoes continued. The same official said that Israel would be willing to extend the June cease-fire, which expired last week, if Hamas would agree to resuming it … Sources close to Livni said she intended to tell Mubarak that Israel will not accept Hamas’ current terms for a ceasefire. Hamas’ statements also contained a similar mix of threats and assurances … Other spokespeople said the organization will agree to ‘resume’ the ceasefire, if the organization’s conditions are met. Hamas is demanding an improved ceasefire agreement, that also includes the West Bank”. These details were reported in Haaretz here.
Another analysis in Haaretz says that “The sharp turns that Hamas has made in its policy concerning the cease-fire with Israel more resembles a speeding racecar than a government policy. Despite statements that the organization’s top-brass have made about being willing to resume the cease-fire in its previous format, the resumption of massive Qassam fire from Gaza to Israel indicates that Hamas may have decided to push for a head-on confrontation with Israel. However, despite the significant escalation as over 80 Qassam missiles were fired into Israeli towns Wednesday, Hamas’ interest was and still is to resume the cease-fire with Israel. However, Hamas wants to improve the terms of the deal. In doing so, Hamas’ regime in Gaza is taking a risk that could lead to its toppling … The slaying of three Hamas militants near the border separating the Gaza Strip from Israel on Tuesday night also have served to persuade Hamas’ leaders to opt for a confrontational position, as did Egyptian indifference to renewing the talks for a ceasefire. The fact that Israel did not open the crossings into the Strip to let in aid from Egypt was also believed to be connected to this decision … If violence at a low intensity fails to persuade Israel to let goods into the Strip, then, according to Hamas’ approach, another escalation in violence could help Israel make the right decision. The organization’s leadership expects an Israeli retaliation, but they assume it will be limited in scope. They deduce this from what they view as an Israeli reluctance to launch a massive land invasion”. This analysis can be read in full here.