Now, the anxious waiting is over. Events are moving into the next phase. Top Israeli officials decided on Saturday morning to launch reprisal attacks against Gaza.
The initial Haaretz report quotes Hamas sources as saying that “a series of Israeli strikes targeted its compounds through Gaza Strip, causing widespread panic. The Islamist organization said at least 40 Palestinians were killed in the attacks. Israel Air Force warplanes fired around 30 missiles at targets along the Gaza Strip’s coast on Saturday, causing heavy damage, witnesses said … [T]he airstrikes took place as children were leaving school. Plumes of black smoke rose over Gaza City, sirens wailed through the streets and women frantically looked for their children.”
By evening, more than 200 deaths were reported, and at least 700 injuries, as a new wave of Israeli attacks was reported underway.
A later Haaretz headline called the IDF action a “major offensive” and the story it accompanied called it the start of “a massive offensive”.
Haaretz journalist Amos Harel wrote that “This is the harshest IDF assault on Gaza since the territory was captured during the Six-Day War in 1967”.
The Foreign Press Association has informed its members in an update on entry to Gaza through Erez crossing that “We have been told that the border crossing is closed until further notice. We are trying to convince them to open Erez as soon as possible. Failing that, we are asking permission to send through a POOL:Camera crew/s, stills, print and radio”.
UPDATE: The IDF spokesperson issued two press statements — the most recent announced that what is apparently being code-named the “Cast Lead” Operation is continuing: “Since this morning, the IDF attacked dozens of targets affiliated with the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip. The targets included command centers, training camps, various Hamas installations, rocket manufacturing facilities and storage warehouses. The vast majority of the casualties are terror operatives; most of whom were wearing uniform and working on behalf of terror organizations“.
[Question: Doesn’t the fact that they are wearing uniforms make them soldiers, that should be treated like POWs if captured, under the Geneva Conventions? I think the uniforms in question are those of the Hamas police or internal security forces, who were killed while attending a police graduation ceremony. They do not appear to even be bearing weapons. See photo below. A second photo, showing collected bodies taken to Gaza City’s main Shifa Hospital, shows two kinds of uniforms — the black ones, and the blue camouflauge which I think are police.]
Of course, there are also plenty of photos showing dead and injured people who are not wearing uniforms at all — including many women and children.
The IDF press announcement continues: “The operation is ongoing and will continue for as long as is necessary, pending security assessments by the General Staff the IDF Chief of Staff. The IDF wishes to emphasize that secrecy and the element of surprise were central to the implementation of the operation. The IDF also wishes to inform the Israeli public that it must prepare itself for continued rocket fire by Hamas. The patience and resilience of the Israeli public is required” … The earlier IDF announcement said that “The targets that were attacked were located by intelligence gathered during the last months and include Hamas terror operatives that operated from the organization’s headquarters, training camps and weaponry storage warehouses. The Hamas government leaders and operatives, which activate terror from within civilian population centers, are the sole bearers of responsibility for Israel’s military response. This response is crucial for preserving Israel’s security interests. The IDF Spokesperson wishes to emphasize that anyone sponsoring terror, hosting terror in his house, housing terror in his basement and sending his wives and children to serve as human shields, is considered a terrorist…”
From UNHQ in New York, a statement was issued saying that UNSG BAN Ki-Moon “is deeply alarmed by today’s heavy violence and bloodshed in Gaza, and the continuation of violence in southern Israel. He appeals for an immediate halt to all violence. While recognizing Israel’s security concerns regarding the continued firing of rockets from Gaza, he firmly reiterates Israel’s obligation to uphold international humanitarian and human rights law and condemns excessive use of force leading to the killing and injuring of civilians. He condemns the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants and is deeply distressed that repeated calls on Hamas for these attacks to end have gone unheeded. The Secretary-General reiterates his previous calls for humanitarian supplies to be allowed into Gaza to aid the distressed civilian population. He is making immediate contact with regional and international leaders, including Quartet principals,in an effort to bring a swift end to the violence”.
And, Agence France Presse (AFP) is reporting that “Amr Mussa, secretary general of the Cairo-based Arab League, called an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers ‘to discuss the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip’. The meeting would take place in the coming hours, Mussa said in a statement. Earlier, Jordan had called for the gathering to be held on Sunday. He also asked Libya, as a member of the United National Security Council, to organise an emergency meeting on the subject of the Israeli raids”.
The Jerusalem Post calling this a massive operation, launched in two waves just minutes apart. “Hamas’s police spokesperson said that at least 40 people were killed in the initial attacks. Gaza health official Moawiya Hassanain later said that over 120 people were killed. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm either report … Shortly after the strikes began, Egypt was quoted by Al-Jazeera as condemning the Israeli action, calling it ‘an unprecedented massacre’.”
[UPDATE: By mid-afternoon in Jerusalem, the JPost was reporting upwardly-revised figures and some new details: “A Hamas spokesperson said that at least 150 people were killed in the attacks. Gaza health official Moawiya Hassanain said earlier that over 120 people were killed, and at least 200 injured. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm either report … Minutes after the first wave of airstrikes hit areas in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinians reported a second wave which targeted installations in the center and the north of the Strip. Channel 22 reported that between 30 to 40 targets were hit. Hamas Interior Ministry said that all security compounds in Gaza were destroyed … In a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office, the government position regarding the operation was explained: ‘Given Hamas violations of the ceasefire agreement and the unrelenting attacks on Israeli citizens in the south, a decision was made on Wednesday, December 24 by the Ministerial Committee on National Security, in which the IDF was ordered to act to bring about a cessation of rocket fire for a length of time’, the statement said.” UPDATE: At about the same time, a Haaretz headline reported 155 deaths in Gaza so far … in the air strikes that it said “began with almost no warning at around 11:30 A.M … Egypt has opened its long-sealed border with Gaza to allow in the wounded for medical treatment … The Israel Defense Forces warned Saturday that the airstrikes “will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary. The Prime Minister’s bureau issued a statement on Saturday following the IAF strikes in Gaza. ‘The operation was launched following the violation of the terms of the lull by Hamas and the unceasing attacks by Hamas authorities on Israeli civilians in the south of the country’, the communiqué read. The decision on the attack was made Wednesday during a meeting of the security-diplomatic cabinet, which instructed the IDF to act in order to bring a prolonged halt of missile fire and terrorist attacks from the Gaza Strip’, the prime minister’s bureau said. ‘The cabinet authorized the prime minister, the defense minister, and the foreign minister to determine the timing and the method of operation in accordance with the cabinet decision, which was unanimously reached. The three [ministers] decided to [approve] the execution of the air force attack on Saturday morning. Israel wishes to make clear that it will continue to act against terrorist operations and missile fire from the Strip which is intended to harm civilians.” ]
[UPDATE TWO: Haaretz is now reporting here that “Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip fired rockets into southern Israel on Saturday after Israeli air strikes killed more than 155 Palestinians. One of the rockets directly struck a home in the town of Netivot, causing extensive damage. One person was killed in the attack and four suffered moderate to serious injuries”.]
Haaretz is reporting elsewhere that “Close to 200 Katyushas, Qassam rockets and mortar shells have been fired at the Negev since Hamas said it would not renew the tahadiyeh (lull) that had expired on December 19 … The various statements by Israel’s ministers reflect a good deal of confusion. Livni and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have spoken on several occasions about the need to topple the Hamas government in Gaza. Barak (and Ashkenazi, too) seems to feel that such a goal is unrealistic now. The main objective for the army is considerably more modest: exacting a significant price from Hamas, to prompt it to agree to return to the framework of the lull. The likely method for achieving this objective is not occupation of the Strip or the pursuit of every Qassam launcher … Israel’s leaders claim that they will avoid an all-out offensive, that occupation of Gaza is not an objective, and that Hamas is not interested in a major confrontation, either. But one has to wonder whether anyone has bothered to inform Hamas about this wonderfully rational scenario. The Palestinians have always had this annoying habit of not conforming to the nice plans the defense establishment has laid out for them. This week, Hamas did appear to be hallucinating, likening itself to its bigger and more dangerous sister, Hezbollah. The same type of slogans, threatening proclamations, videos of militants training – and even the same type of haughty TV broadcasters smilingly reporting on actions undertaken against the Zionist enemy. But Hamas also appeared to be repeating Hezbollah’s mistakes from 2006, arrogantly believing that if the Israelis declare they don’t want to reoccupy Gaza, then it is left with nearly unlimited room to maneuver. Even if it turns out that Hamas is right (which is highly unlikely), it is taking a tremendous gamble. A major air strike by Israel would apparently include bombardment of Hamas offices and institutions. A further deterioration to a large-scale frontal confrontation could end up costing Hamas its rule, although the IDF would surely suffer significant losses, too. Meanwhile, the tremendous importance that Hamas attaches to matters of honor and prestige cannot be discounted. A few mornings ago, while headlines in Israel reported on Hamas’ readiness to consider a new cease-fire, the organization was behind the launching of over 60 rockets and mortars, intended to settle the score for an incident the previous evening, in which paratroops killed three Hamas men out to plant explosives near the separation fence. As in the past, Hamas is prepared to risk its rule just to avoid the perception of having surrendered to Israel” … This analysis can be read in full here.
Haaretz reported that “A Reuters correspondent said Gaza City port and security installations … were badly damaged”. That would appear to be designed to prevent any further aid ships from running the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza and docking in the coastal strip — an Iranian ship is reportedly on its way, after a Libyan ship turned around when challenged by the Israeli Navy. And it would also appear to be an act of reprisal against the successful arrival of five Free Gaza expeditions that made round-trip voyages by sea from Cyprus. The initial Haaretz report can be read in full here.
Apparently, assured access to the sea is one of the demands Hamas has been making for any extension of the unwritten cease-fire (or tahdiya) it concluded with Israel, via Egypt, last June, and then renounced about a week ago. [See the article in the Jerusalem Post written by Yaakov Katz, who has excellent sources in the Ministry of Defence at this address. This article is also posted separately, and unsigned, as a JPost editorial here.]
The AP has just reported that “In the West Bank, Hamas’ rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement that he ‘condemns this aggression’ and calls for restraint, according to an aide, Nabil Abu Rudeneh”. This AP report can be viewed here .
Abbas, according to a report by Ma’an News Agency, left Ramallah on Saturday morning on his way to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the King. He would have to travel via Jordan, and may have still been in Jordan when the IDF strikes began.
Announcements of demonstrations and press conferences in Ramallah to denounce the attacks in Gaza are coming in by SMS.
According to Haaretz, at least one of the Israeli missiles struck Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City, where a graduation ceremony for new personnel was taking place at the time of the attack, and that “TV footage showed bodies of more than a dozen black-clad security men lying on the ground in one area”. The Jerusalem Post reported that “According to witnesses, among the killed was Gaza police chief Tawfik Jaber”.
Ma’an News Agency reported that “Among the police officers killed in the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip was de facto Police Chief Imad Al-Amsi”. Another Ma’an report said later that “Israel is targeting the Hamas leadership”, and added that “Confirmed casualties include Commander of the de facto Government Police Tawfiq Jabir, Governor of the Al-Wusta (central) Districts Ahmad Abu Aashur and Commander of Security and Protection Services in the de facto government police Ismail Al-Ja’bari”.
In addition, Haaretz says, “At least two people were killed and 30 wounded from an attack in Khan Younis, a refugee camp in the south of Gaza”.
Haaretz said that “Egypt has boosted the security along its border with Gaza, officials said Friday, in anticipation of an imminent Israel Defense Forces operation within the territory, fearing an Israeli incursion would result in a breach of the border. In January, Hamas militants frustrated over the tightened Israeli closure of Gaza blew holes in the border partition, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to stream into Egypt unchecked for ten days and stock up on food and other goods made scarce by the blockade. Egyptian officials told Israel Radio, however, that Egypt is pressing on with efforts to prevent the escalation of violence in the region. The officials said that representatives of Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman have approached senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar in the Gaza Strip and presented him with Egypt’s concerns”.
The JPost article also reports that “Twenty-five mortar shells have been fired into Israel since Thursday night”, and that — despite those attacks — a 35-year-old Palestinian who was wounded by a Kassam rocket attack from Gaza towards Israel was evacuated on Friday through the Erez crossing to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital in serious condition, after initial treatement in a Gazan hospital. This JPost report can be read in full here .
Two Palestinian girls were also killed on Friday in Gaza by a Palestinian rocket attack that fell short.
According to the Haaretz story: “Reportedly, a ‘limited operation’ will begin within days that will combine an air attack with some ground operations against Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. The cabinet has given the go-ahead for an operation of a few days’ duration with clearly defined goals”.
YNet , relying in part on Reuters, adds that “Israeli military have confirmed the attack, which followed a decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet to widen reprisals for cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel”. This YNet report is posted here.
The AP report says that “the number of simultaneous attacks was unprecedented … In one of the compounds, the bodies of more than a dozen uniformed security officers were seen lying on the ground. One officer, who had survived, raised his index finger in a show of Muslim faith and defiance [n.b., this act of “faith and defiance” is not only Muslim. But, for Muslims, it means one, as in “there is only one God”. This gesture was also used, if I am not mistaken, by the Jesus character in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1970s — but in that contect, it meant the “One Way”].
In an opinion article in YNet, Brigadier General (ret.) Dr. Yossi Ben Ari, the former intelligence chief of the IDF’s Central Command, wrote: “The required mid-term goal is to minimize the depth and extent of the rocket threat posed to the civilian population in the south (and today we can openly talk about areas closer to central Israel. If the Second Lebanon War paralyzed the Haifa Port, the next clash vis-à-vis the Palestinians will create a similar threat on the Ashdod Port.) However, those who fool themselves into thinking that a major operation involving many troops and aimed at retaking the Gaza Strip would bring this about, are making a grave mistake, while being highly deceptive; there is no point repeating the disasters that such operation would prompt. In order to undermine the Hamas regime in Gaza (and thwart the prospect of a West Bank Hamas takeover in the future,) we would do well to quickly take offensive initiative that includes, simultaneously, the following components:
* Recapture the Philadelphi Route, but this time around take over a kilometer-wide strip to be permanently held by Israel. This should be done even if it requires us to evict residents from Rafah neighborhoods, and even if we need to compensate them with new housing at an alternative site. Such permanent hold would significantly undermine Hamas’ ability to equip itself with arms both above and under ground. This is the only way to ‘dry it up’.
* A wide-scale renewal of targeted eliminations, aimed both at Hamas’ senior military command, and more importantly, the organization’s political leadership (that is, senior Hamas members) that stimulates and manages terror in the south. Did anyone forget the immense effect the assassination of Sheikh Yassin and his replacement Rantissi had on Hamas’ motivation for violence?
* Comprehensive and ongoing aerial assaults targeting all permanent and mobile terror infrastructures spotted in the area.
* We should treat this like a war. We must indeed be careful, as much as his possible, about not hurting civilians, yet we must adopt any possible sanction that would make it difficult for Hamas to successfully wage its struggle from within the population.
Adopting a wide offensive initiative could make the difference: It will certainly affect the way we view ourselves in the future, and no less importantly, the way our image is shaped in the eyes of our enemies and allies. Even if the IDF does not win immediately, Israel’s ability to dictate the terms has a chance to bring victory later”. This article can be viewed in full here.
According to another report in Haaretz, Israel’s State President Shimon Peres said in an interview with the London-based Saudi newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Awsat that “Israel has no intention of igniting a regional war. Peres told the London-based publication that Israel would undertake all necessary steps to put a halt to the firing of rockets, though he did qualify those statements by ruling out an Israeli re-entry into Gaza. The president refused to specify which tactics Israel would employ”. This report can be found here .
Peres also called, in the interview, for negotiations on the Saudi-launched “Arab Peace Initiative” that offered Israel full normalization of relations with Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in the June 1967 war.
Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar, who has long been a correspondent for Haaretz, and who strongly backs the “Arab Peace Initiative” told me in an interview a few months ago that the major problem with this intiative is its name. He said Israeli officials would like to have had a hand in shaping it, and would like to re-negotiate it now as more of a joint effort.
Yes, other figures from the Israeli left have told me, if it seems silly, it’s not (at least according to them) — Israelis cannot accept a peace plan that is called “Arab”. So, it should be re-named as an “Israeli” peace initiative … What about re-naming it, then, an Arab-Israeli [in alphabetical order], or Israeli-Arab plan?
But that’s another story — and today there are the massive IDF attacks on Gaza to contemplate.