The Israeli government struggled this week to find a way to end the barrage of Palestinian Kassam rocket attacks on the western Negev city of Sderot as beleaguered residents there staged a series of protests to compel the government to act.
Although there were reports that Defense Minister Amir Peretz intended to permit a massive Air Force operation against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in an effort to end the rocket fire, observers said at midweek that no final decision had been made.
"It’s very difficult for the Israeli side (particularly Peretz) to come up with an appropriate response," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "If too little force is used, the missiles keep coming. If too much is used, Israel is condemned" and the cycle of violence continues.He was referring to a series of incidents that resulted in the deaths of 20 innocent Palestinian civilians in recent days: eight on a Gaza beach June 9, nine in a missile attack June 13 and three in another missile strike on Tuesday, including two children, 5 and 7-year-old siblings.
The international community roundly condemned Israel after the beach tragedy, but four days later an Israeli investigation concluded that an errant artillery shell (which had originally been suspected in the deaths) was not to blame. It is now believed that an unexploded Israeli shell buried in the sand suddenly went off.
Mark Garlasco, a senior military analyst for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch who went to the Gaza beach a day after the explosion, said he met this week with Israeli investigators but is still uncertain as to what caused the deaths. "If we accept all of Israel’s arguments, we have to agree with them that it was an unexploded bomb," he told The Jewish Week. "But there is a lot more evidence to take into account."
Asked if his investigation had confirmed that Israeli artillery shells were aimed at a Palestinian Kassam launch site only 300 yards from the beach, Garlasco said he had "no reason to doubt" that. "It is important for us to remember that while what happened on the beach is tragic, [Israel] has specific guidelines that it employs to minimize civilian casualties," he said. "The militant Palestinians specifically target civilians."
In considering Israel’s next step, Steinberg questioned what Peretz meant when he spoke of using full force to end the rocket attacks.
"Peretz has made threats but if they are not delivered on, the credibility of future threats becomes weaker," he said. "In some ways, he is demonstrating his lack of experience in making grandiose threats. And what are the long term moves if he moves in ground forces and later pulls them out. Then what?"
Until now, Israel has largely confined its military response to targeting of members of the Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Brigades who have been primarily responsible for the Kassam rocket attacks. But Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, questioned whether the leaders of the governing Hamas Party would now be targeted.
"Hamas is tolerating these things," he said of the Kassam attacks. "As a legitimate government, their job is at least to control the Jihad people. So the only realistic option [Israel] is talking about is to pinpoint" the Hamas leadership for attack as well.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent such a signal Tuesday night when he told delegates at the 35th World Zionist Conference in Jerusalem that Israel was preparing to "take harsh measures, more harsh and more painful than the ones taken before."
"We will reach every place, we will reach every one, there will be no immunity to anyone involved in terrorism, regardless of what they do or who they belong to," he stressed.
Despite the tough talk, Shibley Telhami, who holds the Sadat chair at the University of Maryland, questioned whether such an assault would be launched.
"I see conflicting signals," he said. "That is a big strategic decision because it leads to other things. I would be surprised if such a decision was made based on what happened over the past couple of days."
Vice Premier Shimon Peres was also quoted as downplaying the Palestinian rocket attacks, saying it was "not a big deal."
"This hysteria over the Kassams must end," he reportedly said, adding that the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona had been repeatedly shelled for years. "Kassams, shmassams."
Eli Moyal, the mayor of Sderot, told Israel Radio that unless Peres apologized, he would be "persona non grata" in his city. He pointed out that residents of his city had staged a hunger strike, closed the city to all traffic for awhile Tuesday, and turned off lights throughout the city for an hour Tuesday night to "bring the feeling of the people to the ears of the prime minister."
Olmert in his Jerusalem speech said he heard the "pain, anxiety and uncertainty" of those in Sderot and other areas under attack, but he cautioned that Israel "cannot find a comprehensive, overall and permanent solution to instantly remove this threat, once and for all." It is up to the Palestinian Authority to stop the terror attacks and dismantle terrorist organizations, he added, at which point there would be no need for Israel to continue fighting.
"Regrettably," Olmert said, "I do not see this happening in the near future."
But there is a real question whether Hamas has the ability to curb those bent on firing Kassam rockets at Israel, according to Telhami.
"Prime Minister [Ismail] Haniyeh is obviously not in control of the military wing of Hamas," he said. "He gave instructions not to continue [Kassam attacks]. It is not in his interest to continue them."
"Palestinian security forces are not in control in Gaza now and so the security environment is not under the control of any party at the moment," Telhami added.
Asked about internal fighting between supporters of Hamas and those of Fatah, the former ruling party that has never fully accepted Hamas’ electoral victory last January, Telhami said the strife would continue but that there would not be an all-out civil war "because neither side wants it."
"Palestinian society is not mobilized along civil conflict lines," he explained. "You do not have a societal divide, only an organizational divide."
One of the reasons for the Palestinian shelling of Sderot and other western Israeli areas is the "general disintegration within the Palestinian political scene, as well as an outgrowth of the principle struggle between Fatah and Hamas," according to Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
The "disintegration" Lasensky referred to was evidenced this week when 900 Palestinian civil service workers who earn about $330 a week lined up to receive $300 in cash brought into Gaza in suitcases by Hamas officials. It was the first money these workers had received in nearly four months because of the embargo on international aid imposed after Hamas assumed control of the government in March.
Alon Ben-Meir of the World Policy Institute in Manhattan said he understands that Israeli leaders are "on the verge of making a decision in which they will declare that Hamas is the responsible party."
"Effectively immediately, they would be targeted," he said. "They would be said to be complicit in the terrorism. … I would give things another week or two [to play out] and then we will see some changes: for better or for worse. But the situation will not stay the same."