Israel mounted a major public relations and military offensive this week both to deny Palestinian charges that it was responsible for the Gaza beach explosion that killed eight civilians last Friday and to answer a barrage of Kassam rockets Hamas fired into southern Israel following the beach deaths.
But no sooner did Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz lift restraints on Israel’s military Tuesday than an Israeli Air Force strike brought new casualties. Eight civilians were killed after an Israeli missile fired at a van carrying Palestinian terrorists and sophisticated Katyusha rockets set the van ablaze. The van stopped and some of the terrorists inside began removing the rockets with the help of bystanders.
Minutes later, another Israeli missile was fired at the van.
In all, 10 people died, including two of the terrorists, three medical personnel who had responded to the attack and two children who had come to watch. There were reports that some of the rockets being unloaded from the van may have exploded in the second missile attack, intensifying the blast.
Raphael Israeli, a professor of Chinese history and Islamic civilizations at the Hebrew University, said Israel fired the second missile because the Katyusha rockets were not damaged in the first attack. The Israeli military believed the Katyushas (which are far more accurate that the primitive Kassam rockets that have killed eight Israelis since June 2004, are much more lethal and have a longer range) were about to be fired into Israel. "After the order was given to shoot the second missile, civilians ran in to help evacuate those who were in the van but the Israeli pilot saw that too late [to stop the missile]," Israeli said. "It was a terrible mistake for which Israel must offer an apology."
Palestinian Clashes ContinueEven as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensified, Palestinians themselves were on the brink of internecine warfare as clashes continued between members of the Hamas dominated government and supporters of Fatah, the party that had ruled until Hamas’ election last January.
Fatah supporters Monday shot their way into the Palestinian cabinet building in Ramallah and set fire to archives on the third floor. At the same time, other Fatah supporters stormed the nearby building of the Palestinian Legislative Council, burned a ground floor office and threw computers and furniture from the windows. A member of parliament was briefly abducted. More than 20 people, primarily gunmen from both sides, have been killed in the last two months, including a senior Hamas member Wednesday.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit organization, issued a report Tuesday that warned the "Israeli-Palestinian situation is heading towards catastrophic breakdown.
"Palestinians are inching towards civil war, Israelis and Palestinians are perilously close to resuming all-out hostilities, and the international community is depriving the Palestinian Authority of vital assistance," it said. "Starved of resources, Hamas may well fail, but it would not go quietly, and the resulting chaos and violence would make it hard to chalk up its failure as anybody’s success."
Even as Israel held a major press conference Tuesday to announce that its own military investigators had concluded that Israeli artillery shells were not responsible for the Gaza beach tragedy, Human Rights Watch said its own investigation raises doubts about that assertion.
"We can’t say definitely what happened, but there are question marks about the Israeli investigation," said Lucy Mair, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Israel. "We want an independent investigation. It could be done by Israel, and it would be beneficial if it included some international experts."
Mair said her team in Gaza refutes Israel’s claim that Hamas cleaned up the scene of the explosion to conceal evidence that would exonerate Israel. She said a Palestinian bomb squad "cordoned off the area and then picked up evidence that they shared with our team." The evidence was shrapnel: a piece of a 155 mm artillery shell of the type used by Israel.
Mair said the crater left by the explosion indicated that it came from above and not from a Palestinian landmine, as some had suggested. And she said doctors at Palestinian hospitals that treated the wounded said the injuries were consistent with wounds inflicted by artillery shells.
Although Israeli officials said they did not know what caused the explosion, they ruled out an errant Israeli artillery shell. They said shrapnel removed from one of the victims treated at an Israeli hospital was examined at the Technion in Haifa and found to be different from that used by Israel. They said they had accounted for all of the artillery shells fired that day and that photographs of the scene showed a crater that was inconsistent with those left by artillery shells.
Israeli officials said they plan to continue publicizing their findings, but Peretz did not rule out allowing outside experts to review them.
In its report, the International Crisis Group said the plan of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to hold a referendum July 26 to allow the Palestinian people to decide whether they favor the two-state solution Hamas opposes "carries a serious risk of further polarization and violence."
"Today, the situation is but one tragic step; the assassination of a senior Fatah or Hamas leader, for example: from all-out chaos," it said. Edward Abbington, an adviser to Abbas, said he found the clashes between Palestinians "very worrisome."
"There has been a strong feeling against intra-Palestinian conflict for a long time," he said by phone from Washington. "I wonder if a threshold is being crossed here because of the clashes going on. I wonder if we … may see it get more violent."
If that happened, Abbington said, "inevitably it is going to spill over and affect Israel and its security interests in a way that no one understands now. If there is a breakdown of law and order, it may become like Somalia in Gaza. How will Israel react to that and what if there is widespread humanitarian suffering and a collapse of the health and educational systems?
"The economy is already shot to hell. Sixty-six percent of the people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are living below the poverty level and unemployment is between 40 and 50 percent. The Palestinian economy is $4.5 billion and if payments to [165,000] Palestinian civil servants are taken out of the economy for 12 months, it would take out 35 to 40 percent of the economy. No economy can withstand that kind of a shock."
Civil Servants ‘Hungry’
Most civil servants have not been paid in three months. Dozens of them stormed a Palestinian parliamentary session in Ramallah Wednesday, shouting "We are hungry" and demanding to be paid. The parliamentary speaker fled the building as security personnel struggled to confine the protestors to the rear of the hall.
Although many Palestinians favor the referendum, some question Abbas’ wisdom in announcing it just one day after the beach deaths.
"The fact that it came after the Israeli aggression of the people on the beach, which makes people very angry, makes people believe that it isn’t worth it," said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based Palestinian analyst. "Many Palestinians think that the referendum will not happen, that problems will emerge. But they also think that [Abbas] can’t turn back. It’s a one-way street. He must stick to his word."
An aide to Abbas, Yasser Abed Rabo, said that leaving things to be solved by Hamas and the Israelis would only end in "catastrophe." The referendum, he said, would show that "the Palestinian people voted for Hamas in the elections for domestic reasons and not the political program of Hamas."
"If we lose more time," he added, "the Palestinian people will be crushed between the unilateralism of Olmert and the extremism of Hamas."
Rabo said Hamas used the beach tragedy to end its self-imposed cease-fire against Israel not to retaliate against Israel but to "threaten us that if we wanted to go on with the referendum, they will undermine the truce."
Abbington said that should internal Palestinian warfare lead to a breakdown of governmental rule in the Gaza Strip, Israel would have to return to the Gaza Strip to fill the void.
"Under the Geneva covenant, Israel is the occupying power and there would be a lot of international pressure" for it to act, he said.
But Aryeh Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said that although he is not an expert on international law, "it does not make sense that a country that is not occupying anything (we got out of Gaza [last summer] partly to not be responsible for what is going on there)" would now be held responsible.
Abbington insisted, however, that the international community "doesn’t buy that, because Israel has Gaza surrounded except for a tiny opening through Rafa [to Egypt]. It controls the sea and airspace, and this still amounts to an occupation."
Abel Rahman Zaidan, a Palestinian minister in the Hamas government, discounted the thought of an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza should the conflict with Hamas intensify, saying: "Israel isn’t capable of doing such a thing; they will pay a high price."
"It’s going to be limited, and there is going to be lots activity from the Palestinian side," he said of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. "In one sense this will bring [Palestinian] people together instead of fighting each other, and Israel is not going to gain anything from such a move. … People are relieved that Hamas is resuming its military activity because they were bitter about what happened [on the beach], and they believed that somebody had to take action."
But Said Zeedani, director-general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights in Ramallah, said he believes the renewed Hamas-Israeli fighting will be short lived.
"The interest of both parties is to contain these events," he said. "Israel has no interest in a large-scale invasion of Gaza. … Hamas has to consolidate its power, it wants to break the political siege and reach an agreement with [Abbas]. It needs to catch its breath. Firing Qassams doesn’t serve its interests. It has maintained the calm for 17 months, and there is no reason to shift its attitude."
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.