Despite vows of revenge by Hamas terrorists for the capture Monday of one of its founders, Israeli analysts insist that Wednesday’s suicide bombing aboard a bus in Haifa that killed 15 and injured more than 40 had no bearing on the arrest.
"It’s part of the ongoing, never-ending campaign by radical elements of the Palestinian community to continue using suicide bombings" against Israeli civilians, said Hirsh Goodman, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Ranaan Gissen, Prime Minister Ariel Sharonís spokesman, pointed out that since the beginning of the year Israeli authorities have thwarted 60 planned suicide bombings. The last successful attack was a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Jan. 5 that killed 23.
There were also 57 foiled terrorist attacks last month alone, including an attempt to plant a bomb along the route of Sharon’s convoy and to attack a synagogue.
"We’re facing a major terrorist campaign," Gissen told Fox News. "This is a war imposed on us and we’re determined to win it."
The bombing of bus 37 occurred at 2:17 p.m. near the Carmel Center as the bus headed towards the University of Haifa. The explosion was so powerful that it ripped the roof off the bus and hurled it a block away. Body parts were strewn along the roadway, passersby were injured, buildings and cars in the area were damaged and palm trees were felled.
"I saw people dying, being burned to death," one distraught witness told Israel’s Channel One television.
Goodman stressed in an interview with The Jewish Week that because Israel Defense Forces are deployed in all of the territories, they have developed good intelligence that has allowed them to prevent most bombing attempts.
"This is just the one that got through," he said. "I wouldn’t attach any connection [to the capture of Mohammed Taha]; it was inevitable."
Change In Gaza Strategy
Taha was nabbed during a bloody nighttime raid in the El-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. He was the first Hamas leader arrested by Israel in 29 months of Palestinian violence. In the past, Israeli forces have concentrated on rank-and-file militants and the security forces of the Palestinian Authority.
The change in strategy came following two weeks of Israeli military assaults against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced that the stepped-up action was to keep Hamas off balance.
"We want to arrive at a situation where the terror organizations invest more and more [effort] defending themselves," he said.
But the United States and Britain criticized the manner in which Taha was caught because a pregnant woman and a 13-year-old boy were among the casualties of the raid. And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz questioned the effectiveness of the military operations in the Gaza Strip, charging that they were "carried out with reckless abandon. Care not to harm innocent bystander … has disappeared."
It pointed out that of the 72 Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip and West Bank last month, 25 were civilians: including three children under the age of 10.
But Israel believes such military forays are necessary in a bid to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure and prevent it from continuing to fire mortars and Kassam rockets into southern Israel. Just hours after Monday’s raid, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip fired two Kassam rockets into Israel, one landing at a highway junction near Sharon’s ranch and the other falling in the town of Sderot. There were no injuries but frayed nerves.
"Every single time the IDF operations are carried out in Gaza, we in Sderot turn into targets for the Palestinians," a resident complained on Israel Radio. "All the residents are scared already, daily life does not take its normal course; we’re all hurt by this."
Some observers pointed out that Hamas is well entrenched in the Gaza Strip (where 1 million Palestinians live in the most densely packed area of the earth) and that civilian casualties are virtually inevitable and only increase Hamas’ popular support. But Shmuel Bar, a senior fellow at the Herzliya-based Institute of Policy and Strategy and a 27-year veteran of the Israeli intelligence community, insisted that Israel has little choice but to go after Hamas.
"We can’t allow Sderot to become a target like Kiryat Shemona was," he said of the northern Israeli town.
Since the first Katyusha rockets were fired on that town by Hezbollah terrorists from southern Lebanon in 1968, 36 residents have been killed, 372 wounded and 487 have suffered shell shock. In addition, 6,854 of the town’s 7,100 apartments were hit by the rockets, the last of which fell in 2000.
"You can shoot four or five Kassam rockets at a small town like Sderot and people there get into shelters a whole day," Bar pointed out. "You have whole towns in southern Israel that are paralyzed."
He stressed that Israel’s military action in the Gaza Strip is not a proactive initiative but purely defensive.
Asked about the death of the pregnant woman (killed when the wall of her home fell on her while Israeli forces blew up the house of a suspected terrorist next door) Bar said there was no way to foresee that tragedy.
"They didn’t have engineers on the spot," he said. "There are so many unknowns when you get into something like this. The more actions you are involved in, the more of a possibility for mistakes. … You can either act [on the intelligence information] you get by conducting a military operation or you can sit back and wait from them to get into Tel Aviv."
Although members of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization posted signs in Gaza calling upon Hamas to stop firing mortars and rockets at Israeli targets for fear of an Israeli response, the Palestinian Authority police made no effort to physically stop Hamas terrorists.
"They’re afraid of a civil war," said Ephraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "They just want to show the Americans and the rest of the world that they are against [mortar attacks]."
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the Israeli military operation in Gaza is also designed to prevent Hamas from seizing power once Arafat is gone.
"The last thing the IDF and government strategists want is for Hamas to inherit power when there is a vacuum," he said. "So a major campaign is underway to capture or kill the main Hamas leaders."
Asked about the arrest of Taha, said by Hamas to be strictly a political leader, Steinberg replied: "When you go higher up in the ranks, the difference between political and military leaders is hard to distinguish. And [the IDF] is going up the ranks, there is no question about it."
He added that Arafat a year ago fired the head of its security forces in the Gaza Strip, Mohammad Dahlan, who would have been "one of the few people strong enough to fight Hamas and end the missile attacks. But Arafat has chosen not to end them."
Batteries In Tel Aviv
These developments came as Israel this week deployed Patriot missile batteries in Tel Aviv and Haifa and authorities told Israelis to buy supplies for a sealed room in preparation for an American-led war on Iraq. These steps were not taken because Israel has any advanced word on when a war with Iraq will begin, officials stressed, but strictly as precautionary measures now that a war appears inevitable.
Although Israelis are prepared in the event Iraq should attack it with Scud missiles carrying chemical warheads, few Palestinians are said to have gas masks. Although the Palestinians blame Israel for not providing them, Steinberg noted that the Palestinian Authority continues to receive donations from the Europeans, Americans and the Arab League.
Last year alone, it received more than $1 billion from them. And at an international donors meeting in London last month, there was a promise to send another $700 million.
"The Palestinian Authority has the legal framework and resources to provide gas masks to its population if it wished to do so," said Steinberg. "No Palestinian official has raised this issue with Israelis. It’s all part of the part of their propaganda campaign to make Israelis look bad."
There was also much speculation in Israel about President George W. Bushís speech last week in which he spoke of trying to win support for an attack on Iraq and on his vision for a Palestinian state. Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University said Bush mentioned it now to promise the Europeans and Arab nations that are not supportive of the war that there will be positive results for the Palestinians once the war is over.
Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said it demonstrates that for Bush to "keep together a minimal coalition against Iraq, he is required to speak forthrightly about the Palestinian problem."