An Israeli air raid on a Hamas training camp in the Gaza Strip Monday night that killed 15 terrorists and injured 30 has prompted Hamas to consider retaliating against Israeli or Jewish interests abroad, according to an Israeli expert on Arab groups.
“There is now a debate inside Hamas whether to restrict its actions here [Israel] or whether to broaden the war to other places in the world, targeting Israeli businesses like El Al Airlines or Israeli embassies,” said Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
He pointed out that Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists “did not hesitate to broaden the war” by blowing up the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s in retaliation for Israeli attacks on its training camp and one of its leaders.
“Hamas has not done this, but since Israel has for the first time targeted its infrastructure, it might adopt Hezbollah’s thinking, especially since the two are now cooperating,” said Kedar, who served for 25 years in Israel’s military intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena.
Concerned that the voices advocating a wider war might rise, the Israeli government deliberately did not attack Hamas’ headquarters in Damascus, Syria, Kedar said. The government feared that such an attack would only fuel those calling for a broader war.
“If we attacked Hamas abroad, they might then attack us,” he explained. “We know where the Hamas offices are in Damascus and we blame Syria for hosting them. I’m sure that if Israel wants, it could attack those targets inside Damascus.”
Israeli officials announced that the attack on the Hamas training camp was in retaliation for the Hamas bombing last week of two Israeli buses in Beersheva that killed 16 Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the security establishment announced in the wake of those attacks that the Israeli military would increase its assassination of Hamas terrorists.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, compared the Israeli attack on the Hamas training camp to American attacks on al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
“Everybody at the site was part of the Hamas organization,” he said. “These are the people who are involved in terrorist attacks — suicide bombings, the building of [weapons’ smuggling] tunnels or attacking Israelis on the road,” Steinberg explained.
Although such a training camp has never been attacked before, it has often been discussed because pictures of Hamas members training have been broadcast on Palestinian television and rebroadcast on Israel television.
“A lot of the time they are shown marching or they are in black pajamas learning how to use weapons,” Steinberg noted. “And the [Israeli] public asks how come we do not attack them.”
Until now, Kedar noted, Israel has confined its attacks to Hamas leaders or to those who are on the way to committing a terrorist attack.
After the midnight raid was carried out, the Hamas leadership at first claimed that the air strike was against children at a summer camp. But Kedar said that after pictures were televised showing that all of those killed and injured were wearing uniforms of the Iz a-Din al-Qassam, Hamas’ military wing, and that they were all 18 to 26-years-old, Hamas leaders dropped that pretext.
Kedar noted that both Israel and the United States have been demanding that the Palestinian Authority make sure that such training camps not exist.
“We expect the PA to prevent such camps and not allow training with explosives,” Kedar said, noting that last week there was a training accident with explosives at that same camp. “The training camp was a means for the Hamas militia to become a regular army, and Israel acted to prevent that from happening. If and when it became a regular army, you could not dismantle and disperse them [as easily].”
If Hamas leaders in Damascus actually did flee fearing an Israeli attack following the Beersheba bus bombings, Kedar said they may have been prompted to leave by the Syrian government as a way to calm down tensions. He noted that Syrian President Bashar Assad is once again telling visitors that he wants to resume peace talks with Israel, a sign that he wants to forestall a feared Israeli attack.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom brushed aside such negotiations this week. He reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Assad is reacting to intense international pressure to seal his border with Iraq to prevent terrorists from entering, to pull his troops out of Lebanon and to close terrorist offices in Damascus. And Shalom said there would be no talks until Syria changes its policies and stops supporting terrorist organizations.
In another development, the former European Union envoy to the Middle East, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, said Tuesday that Europe must take a stronger role in Middle East peacemaking because the United States is no longer taking an active role.
“Europe must get more involved, and I am convinced it will do so and the coming months will demonstrate Europe’s commitment to end this dilemma of violence,” he was quoted as saying.
And Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs made a similar suggestion Tuesday because he said the U.S. “has very much withdrawn” from attempts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He suggested also that the U.S. has a one-sided, pro-Israel stance that “discredits it in the eyes of the Arabs.”
But Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said a more active role by the EU “cannot change fundamental facts on the ground which limit American action,” namely the lack of a Palestinian negotiating partner.
“The U.S. is not active because there is nobody to work with and the inclusion of the EU will not change that fact,” he said.