It took 500 days, but Palestinian terrorists have now graduated from rocks to rockets in a further escalation of violence that has claimed nearly 1,100 lives.
Ignoring weeks of pleas from Israeli leaders not to fire homemade Kassam-2 rockets, Palestinians fired two of them Sunday from the Gaza Strip into Israel, where they fell harmlessly in open fields near a kibbutz and a moshav. Three rocket launchers were found and demolished by Israeli tank fire that apparently destroyed the third rocket. They had all been on timers, allowing their owners time to flee.
There was speculation that the rockets — which pack 20-pounds of explosives and have a range of about seven miles, capable of reaching Ben-Gurion International Airport — may have been aimed at the Negev ranch of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Described as “extremely primitive,” the Kassam-2 rockets are loose cannons, literally, in that they have poor accuracy but an estimated range of five miles, and could wreak havoc on Israeli settlements or other civilian targets. The U.S. called the introduction of these rockets “deeply disturbing” and urged the Palestinians to cease using them. And Israel has warned that their use will step up its response.
But the next day, there were reports that one or more Kassam-2 rockets had been fired from the West Bank at an Israeli military command center, the Horon Camp command base of the IDF’s Samaria Regiment. But the missile or missiles exploded upon launch, apparently killing the crew. Palestinian officials denied the report.
The presence of Kassam-2 rockets in the West Bank — Israel knew they were in the Gaza Strip — was not known until last week, when a military roadblock manned by Israeli reservists inspected a truck laden with vegetables and discovered eight Kassam-2 rockets and launchers concealed under the load.
Although he declined to spell out what Israel’s response would be should one of those rockets land in an Israeli city, Gold said simply: “The rules of the calibration would change entirely.”
Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, here for talks with Bush administration officials, told The Jewish Week that the rockets represent “a new situation, totally.
“This is a significant upgrading of the whole thing,” he said during a meeting with the press here Feb. 8, referring to 16 months of Palestinian violence. He said the rockets were being transported from Nablus to Jenin and intended for deployment “along the Green Line [Israel’s 1967 border], and from there to hit major cities. … No one will keep quiet. We will do what we will do.
“No one will prevent me from taking measures to guarantee the security of my people, my country, our kids,” Ben-Eliezer added. “The alternative is to keep quiet and by the end of the day to find another 20 innocent people killed.”
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said the “Palestinians’ readiness to fire these rockets indicates they are determined to move along the road of escalation.” He added that although the Kassam-2 rocket is associated with Hamas, “it is extremely doubtful the Palestinians could have a manufacturing line of these rockets without the knowledge or approval of Palestinian security personnel.”
Israel responded to the rocket attack from Gaza with three massive bombing raids in Gaza. On Wednesday, in response to overnight firing of mortar rounds against the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai, a large contingent of Israeli armor and infantry entered three Gaza Strip towns. Ephraim Sneh, a member of the security cabinet, was quoted as saying that the objective of the mission was “to locate Kassam rocket manufacture and launch sites. If you locate them, you destroy them.”
The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that after several hours it had pulled out of two of the towns but remained in Beit Hanoun near Gaza’s northern border with Israel. It called the town a “Hamas bastion where many terrorist attacks, including the firing of mortar bombs,” were planned and executed.
During the military operation, four Palestinian policemen were killed.
Just a day earlier, Ben-Eliezer, who returned to Israel last weekend, warned that if more rockets were fired, Israel might set up security strips in the West Bank and Gaza to act as a buffer zone, similar to the security belt it had once maintained in southern Lebanon.
“The Kassam is something that crosses all our red lines, and we are saying this because of the range of the rocket,” he told reporters. “All of our preparedness today focuses on taking over areas [in the West Bank and Gaza], with the aim of moving back the range of the missiles.”
He added that the presence of Israeli troops in the security zones would not be permanent and would end once “it becomes clear that there is no longer any danger.”
Meanwhile, Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, called Tuesday for the erection of a “physical divider” between Israel and the West Bank in an effort to thwart terrorists. He said that although the security fence along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip has effectively impeded terrorist infiltration, terrorists have “no problem” crossing the Green Line.
Shmuel Sisso, the former Israeli consul general in New York, said he still looks to Arafat to stop the attacks.
“The time to prevent the attacks is when they are getting ready for their mission, when they are training and putting together their bombs,” he said. “Once the bomb is under his shirt and he is out of the territories, it is very difficult to stop him.”
The latest military action comes at a time when Avraham Burg, the Knesset speaker, said he is making plans to address the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah in a “couple of weeks.
“I will tell them that we want peace and security and that we respect you but that you must respect us,” he said in a phone interview.
Burg said he planned to tell them that they must abandon any hope that the more than 3 million Palestinian refugees will be permitted to return to their former homes in Israel, and that the future status of Jerusalem should be tabled for a later date. In addition, he said he is prepared to say that “ we will not accept you as true partners if incitement [against Israelis] continues” in the media, schools and elsewhere.
“I have no doubt that they will listen to me,” he said. “Last week, four kids from Ramallah brought me 7,000 signatures of people asking me to come.”
Burg said he would be making the trip “to break the viciousness and give us a chance to go back to sanity because we are now insane. … We will never solve our problems by terror and weapons. The only way is to talk to each other and come to an agreement.”
He said that in less than three years the Palestinians will comprise 51 percent of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and that Israel would have to remove a “substantial” number of settlements to have a two-state solution.
“By the end of the day, you cannot have both the greater land of Israel and a Jewish majority,” Burg explained. “As painful as it is to give up the land, [it is necessary] to preserve the majority and Jewish character of the State of Israel.”
Shibley Telhami, who holds the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland, said he applauded Burg for trying to “break the deadlock.
“He is a prominent leader and that is a very important role he is playing,” he said. “We need people of that order. Deadlocks can be broken if we have bold leadership.”
Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations said he was not sure how far Burg could get in talks with the Palestinians, “but if he can work out a cease-fire, how can anybody criticize that?”
Meanwhile, the latest suicide mission occurred Sunday when two Palestinian gunmen opened fire near the IDF Southern Command headquarters in the center of Beersheba’s Old City, killing two female soldiers and wounding four others before being shot dead by other soldiers. One of them had explosives strapped to his body but was killed before he had a chance to detonate them.
At mid-week, one of the injured soldiers, Hila Lustig, 20, was listed in critical condition at Soroka Medical Center of the Negev, according to Mona Abramson, executive director of the hospital’s American Friends group in New York.
Another injured soldier, Orly Zino, 19, was undergoing plastic surgery for four bullet wounds that penetrated her legs. Her father, Yaakov, said by phone from the hospital that he lives about 80 feet from the scene and heard the shooting, which he said sounded as though it lasted about 20 minutes. He said he did not learn Orly had been shot until his 17-year-old daughter came running home from school about an hour later to say someone had called her cell phone with the news.
He added that Lustig, who was standing between Orly and one of the gunmen, saved his daughter’s life by not moving when the bullets were pumped into her stomach.
“She didn’t budge so that Orly wouldn’t be hurt,” Zino said he told Lustig’s mother. “She stood and took it all. She was intent on protecting Orly.”
Zino, who said the hospital’s fast and efficient care of his daughter helped ease his concern about her, said he did not believe fences were the way to halt future attacks.
“Those who don’t want to live with us should be helped to leave,” he said simply.
A story in the Christian Science Monitor last week reported that Israeli advocates of mass expulsion of Palestinians from the territories was gaining popularity in Israel as terror attacks increase. Leading the drive is Tourism Minister Benny Elon, who said he advocates a transfer of Palestinians. His right-wing party, Moledet, last week launched a campaign to encourage such a move, putting up billboards in Tel Aviv saying, “Only transfer will bring peace.”