Fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip intensified this week, claiming the lives of three Israeli soldiers and about 20 Palestinians, while Egyptian troops scoured the Sinai for more terrorists seeking to attack Israelis on Passover vacation.
Despite a high security alert and warnings of a possible terrorist attack in the Sinai, “most Israelis who are used to going to the Sinai for their Passover vacation are still crossing the border,” said Yitzchak Reiter, former chair of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “One minister said Israel should prevent them from going. This is an indication of the seriousness of the situation.”
Meanwhile, a London newspaper reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered the Palestinians 64 percent of the West Bank as part of a peace agreement, as well as several options for dealing with the fate of Jerusalem. One would allow Israel to control East Jerusalem and its holy sites and permit Palestinians to visit them.
But this is only one of many reports to emerge from closed door sessions taking place between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who met twice in the last week ahead of Abbas’ trip to the White House next week, according to Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
“It’s still possible that between now and January when Bush leaves office that they will pull a rabbit out of a hat and say they have an historic Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement,” he said. “Should that happen, there will be immediate Israeli elections.”
Israeli polls show that the likely winner of such an election would be Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party. He told a press conference Wednesday arranged by The Israel Project that he strongly opposed Israel giving additional land to the Palestinians because it would quickly become a base from which Iran would stage attacks against Israel. He cited recent developments in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip following Israel’s withdrawal from those areas as proof of his assertion.
“There is a tremendous increase in the power of Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah [in Lebanon] and Hamas [in Gaza],” he said. “The international guarantees to stop the flow of arms in Lebanon did nothing. There are now 40,000 rockets aimed at every part of Israel. And in the south there is a tremendous increase [in rocket firings into Israel] on the part of Hamas.”
Rather than pursue a peace agreement with Abbas, Netanyahu said Israel should help the Palestinians economically.
“Our program is to create stability and progress in Palestinian society to deprive Hamas of a recruiting ground and to create hope,” he said. “What I suggest is putting the horse before the cart. We have seen economic peace work elsewhere. Thousand of jobs will be created for the Palestinians and wages will rise. …
“In many ways the international community is fixated on a political settlement and the belief that peace will bring prosperity. I believe prosperity will create the conditions for peace. I have seen it again and again. There are plenty of ways to improve Palestinian lives and to make a political solution likely. I am working on several concrete projects that I hope will be taken up even before we take office.”
Steinberg said Netanyahu’s approach offers a different alternative to that of “the American peace proposal that is now on the table and that nobody thinks is really going to work.”
“Instead of just criticizing, he has invented his own approach that he does not believe in because the issues are not one of economics but ideology,” he said. “Nevertheless, it gives people something to hold onto. It will sell well even if there is no likelihood it will make a difference.”
The three Israeli soldiers killed in the Gaza Strip were ambushed Wednesday as they entered the strip to stop several armed Palestinian terrorists who were moving towards the border. Two other Israeli soldiers were injured.
An army official said “we are thwarting attempts to carry out attacks along the border fence on a daily basis, and in most cases this involves complex, fierce fighting with high risk for the soldiers. … We must carry out these activities inside Gaza and along the fence to prevent the terrorists from reaching Israeli communities. The soldiers know that they are the only buffer between the terror organizations and the citizens of Israel.”
The latest round of fighting was triggered last week when Palestinian terrorists crossed over the Gaza border and shot and killed two Israeli employees at an Israeli fuel terminal that had earlier filled fuel trucks bound for the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military closed the fuel depot for several days to figure out ways to better protect it. In the meantime, according to media reports, the United Nations reported that Gaza’s main fuel distributor was withholding 1 million liters of fuel from Gaza’s population, despite reports of a fuel crisis there.
“Israel cannot pump more fuel because there is no place to store it,” a UN official said. “This is a logjam.”
Netanyahu told reporters that the clock continues ticking down to the time when Iran will have developed a nuclear bomb and he called on the international community to strengthen economic sanctions against Iran to stop that effort.
“I said last year that the year was 1938 and that Iran was Germany,” he said. “If that was the case, it is now 1939. Our intelligence said last year that Iran would acquire the bomb in three years. It will now be in two years. … The world will change for the worst if we don’t stop it.”