Saturday, January 05, 2008

It’s only the beginning

Alex Fishman

A Katyusha rocket lands in the southern town of Ashkelon, the Air Force bombs targets in the Gaza Strip, and we stopped counting the Qassams a long time ago. Every week, another “red line” is crossed and without feeling it we are already deep inside an intensive military confrontation in the Strip.
By the time the “big” ground operation rolls around it will no longer be perceived as a dramatic move, but rather, a natural phase in the escalation. Both sides are getting used to the escalation and treat it as if it was predestined. The space between one phase of escalation and another becomes shorter. Last month, the IDF killed about 60 Palestinians, most of them armed, yet this week alone almost 30 Palestinians have already been killed.

IDF operations in Gaza are becoming more complex, longer, and deeper. Who can remember that only two months ago, Israeli officials were debating whether to target Hamas posts along the border for fear Hamas will be drawn into the cycle of Qassam rocket launchers. Today, the IDF fires at Hamas without any limitation, also within Gaza Strip towns.

Israeli officials interpret the firing of the Katyusha on Ashkelon as a “sign of distress”: Hamas is doing everything in its power to produce success stories, even symbolic ones. Hitting Ashkelon, as opposed to hitting Sderot, is considered a success story with a national message, because the town was established on the ruins of a Palestinian village. Refugees from that village, who reside in Gaza Strip refugee camps, understand this message as follows: We are going back to your village – if not physically, then through the rocket. Next, we will go back to villages even deeper inside Israel.

At this time, Hamas is unable to fire a heavy and sustained rocket barrage at Ashkelon. Yet it enlisted the help of Islamic Jihad in order to undertake a one-time ostentatious effort. Currently there are dozens of Grad rockets in the Strip. It’s an old rocket smuggled into Gaza from the Sinai desert about two years ago. The rockets were smuggled in without their original launchers or their balancing wings, yet they were upgraded somewhat in the Strip.

Gaza siege taking its toll

Hamas and Jihad already attempted to fire these rockets into Israel five times, but without much success. The third one landed near a small southern community, while the fourth one apparently landed near Ariel Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch. The fifth rocket was fired Thursday from an improvised launcher in a Gaza neighborhood, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from where it landed.

The prevailing assessment is that by springtime, April or May, Hamas will feel well prepared for coping with an Israeli offensive. By that time it will complete its fortifications and receive new arms. Those weapons apparently include large quantities of self-made Qassam rockets with a range of 15 kilometers and even more (roughly 10 miles) that would enable Hamas to fire sustained barrages at Ashkelon and dozens of other communities within Israel.

Yet until we reach this point, the many losses, which are growing, along with the economic, psychological, and moral pressure created by the siege require Hamas to produce success stories. In addition, the internal fighting with other factions in the Strip does not contribute to Hamas’ popularity and its hold on Gaza. Therefore, the organization will be looking for success, even at the cost of painful Israeli retaliation.

This is why the IDF Southern Command’s alert in the face of a potential terror attack must be at its peak. It could be an attack undertaken via a tunnel, or any other way that would enable the terrorists to cross the border fence and infiltrate an Israeli community or military base in order to murder or abduct civilians and soldiers. Any attack that can demonstrate a sense of symbolic victory is on the agenda at this time. The rocket fired at Ashkelon is only the beginning.


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