Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Israel and Hamas in a dangerous game

Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - A second Gaza war in just over two years is, strictly speaking, not imminent; at least not until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to the country on Friday, following a trip to Germany and the Czech Republic. While neither side seems to want a full-scale collision (or so they say), violence is steadily rising, and the time between successive escalations is shrinking A public relations campaign is in full swing, and both sides are positioning for a vantage point in any blame game that would undoubtedly accompany a war. Israel's northern front is tense as well, and as the Jewish state faces unprecedented challenges following the Arab revolts practically everywhere around it, its leaders have to make fateful choices about the use of force.

On Thursday, an advanced anti-tank missile fired from the Gaza Strip destroyed an Israeli school bus, critically wounding a 16-year old boy and moderately injuring the driver. A greater tragedy was avoided only by chance, since the driver had already dropped off the rest of the passengers and the driver and boy were the only people left in the bus. Only a few minutes earlier, one report has it, a large group of children had disembarked at a nearby community.

Israel responded with over a dozen air and artillery strikes in Gaza that killed at least five people and wounded more than 40. One of the dead was reportedly a civilian in his fifties, while the other four were Hamas militants, including a commander. The injured included an unknown number of civilians. At the same time, militants in the Strip fired around 45 mortars and short-range missiles into Israel, one of which reportedly struck a house; no casualties were reported. In a twist, another missile was intercepted before it could hit the Israeli city of Ashkelon by the domestically-developed Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. This marked the first battle test of the new system, as well as, according to analysts, the first interception of a short-range rocket in "world history."

At 11 pm local time on Thursday, Hamas, whose armed wing claimed responsibility for the school bus attack, declared a unilateral ceasefire, but the Israeli air force continued to bomb smuggling tunnels and other targets throughout the night. Israeli experts estimated that the missile was fired from a distance of four to five kilometers, and that the militants who launched it aimed at a school bus with the full intention to commit a massacre and provoke the Jewish State. A senior defense official, quoted by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, claimed that Hamas aimed to establish a "balance of terror".

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that Israeli responses would continue "in order to make clear that things like this cannot continue". Netanyahu also vowed to take "all necessary action" as soon as he returns on Friday.

The violence comes in the wake of numerous other escalations in recent days and weeks. I outlined some of what now serves as context to the current round in two articles titled Jerusalem bomb seeds gathering conflict (Asia Times Online, March 24, 2011) and Fighting drowns out talking (Asia Times Online, March 23, 2011). It is a convoluted tale of several major terror attacks, including one in Jerusalem that broke a period of several years of relative calm; the interception of a ship carrying Iranian weapons, most likely for Gaza; rocket and mortar attacks from the Strip; Israeli retaliatory and pre-emptive strikes that killed dozens, including civilians; the abduction of a Gaza engineer in Ukraine; reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas; and increasing international pressure on Israel related to the Palestinian bid to achieve statehood some time this year.

The more recent developments are hardly any less diverse or difficult to interpret. On Tuesday, the Sudanese authorities accused Israel of conducting a mysterious air strike on a car in Sudan killed two people. According to most versions that have emerged so far, the dead were important arms smugglers, but there are conflicting reports of their identity and nationality. Some sources have it that both were Sudanese, perhaps working for Hamas, others claim that one was an "Arab national"; there is even speculation that one was Iranian.

According to a report in the Palestinian news agency Ma'an, "Palestinian security officials said that the target [Abdul-Latif Ashkar] in what has been alleged to be an Israeli strike on Sudan was the successor to assassinated Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh." Mabhouh was killed in Dubai last year in mysterious circumstances, and the Israeli Mossad is widely believed to be behind his assassination. He was allegedly a key figure in the Hamas arms smuggling network.

The Israeli intelligence analysis website Debka File, known for occasionally spreading wild rumors as well as legitimate intelligence leaks, speculates that the strike was a response to a plot to ship thousands of artillery shells containing mustard and nerve gas, obtained from the Libyan rebels, to Hamas and Hezbollah.

In the absence of similar reports, this information must be taken with a grain of salt, but it is indeed possible that the Libyan conflict is somehow related to this development. High-ranking American officials have also mentioned the presence of Hezbollah and other Islamic militants among the Libyan rebels. Many weapons from Libyan stockpiles are unaccounted for, and diverse groups including elements of al-Qaeda are vying to get hold of them.

Meanwhile, on Monday Israel indicted a Gaza engineer, Dirar Abu-Sisi, whom it reportedly abducted in Ukraine in February, accusing him of being a key figure in Hamas’s home-grown missile industry (“the father of missiles”). The indictment, much of which is classified, mentions that Abu-Sisi received his PhD from a Ukrainian military academy, and was mentored there by one of the leading experts on Soviet Scud missiles, from whom he “acquired extensive knowledge in missile development, control systems, propulsion and stabilization".

Abu-Sisi allegedly played a crucial role in improving the range and accuracy of Palestinian Qassam rockets, from six kilometers in 2002 to 22 kilometers in 2007. He also augmented the penetration capabilities of Palestinian anti-tank missiles, and planned further innovations such as a boost in the range of the Qassams and new mortars that could penetrate armor. After Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, he helped establish a Hamas "military academy".

Abu-Sisi and his family have insisted that he is innocent, that he was abducted in relation to the captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and that he was "framed" after the Israelis discovered he had nothing to do with that affair. Since much information on the case remains classified, and some analysts have speculated that the extraordinarily detailed indictment indicates that Israeli officials were nervous to justify the clandestine operation, it is hard to discard this argument completely. However, circumstantial evidence points against it; Israel is known to plan meticulously international operations that could hurt its ties to other countries, to cross-check all information carefully and to act only in cases where it perceives grave urgency.

In a separate development, the internal Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, announced that it had recently broken up several Hamas terror cells in Jerusalem and the West Bank. One of these was allegedly responsible for a mysterious pipe bomb hidden in a garbage bag that tore off the hand of a municipal worker earlier this year. According to the indictment, a member of the cell discarded the pipe bomb in the garbage after another member was arrested.

Other cells allegedly plotted to kidnap and murder Israeli soldiers. According to Ha'aretz:

Palestinian and Israeli security sources told Ha'aretz last month that Hamas militants in the West Bank have resumed their efforts to kill Israeli soldiers or civilians and abduct their bodies.

The sources said Hamas activists believe they cannot keep Israeli hostages out of the Shin Bet and Palestinian Authority's reach for long. So they plan to kill them, abduct and bury the bodies, then negotiate for returning them to Israel.

The Palestinian Authority and Israel have recently captured in the Ramallah region alone about five cells planning to kill Israelis and abduct their bodies.

Last Saturday, Israel conducted an air strike in Gaza that shattered a few days of calm. It killed Mohammed al-Dayah, a senior Hamas military commander, along with two other operatives, whom an Israeli spokesperson accused of "planning to kidnap Israelis over the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover." Another militant was gravely wounded.

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