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April 30, 2007 - Vol. 8, Issue 25

TO INVADE OR NOT TO INVADE; EXIT STRATEGY; ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL; SETTLER TRANSGRESSIONS BURDEN IDF;

TO INVADE OR NOT TO INVADE: That was the question facing the Israeli government in the wake of Tuesday's rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Hamas officials claimed that 28 Kassam rockets and 61 mortar shells were fired, but only seven shells and three Kassam rockets were found in Israel, all of which landed in open areas. This was the first such attack by Hamas in five months, and it came while Israelis where celebrating Independence Day.

IDF Southern Operations Commander Major General Yoav Galant reportedly pushed for a strong military response inside the Gaza Strip, while Israel's General Security Service opposed such an operation, noting that the rocket fire is related to Hamas' internal battles. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is said to have opposed large-scale operations that would entail seizing territory in the Gaza Strip. During a meeting of Israel's top military and political officials on Wednesday, the IDF was reportedly instructed to continue to act against rocket launchers and was given approval for more extensive "pinpoint" action (i.e. targeted killings; attacks on buildings, warehouses, and training grounds used by militias; activity just beyond the border to push shooters back; and operations to pressure the enemy and show that there is a cost to their actions). Senior political sources threatened that Hamas had become a legitimate target.

The discussion continued at yesterday's Cabinet meeting in which the IDF committed to presenting the political echelon with alternatives to a massive ground operation. In response to the suggestion that the IDF take over parts of the Gaza Strip and divide it into sections, Ashkenazi noted that Israel had tried this in the past and "this still did not stop the rocket fire at Israeli communities." Ashkenazi also said that "dealing with rocket fire by return fire (from artillery and aerial bombardments - Ma'ariv) will reduce the rocket fire, but not stop it."

Yediot Ahronoth's security affairs columnist Ron Ben-Yishai explained that those behind the attack had five goals: "to bring the Palestinians back into an active and intensive military confrontation with Israel" following the decline of rocket attacks in recent weeks; "to torpedo the Palestinian national unity government and particularly its effort to achieve overall calm in the confrontation with Israel; to undermine Arab initiatives to engage in diplomatic dialogue with Israel; to acquire additional bargaining chips in order to work out a massive prisoner swap deal; and finally, to humiliate Israel and undermine the morale of its citizens on Independence Day." Yishai believes that the "leaders of Hamas' radical wing and heads of the armed factions that cooperate with them. hope that an IDF invasion would force Hamas' moderate branch to join forces with Fatah loyalists and [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas to fight the IDF."

Thus, concludes Yishai, if Israel took the bait and initiated a major military operation, "Israel would be playing into the hands of the radical [elements within] Hamas and enable it to achieve its goals. On the other hand, should Israel restrain itself and refrain from powerfully responding to the offensive, it would be humiliated, sustain a difficult moral blow, and repeat the errors made in the face of Hezbollah's rise in Lebanon."(Ynet, 4/25/07; Ma'ariv 4/25 & 4/30/07; Yedioth Ahronoth, 4/25 & 4/26/07)

EXIT STRATEGY: Writing about Israel's military options, Ha'aretz's Amir Oren estimates that about 70,000 people bear arms in Gaza. "Less than half of them are organized within the competing Fatah and Hamas frameworks, which are somewhere between a militia and a gang. But in the event of an IDF incursion, they will all unite. The risk involved in letting the current situation continue is very great. The risk involved in an incursion into the entire Gaza Strip, and especially into Gaza City, is even greater." He notes that Gaza City, with 700,000 residents, "is the most populous city in greater Israel, larger than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem." To the notion that the IDF should be "clearing the outskirts of Gaza," Oren replies "Clear out what, exactly? What outskirts? Who will go in? How will they come out?"

Oren adds that the "problem of separating the terrorists from the rest of the population is further hampered by the fact that causing civilians to flee their homes can be considered a violation of international law. Ultimately, it would also have no benefit: The uprooted would build camps for the 2007 refugees alongside those of the 1948 refugees, and Israel would be responsible for them. No one wants a return of the military administration, of the economic burden and of the sight of women, old people and children thronging the aid distribution trucks of an American church or the UN agencies."

Oren explains that "no less important than the military preparations for an operation is the building of the diplomatic infrastructure for an exit from it. On Wednesday evening, on the lawn of the Defense Ministry, Defense Amir Peretz was the guest of honor at his own political funeral. Among the guests was U.S. Army Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, in uniform. As security coordinator, he will be charged with the task of helping to extricate the IDF from Gaza. He will be the one charged with leading the multinational force. The ranks above the Southern Command are deterred by the knowledge that without adequate preparation for the next exit from Gaza, the price of entering it will be too high..." (Ha'aretz, 4/27/07)

ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL: Briefing Israel's Cabinet yesterday, the deputy chief of the General Security Service reportedly termed the situation in the Palestinian Authority as "anarchy." Majdi Arabeed, head of the Voice of Freedom radio station in Gaza, seems to agree. He told Ha'aretz that "there is no law in Gaza," adding that "the police are afraid of the gunmen because if they try to arrest them, they will immediately be depicted as collaborating with Israel. In addition, the competition between the various forces of Fatah and Hamas has become destructive from their point of view, and their image is negative. Everyone stores up weapons at home to defend themselves. Even if the state prosecutor publishes an arrest order against a resident of Gaza, who is able to arrest him if he and his family are armed?"

63 Palestinians have been killed and some 400 injured over the past four months in clashes related to the chaos in the security situation, according to data released by the Ramallah Center for Human Rights. Most of the casualties were in the Gaza Strip, which - notes Ha'aretz's Avi Issacharoff - "is beginning to resemble the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. Tens of thousands of men armed with light weapons and RPGs do whatever they think fit; the Palestinian police are not effective and the courts are not functioning. In armed feuds between clans, the Palestinian security forces do not get involved at all."

Issacharoff quotes one Fatah activist saying that Hamas has "become like us," explaining that they "fight over everything: money, positions, ranks, who will be director general and who will be captain in the offices and the security mechanisms that they are responsible for. There is no longer one leader who decides everything. The authority of Khaled Meshal, the head of the political bureau, has been badly eroded since the Mecca agreement. Their message to the Palestinian people is not uniform; all of a sudden, they sound like a supermarket of different ideas, just like Fatah was at one stage: (Hamas co-founder) Mahmoud al-Zahar speaks about destroying Israel, while [Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh broadcasts a moderate message. The military wing does whatever it wants."

Writing in the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Omar Hilmi al-Ghoul connects intra-Palestinian fighting to the resignation letter presented by Palestinian Interior Minister Hani Qawasmi, who has been in office less than 40 days. Al-Ghoul laments that "ruin, loss, fragmentation and ignorance are the rulers of Gaza" and warns that "the greatest danger to [the Palestinian] enterprise and national cause is the internal danger. It is in the Trojan horse that spreads backwardness and ignorance and gives power to the ignorant with their murderous bullets." (Ha'aretz, 4/27/07; Ynet, 4/29/07; Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, 4/25/07)

SETTLER TRANSGRESSIONS BURDEN IDF: Israel's Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Israel's Cabinet yesterday that "the frequent trips by settlers to Homesh in Samaria steals a great deal of resources from us, and we need to consider removing the burden and passing it from the army to the police. We thought it would be a one-time event, but it became routine and we have to take battalions of soldiers out of training in the Golan Heights and in the territories."

Ashkenazi was referring to the two illegal trips last week by settler activists to the site of a settlement evacuated by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Israeli law forbids civilians from visiting the site and the marches have extracted a significant toll in the number of soldiers required to both protect the squatters and to remove them. Four activists were arrested near the site on Tuesday: one allegedly attacked a brigade commander, Colonel Amir Baram; a second attempted to run down another brigade commander; and two others were suspected of blocking a road and preventing IDF vehicles to pass. In addition, two IDF soldiers were lightly wounded at a nearby checkpoint by right-wing activists.

After border police removed all of the settlers from the site on Wednesday, about 100 activists returned on Friday. This time the settlers brought weapons for self defense, along with other supplies that would enable a long stay. The IDF arrested seven of the marchers for confronting the soldiers, while about 70 of them reportedly escaped to the nearby hills.

Also on Wednesday, dozens of Hassidic Jews snuck into Nablus to pray at Joseph's Tomb. IDF soldiers arrested three of the worshippers after a chase. A military order issued after attacks on Israelis several years ago bans Israelis from entering Palestinian urban areas. (Ma'ariv, 4/30/07; Jerusalem Post, 4/24/07; Ynet, 4/25 & 4/27/07; Israel Radio, 4/26/07)

STOP LIVING LIKE A REFUGEE: Yedioth Ahronoth published an op-ed yesterday by prominent Israeli novelist Amos Oz floating the idea that Israel begin to address the Palestinian refugee problem. Oz notes that this is a difficult issue for Israelis to address: "The refugee problem has become for us synonymous with the right of return, and the right of return is the destruction of Israel. Perhaps the time has come for us to put our thoughts in order. To distinguish between the refugee problem and what is known as the right of return. Because the refugee problem can and must be solved by means other than a return of refugees into the State of Israel's borders of peace."

Nonetheless, Oz notes that "the solution of the refugee problem is a vital interest of the State of Israel because as long as that problem remains unresolved-as long as hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees are rotting away in inhumane camps-we will have no rest."

Oz notes Israelis and Palestinians hold very different narratives about the cause of the problem, and that "there is one truth in both versions, and that is that the war of 1948 was a total war, village against village, neighborhood against neighborhood, house against house. In wars of that sort populations are uprooted. Approximately a dozen Jewish communities, including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, were overrun in 1948 by the Arabs. The Jewish populations in those communities were either entirely murdered or were forcibly expelled by the Arabs. On the other hand, hundreds of Arab communities which were home to hundreds of thousands of civilians were uprooted in 1948-some of them fled, others were expelled by the Israeli army. The time has come to admit openly that we had a role in the flight of the Palestinian refugees: albeit, not sole responsibility and not sole blame, but our hands are not clean. it is only proper that we should shoulder some of the effort to settle these refugees in the framework of peace agreements outside the future peace borders of the State of Israel."

Oz believes that an Israeli statement now could be powerful: "The very fact of an Israeli admission to part of the blame for the flight of the Palestinian refugees, the very expression of willingness to shoulder part of the burden of finding a solution-could create a positive shockwave on the Palestinian side. An emotional rupture of sorts that will help quite a bit with future dialogue. Because the catastrophe of the 1948 refugees is the most open wound, a bleeding and suppurating wound in the flesh of the Palestinian people. The Israeli side has the routine inclination to push off as much as possible the `core issues' of the conflict: refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements. This deferral may have been to the detriment of the Oslo Accords, and it certainly does not help the current negotiations: this predilection of Israel's to evade any discussion of the core issues elicits among the Arabs a well-substantiated suspicion that while Israel wants quiet, it is not prepared to accept a comprehensive solution." (Yedioth Ahronoth, 4/29/07)