Israel's Get-Tough Response to Rocket Fire Brings Verbal Volleys

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Israel's Get-Tough Response to Rocket Fire Brings Verbal Volleys

Jerusalem ( - Israel's decision to seal off the Gaza Strip by closing the border crossings has reduced -- but not stopped -- the Palestinian rocket fire.

On Tuesday morning, as children in the southern Israeli city of Sderot were making their way to school, Palestinian terrorists launched six rockets at southern Israeli communities.

Meanwhile, Palestinians and Arab countries are furiously complaining that Israel is violating international law by imposing "collective punishment" on the Gaza Strip by closing the border.

Bowing to international pressure, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday allowed a one-time shipment of fuel and medical supplies into Gaza. The Palestinians say a diesel fuel shortage has forced it to close its power generator, leading to electricity cutoffs.

Israel isolated the Gaza Strip on Friday after Palestinians launched some 240 Kassam rockets and mortar shells at southern Israeli communities during a four-day period last week. (On Monday, a total of 11 mortar shells were launched at Israel. Seven mortars and rockets fell on Sunday, the army said.)

Defense Minister Barak said says Israel will not relent until the rocket fire stops. "We are going to put pressure and more pressure on Gaza," Barak said on Monday evening.

He said Israel insists that the citizens of Sderot and the Western Negev be allowed to live quietly -- without fear of rocket attacks. "If this quiet demands a noise on the other side, there will be noise," Barak said. "We will bring a solution to the Kassam rockets."

The United Nations Security Council is due to convene on Tuesday at the request of ambassadors of Arab states and the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference to discuss the situation in the Gaza Strip.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel noted that Israel's response so far has been mild. He said Israel could be using more "lethal tactics," such as an all-out invasion of the Gaza Strip, to stop the rocket fire and cross-border attacks.

Instead, Israel is pursuing a three-pronged approach: trying to catch (and kill) terrorists in the act of launching rockets; economic measures, such as sealing off the Gaza Strip; and attacking "symbols of the Hamas administration," such as the former Hamas Interior Ministry building, which Israel bombed last week.

Typically, any retaliatory moves by Israel work in the Palestinians' favor by channeling anger at the Jewish State.

On Tuesday, several hundred Israeli Arabs reportedly protested at the main crossing point into the Gaza Strip, demanding that the crossings be reopened. "The blockade of Gaza has to be broken," read one sign, according to radio reports.

Mahmud Zahar, the most influential Hamas leader in Gaza, has vowed to "continue on the path of jihad and resistance, whatever the sacrifices and suffering, until victory or martyrdom." Zahar, whose son was killed in an Israeli incursion last week, made the comments in a televised address.

Former Israeli government minister Natan Sharansky said the Palestinians are playing an unfair game. "No doubt we'll be criticized for this, and the world will accept what the Palestinians are saying," Sharansky said in a television interview.

Sharansky said Israel should not use the "weapon" of closures because it is no replacement for a military strike.

"We left Gaza. It was a big mistake...because it was opening the gates for Hamas. And now, whatever we will do in the end, we will have to go there with a very serious military operation. To try to find some other soft ways of dealing this problem -- it will only create public relations problems and not solve the problem," Sharansky said.

At least one Arab official also blamed Hamas for the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Abdel Rahman Rashed, a Saudi national who is the general manager of the Arabiya news channel, complained that Hamas is "bringing Israel back into the Gaza Strip after it was liberated by the Palestinian groups." (Israel unilaterally pulled its troops and citizens out of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, and the Palestinians promptly claimed "victory.")

"Hamas committed a stupid act when it gave the Israelis an excuse to launch attacks in retaliation for a few antique rockets," Rashed wrote in the London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday.

Rashad also accused Hamas of committing a "big crime against the Palestinian people" by ejecting the Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Rashed is considered by some as an unofficial spokesman for the Saudi royal family.

Saudi Arabia used to be one of Hamas' biggest supporters. It sponsored a special meeting last year in Mecca to patch up differences between Hamas and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction. The resulting "unity" government lasted only a few months.

Israel charged earlier that Hamas cut off electricity in the Gaza Strip as a ploy to gain sympathy. Israel says Hamas is exaggerating the "crisis," noting that 75 percent of Gaza's electricity comes from Israel and Egypt -- and that 75 percent has not been cut off.