Striking with vengeance

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

A Palestinian baby that was injured in an Israeli air strike in Gaza Strip on September 25. - MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

A Palestinian baby that was injured in an Israeli air strike in Gaza Strip on September 25. - MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon orders intense strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip apparently in a bid to improve his chances in the leadership election in Israel's ruling Likud Party.

BARELY two weeks after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip, the territory was bombed yet again. In the last week of September, Israeli fighter planes and helicopters attacked Gaza indiscriminately. Israel claimed that the attack was in response to provocations by the political grouping Hamas. More ominously, it seems to have resumed the practice of "targeted assassinations". A senior leader of the Islamic Jihad, Mohammad Khalil, was killed when Israeli missiles targeted his car in the last week of September. Prior to the February ceasefire agreement, the Israeli state apparatus selectively assassinated the leadership of militant Palestinian groupings. Among those who were killed there was the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin.

The latest round of violence in the Gaza Strip erupted after an explosion at a Hamas rally on September 23 killed 15 people. Hamas blamed the Israelis for the explosion and retaliated by sending a barrage of its locally fabricated "Qassam" rockets into nearby Israeli towns and settlements. Six Israelis were wounded in the attacks. Israel denied the charge that it was responsible for the mysterious explosion. It instead alleged that weapons that Hamas activists were carrying caused the explosion. The Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Mahmoud Abbas was also quick to absolve the Israelis; it too put the blame on Hamas. However, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered his Army to use full force against the Gaza Strip, Abbas said it showed that Sharon "doesn't want peace, or security or negotiations". Even buildings belonging to the P.A. were not spared in the attack.

The Hamas leadership said that there were no explosives in the rockets and other weaponry they were parading at the rally. The Hamas spokesman said rockets fired from an Israeli drone caused the explosion. The thousands of people who had gathered for the rally witnessed the incident. The Hamas spokesman said that the drone "fired several rockets at a convoy of cars participating in the parade, creating a large number of martyrs and injured".

According to the Hamas spokesman, the missile attacks were yet another illustration of Israel's control of the air and the sea though it has militarily vacated the Gaza Strip. Hamas also expressed its strong resentment at the stance adopted by the leadership of the P.A.

Ariel Sharon has been demanding for some time that Hamas should not be allowed to participate in the forthcoming general elections in Palestine. Hamas, according to recent public opinion polls, is on the verge of overtaking Al Fatah in popularity ratings, all over the occupied territories. In the Gaza Strip, the municipal elections held earlier in the year showed that it had the trust of the majority of the voters.

Ariel Sharon ordered the "unremitting" strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip at a time when he was facing a serious challenge to his leadership of the Likud Party from Binyamin Netanyahu. His government ordered the arrest of more than 200 Palestinian activists in the West Bank. Netanyahu had resigned from the Israeli cabinet in protest against Sharon's decision to end the military occupation of the Gaza Strip. He had alleged that Sharon had betrayed the principles the Likud Party traditionally stood for and that the Gaza Strip would become a haven for militants once the Israeli Army vacated the territory. His revanchist views have struck a chord among the Likud faithful. The Likud's ideology has its roots in fascism. Early Likud leaders had strong links with Benito's Mussolini's Fascist Party. Netanyahu wanted to advance the Likud Party's primary election to November in protest against Sharon's decision to withdraw soldiers and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Until Sharon ordered the attacks, Netanyahu was widely tipped to carry the day. Israeli commentators had started talking about Sharon leaving the Likud Party and forming a new party that would eventually align with the Labour Party. However, after Sharon ordered the military strikes, codenamed "Operation First Rain" in the last week of September, his "hawkish" credentials have once again been evidently refurbished among Likud members. Schools and factories in the Gaza Strip were not spared in attacks. The al-Arkam School, established by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, was among the targets destroyed. Fifteen people, many of them children, were injured.

Major General Yisrael Ziv, who led the operation, told the media that a decision was made "to launch a prolonged and constant attack on Hamas". He refused to rule out the restarting of "targeted killings" of Hamas leaders. Sharon has also vowed never to give up the large settlement blocs in the West Bank. where 245,000 Jews are residing in strategic enclaves. Israel had stopped this form of reprisal following the ceasefire agreement with the Palestinians in February this year. According to Israeli commentators, the recent happenings in the Gaza Strip, which according to many Palestinian groups were orchestrated by the Israeli government, have helped Sharon win 51.3 per cent of the vote against Netanyahu's 47.6 per cent in the central committee of the Likud. The party's primary will be held in April as originally scheduled.

The P.A. came out strongly against the airborne attacks against the fenced-in territory of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Sha'ath called the strikes an "act of criminal aggression". He accused Israel of trying to undermine the ceasefire.

Hamas has said that it has the right to "strike in every spot of our occupied land" in retaliation to Israeli violations of the ceasefire agreement. However, Hamas announced, after three days of hostilities, that it would observe a ceasefire. Yet, the Israeli attacks continued. The Hamas leadership is well aware that the Israeli game plan is to pressure the P.A. and the international community to acquiesce in the plans to keep Hamas and other militant groups out of the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in January next year.

Meanwhile, the residents of the impoverished Gaza Strip are yet to see any meaningful change in their lives after the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Sharon in his speech at the recent United Nations summit had said that the military disengagement meant "the end of Israeli control over and responsibility for the Gaza Strip". He went on to claim that there was no basis any longer for the argument that the Gaza Strip continued to be an occupied land. The events in the last week of September have, however, shown that although Israeli colonisation of Gaza may have ended, the occupation has continued.

Saeeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians said that the Israeli withdrawal was meaningless as long as the Jewish state continued to "control every good, person, and drop of water to enter or leave Gaza". For security reasons Israel unloads and inspects goods leaving the Gaza border. Then, they are reloaded onto an Israeli-registered vehicle. The whole process is repeated when the vehicle reaches the West Bank. Israel carefully monitors all imports and exports from the Gaza Strip. There is no free access for goods or people between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Israel has also refused to give permission for the reopening of the Gaza international airport. Very few Gazans are now able to earn a livelihood as labourers in Israel, greatly adding to the impoverishment of the populace. The Israeli government has announced that no Palestinian in the occupied territories will be issued a work permit from 2008. Israel is already full of immigrant labour from East Europe and India.

The recent heavy-handed military response is an illustration of Israel's continued stranglehold on Gaza. "Israel's ongoing dilemma is how to maximise control over Gaza while minimising responsibility in the eyes of the world. The upshot seems to be a situation in which Israel exercises less direct control than before, while preventing anyone else from taking over," an American human rights expert, Darryl Li, told the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera. Palestinian officials say that Israel is trying to claim that the Gaza Strip is no longer occupied and therefore sovereign while in actual fact Israel continues to exert total control over its air space and waters and borders. As the recent events have shown, the residents of Gaza do not even have the right to defend themselves. According to indications, the renewed violence will in all probability lead to the postponement of the scheduled summit between Sharon and Abbas in the first week of October.

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