Only a Lull Before Another Storm

JERUSALEM, (IPS) – The Israeli attack on Rafah in the Gaza Strip did not come in a political and military vacuum. The Israeli army’s “operation rainbow” is now only “paused” and all indications are that the struggle that has continued between Israel and the Palestinians along the Egyptian border for more than three years now will resume shortly.

Israel last week staged the largest operation in the Gaza Strip since the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000. The massive incursion of last week supported by armor and helicopter gunships came after the Israeli army lost 13 soldiers the previous week in attacks in Rafah and Gaza City.

The operation in Rafah is the latest twist in a tortuous tale.

The Gaza strip is mainly populated by the descendants of refugees from the 1948/1949 war at the time of the founding of Israel in a part of historic Palestine. That war led to an exodus of Palestinians not only to the Gaza Strip but also to the West Bank and to other Arab countries.

The total population of Gaza Strip now is some 1.23 million people, of whom some 900,000 are registered refugees.

Of those, about half live in so-called refugee camps that have over time become densely populated neighborhoods. The camps are made up of mostly ramshackle houses but some have been turned into fairly luxurious residences.

Gaza has also a number of Israeli settlements. Inevitably, these have provoked new tensions.

The population of Rafah is about 120,000, of whom 90,000 are refugees, living in “camps” named Brazil and Canada, and also in proper neighborhoods such as Salaam and Tel al-Sultan. The spacious “Canada” camp was built in the 1970s and used to be well maintained.

The names Brazil and Canada date back to before the six-day war of June 1967 when Israel captured new land in an attack on Arab neighbors. A Brazilian U.N.-detachment had been stationed there to separate Israeli and Egyptian forces along the border. Canadians in the U.N. force called their camp by that name as a joke. The soldiers left but the name stuck.

Over the last two weeks people living here have again seen Israeli incursions and attacks. Violence has continued sporadically since the beginning of the Intifada.

The Intifada ended the peace process that had begun to take shape after the Oslo peace accords. In 1977 Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel. Only in 1993 did the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representing the Palestinian people sign an interim peace deal with the Jewish state under the Oslo accords.

There are many reasons for the outbreak of the Intifada, meaning uprising, in September 2000. But it was sparked off by a visit by then opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the holy site in Jerusalem known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Haram al- Sharif to Muslims.

The previous month, make-or-break negotiations between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak organized by former U.S. President Bill Clinton at his Camp David retreat had collapsed.

Slow progress toward a final peace deal continued, but many Palestinians had become frustrated with the glacial pace of the process. The Israeli army was from the outset determined to quash any outbreak of violence with a show of force, and both attitudes led to a rapid escalation.

The Israeli presence along the border with Egypt has been a logical flash point during the Intifada because Rafah is one of the spots where the soldiers come into direct contact with Palestinian controlled territory. It is also the point through which Israelis believe weapons are smuggled in from Egypt to Palestinian groups.

The Israeli army kept control over the border area under the Oslo accords. This has been a focus for attacks and fighting ever since. Even under Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza, the army would remain along the border.

But an increasing number of voices in the Israeli army itself and outside are questioning the wisdom of that position. Rafah will not stabilize with the army along the border. There may be alternatives to the Israeli presence, particularly closer involvement of the Egyptians, who, like the Israelis, do not want a heavily armed militant presence in Gaza.

Sharon is still trying to revamp and resell his withdrawal plan after it was rejected by the members of his Likud party. More Egyptian input and carrying out the withdrawal in stages may be some ways in which he can change his proposals to mollify the right-wing opposition to it.

Operation Rainbow may have had other objectives but it may also have been used by Sharon to show that even while he is working on his withdrawal plan, he will still carry on fighting in Gaza, and that he will probably even continue doing that after a withdrawal.

Despite its losses the previous week, the Israeli army did not face any real resistance from the lightly armed Palestinian fighters. The heavy armament used in the operation had a devastating effect, though, on the town, the houses, the infrastructure and civilians.

At least 41 Palestinians were killed in less than a week. Israel destroyed 45 houses, on top of the 80 or so in the previous week. This made another about 550 people homeless.

The Israeli army exposed three tunnels that it says were used for smuggling arms from Egypt to Gaza to feed the armed struggle against Israel. Exposing and destroying the tunnels was one of the official reasons given for the operation.

The level of violence and the conduct of the Israeli troops made the operation seem more like a punitive expedition. The Israeli forces “dispersed” a demonstration by unarmed civilians with tank fire and a missile attack from a helicopter.

Such acts point either at undisciplined anger or at a deliberate policy of collective punishment of civilians for having allowed militants to strike at Israeli troops from their midst. In Israeli terms, such actions are often couched in phrases such as keeping up “the deterrent capacity” of the army or making a “show of force.”

In the corridors of the Israeli Defense Ministry and in the army, some admit that the operation carried an element of revenge for the death of the Israeli soldiers. To the Palestinians in Rafah, that had been obvious all along.

In military terms, the incursion will not achieve much as long as the Israeli army does not occupy the whole of Rafah, seal it off from the rest of Gaza and conduct house to house searches, as it did in the neighborhood Tel al-Sultan.

The smuggling operation is a commercial enterprise and given enough money it is plausible that small quantities of heavier weapons will find their way into Gaza.

Military and strategic analysts in Israel do point out that the action against the tunnels will in all likelihood set back Palestinian arms smuggling operations temporarily. And widening the corridor along the border by demolishing houses will make it harder for the smugglers who will have to dig ever longer tunnels. Few expect such short-term advances to bring peace.