NORTHERN GAZA STRIP – The rapidly mounting civilian death toll as a result of Israel’s massive offensive in the north of the Gaza Strip is deepening hatred and may lead to continuing cycles of bloodshed, Palestinian politicians and human rights activists in Gaza say.
The number of fatalities has crossed 80 over eight days of the current Israeli operation.
Even as the Israeli army strengthened its hold over northern Gaza, two more Palestinian Qassam missiles launched by the fundamentalist Hamas movement slammed into the Israeli town Sderot. The death of two young children in a Qassam attack on Sderot Wednesday signaled the start of a new Israeli operation in Gaza.
The armed wing of Hamas, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades vows to continue with the attacks. The fighters held a press conference to announce this and to taunt their enemy in the Taqwa mosque in Beit Lahiya, right under the nose of the Israeli army.
Dressed in camouflage uniforms, wearing black masks and touting machine guns, the "spokesmen" say their morale is high despite the losses they have suffered. "Our members have provided 25 martyrs this last week but we do not see that as a loss, it makes us stronger," says one of them.
On a table on the second floor of the mosque they show off the weapons they say they produce themselves; grenades and mines, and the Yassin rocket-propelled grenade. On the floor they have set up a clumpish Battar anti-tank weapon and the sleek main attraction, a Qassam rocket on its improvised launcher.
Both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories analysts doubt the effectiveness of the Israeli army operation in stopping the attacks. Mohammed Dahlan, former Palestinian minister who also headed the Preventive Security Service, is skeptical about the Israeli motives.
"This is not about security, it’s about revenge," says Dahlan, who for now watches events unroll from the sidelines in a well set up office in Gaza City. "This will only deepen hatred," he says. If Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the army "think that tank and helicopter attacks will bring security, they are crazy."
The attacks only strengthen Hamas and weaken the Palestinian Authority (PA), he says. It all fits in with Sharon’s intention to kill off the Oslo peace process, he thinks.
Sharon’s senior advisor Dov Weisglass said this week that the intention of Sharon’s announced "disengagement" from Gaza is to freeze the peace process and indefinitely postpone a Palestinian state.
"I’m not surprised," says Dahlan. "I said that three months ago, but it is good to have Weisglass say it as well now because too many people internationally still thought that the disengagement plan was useful or workable."
Many analysts see a direct link between the intensified and more deadly Hamas missile attacks on Israel and the approaching withdrawal from Gaza. "There is an element there of making the Israelis withdraw under fire," says Ghazi Hamad, editor of the Islamist weekly newspaper al-Resalla.
But the scale of the Israeli response has surprised both the Palestinians and the international community. The United States vetoed a UN resolution calling on Israel to immediately halt the action. The UN text did not condemn the Qassam attacks against Israel.
There is little sympathy for the Qassam launches in some quarters in Gaza. Dahlan is against such attacks, and says the PA should act more strongly against them.
Raji Surrani, a prominent human rights activist in Gaza says, "One type of blood is not more holy to me than another. But what kind of response is this, if we kill two of their children, to come in and kill 20 of our children?"
He too warns of deepening hatred among the people. He estimates that more than 2,000 people have fled the villages of Beith Lahiya, Beit Hanoun and above all the crowded Jabaliya refugee camp where the Israeli army came in. About 60 houses have been demolished here, he says.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem also reports house demolitions. It says most of the victims of the army operation are innocent civilians. The army insists that in most cases the victims, even children aged 14 and 15, were involved in militant activities.
The Israeli army has occupied eastern Jabaliya and some of the destruction can be seen in the neighboring Block 2. On the other side of Salah Eddin street, one of the main streets in the area, some houses are in rubble following Israeli actions, local people say.
In the warren of narrow alleyways that is Block 2, hundreds of masked and armed militants hide from the nearby Israelis. They all belong to different groups; one corner is taken by the fundamentalist Hamas, the other by the socialist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The fighters stay under cover of tarpaulins that span the alleyways, the constant whirring of Israeli drones in the sky above a reminder of the dangers they face.
In one corner two members of the Sallah Eddin Brigades of the umbrella "armed resistance committees" keep watch over a couple of wires leading into the main street. They lead to a mine they intend to blow up if the Israelis cross into their neighborhood.
"We will make these alleys a graveyard for the Jews," says one of them. He is confident they can stop the Israeli tanks and bulldozers despite being scarcely armed themselves. "We trust in God, not in our arms."