Israel Returns From Gaza With Little

Even as Israeli troops, backed by armored vehicles and Apache attack helicopters, thrust into northern Gaza, political leaders were insisting the foray was temporary and military officials were wondering whether the operation had any hope of achieving its stated goal – ending rocket fire by Palestinian militants into Israel.

“We have no intention of sinking in the swamp that is Gaza,” declared Defense Minister Amir Peretz. “We did not leave Gaza in order to return,” he added, referring to Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal strip 10 months ago.

Senior Israeli military officials have conceded that the incursion into northern Gaza, from where Palestinian militants have launched hundreds of makeshift rockets into Israel in recent months, will not stop the rocket fire, which they expect to resume once the soldiers pull out.

Some military commentators have suggested the aim of the operation is to “exact a price” from Palestinian militants in a bid to deter them from firing rockets. Indeed, in the first two days of the operation, which got under way in the early hours of Thursday morning, 31 Palestinians – most of them militants – were killed by Israeli forces in the bloodiest fighting since Israel left Gaza in September last year. One Israeli soldier died in the clashes.

Ever since Israeli troops and armored vehicles pushed into southern Gaza on Jun. 28 in an operation aimed at winning the release of an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Palestinian militants from a base inside Israel, the forces massed at the northern end of the strip had been awaiting the order to move. But that order only came in the early hours of Thursday morning, and had a lot less to do with the abducted soldier than with the rocket fire.

Two days earlier, militants had succeeded in reaching the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon with their rockets. No one was injured in the attacks. Militants have fired hundreds of rockets at small towns in southern Israel since the pullout last year. But this was the first time one had landed in a major Israeli population center – Ashkelon is home to some 110,000 people.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, already facing public criticism for not responding effectively to the rocket salvos, ordered the troops in. While the rockets have not caused large numbers of casualties, they have served as an effective psychological weapon for the Palestinians, sowing fear especially among residents of the rocket-riddled southern town of Sderot.

As they moved into northern Gaza, troops first took control of the ruins of three former settlements – they were torn down by Israel before leaving the strip – and then moved towards the town of Beit Lahiye from where many of the rockets have been launched. They met fierce resistance from masked militants, who moved between the cramped alleyways of the town, firing at Israeli tanks and soldiers with their semi-automatic rifles and rocket- propelled grenades.

In the deadliest confrontation, eight militants were killed and 20 people injured Thursday when an Israeli aircraft fired a missile, and a tank fired two shells at a group of militants in Beit Lahiye. In total, 16 Palestinians, almost all gunmen, were killed that day in the town.

Residents took shelter in their homes as the street battles raged. In some areas, Israeli troops forced their way into houses, taking up positions inside.

Palestinian leaders accused Israel of committing war crimes. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel’s goal was the “gradual… reoccupation of Gaza.”

Israeli officials, however, have been anxious to dispel accusations that the army is planning a lengthy sojourn in Gaza. Backing up Defense Minister Peretz’s comments that Israel would not get bogged down in the strip, the head of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Tzachi Hanegbi, said the operation would be “limited in time. We do not plan to spend an extended period of time there.”

Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, the head of the military’s southern command, told reporters the incursion into northern Gaza was a “raid not an occupation. We have no interest in remaining there. We have no territorial aspirations.”

Israel is not keen to establish a permanent presence in northern Gaza, which would probably take the form of a buffer zone aimed at pushing the militants further south in the strip and out of range of Israeli towns and cities with their rockets. The military knows that soldiers stationed in north Gaza would quickly become targets for Palestinian militants.

Israelis recall the bitter experience of the security zone they set up in southern Lebanon in a bid to keep Hezbollah guerrillas from crossing the border and striking inside Israel. With Hezbollah attacks on Israeli military positions an almost daily occurrence and with soldiers being killed and injured every month in Lebanon, public pressure finally prevailed, and in May 2000 Israel withdrew unilaterally, ending an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

Olmert knows that recapturing part of Gaza would cost Israel the international legitimacy it earned after its withdrawal last year. As a result of the pullout, international criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza in recent weeks has been muted.

With Israel out of the strip, many world leaders view the rocket firing and the abduction of the soldier as an attack on sovereign Israeli territory rather than a legitimate act of resistance to occupation. This has afforded Olmert diplomatic and military leeway.

Even with Israeli soldiers, tanks and aircraft operating in northern Gaza, militants have continued to fire rockets, raising questions about the efficacy of the military action. On Friday alone, militants successfully launched 15 rockets into Israel.

Israel cannot “sit with its arms folded” while rockets fly toward its towns and cities, concedes Danny Yatom, a Labor Party member of parliament and former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. “But the effectiveness of the current operation is limited. It can reduce the rocket fire, do damage to the (militants’) ability to launch the rockets, but it can’t stop it.”

Even if Israel were to find a way to force the militants who fire the rockets further south in Gaza and out of range of Israel, adds Yatom, they would develop “a rocket with a slightly longer range.”

In the absence of any form of dialogue between the sides, Yatom explains, Israel will find itself sucked back into Gaza time and again. “As long as nothing is happening on the diplomatic front, I don’t see the rocket fire ceasing.”