A bat­tle­ground in Gaza

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

Don’t be sur­prised if you wake up one morn­ing and learn that the Gaza Strip has be­come a lot like Le­banon was last sum­mer. Gaza looms as a ma­jor bat­tle­ground in the larger global strug­gle with ji­hadism, with the Is­raeli mil­i­tary squar­ing off against ter­ror­ist prox­ies of Iran and Syria in ad­di­tion to al Qaeda fac­tions bur­row­ing into the re­gion. Ha­mas has built in essence a 12,000-man mili­tia — two to three times the size of the Hezbol­lah force in last sum­mer’s Le­banon war. Gaza is crawl­ing with hun­dreds of ter­ror­ists af­fil­i­ated with the al Aqsa Mar­tyrs Brigade, part of Pales­tinian Author­ity (PA) Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas’s Fatah or­ga­ni­za­tion; Pales­tinian Is­lamic Ji­had (PIJ) and the Pop­u­lar Re­sis­tance Com­mit­tees, an amal­ga­ma­tion of ter­ror groups in Gaza.

The buildup of Gaza’s ji­hadist net­work has proven to be a largely cost-free ex­er­cise for Tehran and Da­m­as­cus, which pro­vide fund­ing and weaponry but re­main largely im­mune from sub­stan­tial Is­raeli mil­i­tary re­tal­i­a­tion. Many of the ter­ror­ists in Gaza have trained with Hezbol­lah, Iran’s proxy, and much of their fund­ing and weaponry is smug­gled from Egypt into Gaza through tun­nels un­der civil­ian homes. Is­raeli intelligence agents es­ti­mate that more than 50 tons of TNT have been smug­gled into Gaza dur­ing the past year or two — enough to build and pro­duce tens of thou­sands of rock­ets in the small arms shops in Gaza.

Pales­tinian and Is­raeli se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said two weeks ago that there are 15 ac­tive tun­nels in the Rafah area of Gaza be­ing used to move arms, drugs and agents be­tween Gaza and Egypt. The tun­nels are con­trolled by pow­er­ful fam­ily clans who op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently of the PA. Al­most ev­ery day there are rocket fir­ings into Is­rael, and/or gun bat­tles in­volv­ing the clans, ter­ror­ist fac­tions and Pales­tinian se­cu­rity ser­vices. Over the past few months Is­lamists, some ap­par­ently af­fil­i­ated with al Qaeda, have at­tacked video stores, In­ter­net cafes and an el­e­men­tary school in Gaza to protest “un-Is­lamic” be­hav­ior.

As Gaza de­scends into chaos rem­i­nis­cent of Afghanistan un­der the Tal­iban, Is­rael, which with­drew all of its sol­diers and civil­ians from there two years ago in the hope that the Pales­tini­ans would re­spond by build­ing a vi­able in­de­pen­dent state), has dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions ahead. The gov­ern- ment must de­cide whether to con­duct ma­jor mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions against Gaz­abased ter­ror­ists who are ex­pand­ing their ca­pa­bil­ity to at­tack neigh­bor­ing Is­raeli towns. Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Olmert’s cen­ter-left gov­ern­ment wants des­per­ately to avoid a large anti-ter­ror ground op­er­a­tion that could in­clude re­oc­cu­py­ing parts of Gaza, but the Is­rael De­fense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashke­nazi, says bluntly that the only so­lu­tion to the con­tin­u­ing prob­lem of Pales­tinian rocket fire into Is­rael is an army ground op­er­a­tion.

In Novem­ber, Is­rael agreed to a “cease­fire” in which it would re­frain from any large-scale cam­paign against Gaza-based ter­ror­ists, while the Ha­mas-dom­i­nated PA gov­ern­ment would halt the rocket fire from Gaza into Is­rael. But since Novem­ber more than 250 Qas­sam rock­ets and mor­tars have been fired from Gaza — some by Ha­mas, with oth­ers by var­i­ous Pales­tinian fac­tions, all with the tacit ap­proval of Ha­mas. While Mr. Olmert and the coun­try’s civil­ian lead­er­ship hope to avoid a ground op­er­a­tion, of­fi­cials say pri­vately that their hand will likely be forced on the is­sue — par­tic­u­larly if the ter­ror­ists fir­ing from Gaza hit a school or a day-care cen­ter.

That al­most hap­pened two weeks ago in Sderot, an Is­raeli town of 20,000 less than a mile from Gaza, which has been the tar­get of hun­dreds of rock­ets from Gaza dur­ing the past two years. In Sderot, nine­and ten-year-old chil­dren in day-care cen­ters rou­tinely prac­tice what to do in the event of rocket strikes, and two weeks ago a rocket fired from Gaza struck a Sderot house close to a kinder­garten. The PIJ — which is based in Da­m­as­cus and gets most of its fund­ing from Iran — claimed “credit” for it. But mir­a­cles are scarce, and the first school or day-care cen­ter that takes a hit will pro­voke an ir­re­sistible de­mand for mil­i­tary re­tal­i­a­tion. When the Jewish state with­drew from Gaza al­most two years ago, tens of thou­sands of Is­raeli civil­ians were within range of Pales­tinian rock­ets in Gaza; to­day, that fig­ure is 200,000 and grow­ing.

The sit­u­a­tion is likely to be­come more dire. The rock­ets smug­gled into Gaza, like those pro­duced inside Gaza, are of much higher qual­ity than the rock­ets of a year ago, en­abling ter­ror­ists to cre­ate a stock­pile. This poses a dilemma for Is­raeli of­fi­cials who un­der­stand that de­lay cre­ates ever more peril on their south­ern border.

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