A Missile against Ashkelon Tips Israelis and Hamas into First Violent Clash

The Israeli government headed by Ehud Olmert and his coalition partner, defense minister Amir Peretz, was not looking for a head-on confrontation with Hamas at this stage. Some military response could not be avoided after the combined Hamas-Popular Resistance Committees-Islamic Army surprised an Israeli army post, killing two soldiers and kidnapping a third, and missiles from Gaza finally hit the town center of an important Israeli city, Ashkelon, after incessant attacks on smaller towns and villages.


The 200,000 southern Israelis who live and work within range of the Palestinian missile pads of Gaza clamored for action.


But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the Israeli security cabinet meeting Wednesday, July 5, approved a limited military response to the stepped up Hamas-led violence emanating from the Gaza Strip.


Last Wednesday, June 28, three days after Gilead Shalit was kidnapped, the first of three Israeli armored forces struck west and penetrated 2.5 km into the southern Gaza Strip. Monday and Tuesday, July 3 and 4, two more units headed into the north, forming pockets outside Beit Hanun and the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing, penetrating no more than 800 -1,000 meters deep into Palestinian territory. But then, Thursday, July 6, the IDF went in for the punch, sending armored units to take up positions outside Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanun, and the ruins of the evacuated Israeli settlements of Elei Sinai, Nissanit and Dugit. (See map – http://debka-net-weekly.com/pics/map/GazaStrip04.html)


The incursions were aimed at pushing back the missile launchers, while avoiding dense urban areas where combat was bound to build up casualties on both sides.


To make sure the Israeli operation had fixed outer limits, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice called the Israeli prime minister Monday, July 3, to put the seal on his negotiations with the US ambassador Richard Jones on its dimensions.


She said Israel understandably needed to put an end to Palestinian Qassam missile attacks on Ashkelon, a town of 120,000 inhabitants with important strategic sites. (Ashkelon’s power plant provides one quarter of national electricity consumption and its port is Israel’s second largest Mediterranean oil terminal). But she emphasized that military action must be held down to the single goal of dealing with the missile launchers in northern Gaza – and not step out of that sector.


A DEBKA-Net-Weekly source with access to the content of that conversation said: “Rice told Olmert very clearly that Washington will side with him and his military operation in the Gaza Strip only as long as the IDF spends a very short time in the north and refrains from ‘knocking over walls’ or ‘starting a forest fire.’ The soldiers must then pull back across the border.”


She added. “I don’t want to hear howls from the Arab world or the Europeans, because then our Iran strategy would collapse.”


 


Fierce Gaza clash could cost US dear in Baghdad


 


In addition to the Iranian factor, our Washington and Gulf sources report that the Bush administration is fearful of the impact the Gaza crisis may have on the military situation in Baghdad. Rice is worried that the United States will pay dear in the streets of Baghdad for any extreme Israeli military steps in Gaza that produce high Palestinian casualties.


It is taken into account that the theological authority with the most clout over Hamas, the Qatar-based Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi, is also the clerical figure most respected by the Sunni Muslim community of Iraq, including substantial elements of the al Qaeda terrorists fighting in the country.


These arguments, according to our sources, persuaded Olmert to present the IDF with a list of don’ts that were longer than the dos, although military offensives once launched have a way of spiraling out of control.


The Gaza operation was certainly not designed as a large-scale offensive on the lines of the 2002 Defensive Wall operation that cleansed the West Bank hotbed of Jenin of its Palestinian terrorist structures. And the first eight days showed Israeli forces avoiding tackling Hamas in direct combat and settling into a sort of stasis.


But Thursday, July 6, this changed. The only Palestinian resistance to the Israeli push into new areas came from Hamas gunmen and their extremist allies, Jihad Islami and the Popular Resistance Committees. There were clashes which escalated, killing 19 Palestinian gunmen and one Israeli soldier, who was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper.


In the next stage of its offensive, the IDF is expected to penetrate the central sector of the Gaza Strip, thus shrinking Palestinian-controlled territory.


But in respect of the US secretary’s request, there are no plans to go for Hamas’ Gaza leaders including Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, but rather to dangle the assassination threat over their heads and keep them on the run.


Israel also appears to have backed off thoughts of punishing Syria.


Heated statements from the first half of the week have died down from the point that Peretz vilified Syrian president Bashar Asad in person and foreign minister Tzipi Livni came out of a meeting with President Vladimir Moscow with a warning that a “regional escalation” was in store.


It is safe to assume that if an opportunity presented itself, the Israeli government would not hesitate to hit Hamas operations chief, Khaled Meshaal. But since he ordered the June 25 assault on the Israeli army post, Hamas’s overseas wirepuller has gone into hiding in Damascus and is well protected by Syrian military intelligence special forces.

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