Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu turned his anger Sunday, Dec. 9, on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s vow to cheering Gazans to “return to Jaffa, Haifa and Safed… Safed… Safed” (where Mahmoud Abbas was born) in a speech marking the 25th anniversary of the Palestinian Islamist group’s founding.
The Hamas leader swore to “free the land of Palestinian centimeter by centimeter, from the river to the sea and from the south to the north” with no concessions.
“Resistance is the basis for unity between the Palestinian factions,” he said.
Netanyahu criticized Abbas, as head of the Palestinian Authority for failing to condemn the extremist Hamas leader’s words – unrealistically, because Abbas must have privately applauded every word.
“The Palestinian president is striving for unity with the same Hamas that is supported by Iran,” said the prime minister. “We want true peace, but we will not make the same mistake of unilateral withdrawal as the one that brought Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip.”
This sort of rhetoric may account for Netanyahu’s lead in popular opinion polls, but there was one significant point in Meshaal’s inflammatory remarks that he omitted to mention: the boast that Hamas had dared where greater powers had held back, i.e., fired rockets against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
This was a sore point. It underlined the fact that last month, Israel ended its eight-day air offensive against Hamas without delivering the coup de grace for making the offensive an undisputed success or repairing Israel’s deterrence strength against its radical enemies.
The Hamas M-75 rocket
As it was, Hamas could triumphantly display at the center of Gaza City, as the backdrop for Meshaal’s rants, an outsize papier maché depiction of the M-75 rocket, which reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was “the real victor” of the confrontation with Israel, he declared.
To underscore the point, bottles of perfume labeled “The Victorious M-75,” went on sale in Gaza shops.
Israeli officials dismissed the Hamas leader’s strutting and the depictions as ridiculous antics prompted by efforts to gloss over the profound and damaging impact of Israel’s brief campaign had undoubtedly inflicted on Hamas.
However, it is beginning to emerge that Hamas was won over to halt its long missile blitz on southern Israel by three Israeli concessions: The IDF gave up its 300-500-meter wide security belt inside Gaza, established as a safeguard against continuous Palestinian attempts to carry out cross-border terrorist attacks and kidnap Israeli soldiers; a promise to eschew targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders on the understanding that their resumption would end the ceasefire; and the widening of the stretch of Mediterranean water accessible to Palestinian fishermen.
The unwritten ceasefire accord negotiated by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and announced on Nov. 21, did not require Hamas to end weapons smuggling into the enclave from Iran, Libya and Sudan. This was covered by an understanding with the US and Egypt to take joint action for stopping the flow of illicit arms. It was confirmed by President Barack Obama in a personal promise to Netanyahu.
Yet, 20 days have gone by and no such action is in sight, aside from a few scattered tours of inspection by American army officers which petered out in early December. Since the ceasefire, Israeli soldiers now patrolling the Gaza Strip border on foot were forbidden to fire on would-be Palestinian trespassers, even when they came at the fence en masse.
Eased restrictions invite Gaza violence
On Nov. 26, a lone Palestinian took advantage of the eased restrictions against the terrorist organizations – including the al Qaeda cells teeming in the Gaza Strip – and walked 8 kilometers into Israel without being apprehended. He entered a home in the Sdeh Avraham moshav and attacked a woman with a knife. Fearing for her four children who were in another room, Yael Matzpun fought hard and drove him away.
She was awarded a certificate for bravery by President Shimon Peres. Netanyahu and Barak responded to the incident by turning to Washington with a demand to lean on Cairo to prevent murderers from Gaza using the ceasefire to attack Israeli civilians.
The 350,000 Israelis living close to the Gaza border discovered that their safety was no longer in the hands of the IDF but at the mercy of a fragile ceasefire, granted conditionally by terrorist organizations and accepted by the Netanyahu government. They are no longer pursued by media interviewers, but when asked, they will tell you about the life that springs up from the Gaza border fence night by night: Palestinians rockets are fired to explode just short of the border fence and constant alarms signal Palestinians trying to sneak across – harassments that just miss violating the ceasefire fire.
There is no question among civilians or servicemen in the area that the ceasefire is too fragile to survive.
Monday, Dec. 10, an organization identified with al Qaeda announced triumphantly that Hamas had released its leader, Abu Hafez al-Maqdasi, from jail. An exceptionally violent and radical Salafist, al-Maqdasi has close ties with the Salafi terrorist groups marauding Sinai. His release portends the revival of terrorist incursions and Grad missile attacks on Israel from the Egyptian peninsula.
And so the clock is ticking backwards to the pre-Gaza operation days of unremitting violence. But the negative fallback from the way the prime minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak handled the Gaza operation – and the terms they accepted for the ceasefire – are here to stay: They are apparent in the upsurge of Palestinian violence against Israelis on the West Bank and the intolerable situation confronting Israeli troops responsible for security in the territory:
Toll on IDF morale, boost for Palestinians
The damage is palpable in three areas:
1. Its toll on IDF morale, which was negatively influenced by the government’s action in calling up and holding 50,000 reservists outside the Gaza Strip for a week, ready and willing to pursue a ground offensive to round off the air operation at great sacrifice, and then sending them home without firing a shot. Their low spirits soon affected other reserve units serving on the West Bank and the Lebanese and Syrian frontiers.
2. Its encouragement to West Bank Palestinians, who were quick to catch on to the new rules of engagement: After witnessing Israel soldiers standing helpless in the face of Palestinians trying to smash through the Gaza border, they staged five incidents since last week to test the ground: Although armed, Israeli soldiers faced with stone-throwing Palestinian mobs on the West Bank screaming insults, did not open fire. Instead they ran for their lives. One of those incidents at Qaddum near Nablus was filmed and broadcast.
The soldiers could only complain that, on the one hand, the rules about opening fire were unclear, while on the other, they were exposed to violent Palestinians buoyed up by Netanyahu’s Gaza policy.
It was therefore not surprising to hear Monday, Dec. 10, that the Palestinian Authority ruled by Mahmoud Abbas had given Hamas permission to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a mass assembly in the West Bank town of Nablus on Thursday, Dec. 13.
By foregoing its security control of the violent Gaza Strip, Israel is also beginning to lose its security footing in the West Bank too. The talk in the air of “Palestinian unity and brotherhood” encourages Palestinian extremists to hope that Hamas will soon be able to overrun the West Bank as it did the Gaza Strip – “the same Hamas that is supported by Iran,” as Netanyahu pointed out.
But will he stop the assembly taking place when the speakers no doubt plan to assert that the Hamas “victory” in Gaza was fought equally for all its Palestinian brethren?