Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ceasefire efforts hampered by terror groups’ demand for immunity

 March 11, 2012, 5:18 am
A volley of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip was intercepted by the Iron Dome system near the Israeli town of Ashdod Sunday (photo credit: Flash90)
A volley of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip was intercepted by the Iron Dome system near the Israeli town of Ashdod Sunday (photo credit: Flash90)
Egypt’s bid to restore calm hits obstacles; school canceled for 200,000 Israeli children as 20 more rockets launched on Sunday; Gaza death toll at 20, including a 12-year-old boy

Egyptian efforts to broker an Israel-Gaza ceasefire after three days of violence are being hampered because terror groups in Gaza want a guarantee of immunity from attack by Israel, which Israel is not prepared to give, Egyptian sources said on Sunday afternoon.
The Popular Resistance Committees, whose leader Zuhair al-Qaissi was killed in an Israeli strike on Friday, and Islamic Jihad, several of whose members have been killed when trying to launch rockets at Israel this weekend, both want assurances that Israel won’t target their groups, an Egyptian official said, but that is something Egypt cannot deliver.
In Gaza, an Islamic Jihad spokesman ruled out a cease-fire. “There is no room to talk about calm considering the continued Zionist aggression against Gaza,” said Khaled Batch.
Israel sent mixed signals Sunday about the path ahead. The chief of the General Staff, Benny Gantz, said Israel was “not seeking an escalation (of hostilities) for the sake of it,” he said, but warned that Hamas and other Gaza terror groups were relentlessly rearming.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said there was no point in Israel’s launching another large-scale offensive in Gaza unless it sets out to topple the Hamas regime there. He wouldn’t say whether such an operation was planned but noted that the violence from Gaza was “unacceptable and we won’t reconcile ourselves to it.”
Gantz said Israel holds Hamas responsible for the more than 120 rockets fired from Gaza since Friday, and will continue to act “with power and determination” to thwart the attacks.
Gantz said the IDF had killed 15 people in Gaza since the current escalation began and that “all or almost all of them” were terrorists. Other military officials put the figure at 20, and said all except one were directly involved in rocket fire or other attacks against Israel. Palestinian sources said one of those killed as a result of an airstrike on the outskirts of the Jabalya refugee camp on Sunday was a 12-year-old boy.
By early afternoon Sunday, nearly 20 rockets had been fired at Israel, including five Grad rockets aimed at Beersheba, one of which was intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.
Residents were told to stay close to home and the cities of Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon, among others, called off school for Sunday, leaving roughly 200,000 children at home. Ben-Gurion University was also closed. More than a million Israelis live within range of the Gaza rockets, the police said.
Gantz hailed the success of Iron Dome, and said the rockets were intended to “wreak death and destruction” among Israel’s citizens.
A Palestinian tries to extinguish a fire after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday (photo credit:Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
A Palestinian tries to extinguish a fire after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday (photo credit:Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
Earlier Sunday , Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers that Israel will act against Palestinian terrorist organizations in Gaza “for as long as it takes… We have exacted a heavy price” from the terror groups, he said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, “and we will continue to exact it.”
Netanyahu spoke as rockets continued to fly into southern Israel, and as the Israel Air Force struck at targets in Gaza, including ammunition stores and cells poised to fire rockets.
An IDF video showing an Israeli airstrike on a terrorist ammunition store
Despite Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire, Palestinians fired more than 120 rockets on Saturday, some striking major cities in southern Israel and seriously wounding an Israeli civilian. The military responded with more than a dozen airstrikes and the targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists from various Gaza organizations. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted more than 28 projectiles on Saturday.
The latest spate of violence began Friday afternoon, when an Israeli airstrike on a car in Gaza City killed al-Qaissi, the head of Gaza’s Popular Resistance Committees, and two of his underlings. It was the highest-profile killing Israel has carried out in many months.
Al-Qaissi oversaw the infiltration of terrorists from the Sinai into Israel north of Eilat last August in which eight Israelis were killed, and was planning another major infiltration attack in the coming days, military sources said. Hence, they said, the decision to target him in his car on Friday.
Netanyahu told his ministers on Sunday that Israel was still braced for an attack from the Sinai. “We’re still on the alert,” he said, adding that he had closed the Israel-Egypt border road where last August’s infiltration took place.
Al-Qaissi’s Hamas-linked PRC was also behind the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held captive in Gaza for more than five years and freed in a prisoner swap last year in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians.
Exchanges between Israel and the Palestinians have been routine since the 2009 war, but a flare-up of this intensity is rare. The Arab League called the Israeli attacks a “massacre.” The United Nations and the State Department condemned the violence and called on both sides to exercise restraint. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in New York on Saturday night, condemned the rocket fire and spoke of Israel’s right to defend itself.
“We will continue to hit whoever plans to attack citizens of the State of Israel. At the same time, we will continue to improve home front defense including by means of additional Iron Dome systems, the effectiveness of which was shown again over the weekend,” said Netanyahu. He praised the “resilience” of Israel’s citizens.
“This round in Gaza is far from being over,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a visit to southern Israel on Saturday. “We will not allow anyone to harm the citizens of the country and we will act against anyone who attempts to launch rockets. They will pay a heavy price, and no one will have immunity.”
Gaza’s militant Islamic Hamas rulers condemned the Israeli strike on al-Qaissi but, pointedly, their fighters did not fire rockets at Israel. Instead, they quietly allowed other smaller Palestinian terrorist groups to unleash salvos.
In previous flare-ups, Hamas has used such a strategy to allow Palestinian terror groups to burn off their anger, with an eye toward the exchange of strikes eventually quieting down.
Hamas hasn’t been eager to participate in rocket barrages since Israel conducted a punishing three-week war against the militant group in 2009. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians and terrorists were killed and the air and ground assault destroyed much of Hamas’ infrastructure.
Since then, Hamas has sought to shore up its Gaza rule and amass a better weapons arsenal. Still, Israel’s military said Hamas, as the territory’s ruler, would “bear the consequences” for any attacks that emerged from Gaza.
Egypt, which has helped arrange truces in the past, said Saturday it was trying to cobble together a cease-fire.
“(We) won’t give this occupation a free truce while our leaders and heroes are being killed,” said Abu Mujahid, spokesman for al-Qaissi’s group, the Popular Resistance Committees.
The UN and the State Department on Saturday called for an end to the violence.
“We deplore the fact that civilians are once again paying the price,” said Richard Miron, a spokesman for Robert Serry, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. “This goes to prove finally that the situation in Gaza is very fragile and unsustainable.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said, “we condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza by terrorists into southern Israel in recent days, which has dramatically and dangerously escalated in the past day. We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts.”
Israel released a number of video clips showing terrorists who were apparently hit by airstrikes moments before they were to fire rockets. Palestinian rockets against Israeli communities have killed more than a dozen Israelis in the past decade.
This weekend’s events are the deadliest in Gaza in more than a year.
Last April, Israelis killed 11 Palestinians, including four civilians, after Palestinian terrorists fired a rocket that hit a school bus and badly wounded a 16-year-old boy.
In August, Israel assassinated Kamal al-Nairab, al-Qaissi’s predecessor as leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, after the group carried out an attack from Sinai that killed eight Israelis and injured 40.
Barak said al-Qaissi was preparing a similar attack. He said he couldn’t say yet whether the plan had been completely thwarted.
The current fighting could spiral out of control if Palestinian terrorists manage to kill Israeli civilians or if the Israeli strikes kill Palestinian civilians or another top terrorist.
On Saturday, the low whooshing noise of rocket fire from border areas toward Israel was palpably heard inside Gaza City. Israeli drones hovered in the skies above. Tens of thousands of Palestinian mourners marched through the streets in funeral processions. They carried slain militants in coffins, their bodies too torn up to be wrapped in cloth, as Muslim tradition dictates. Masked militants sprayed machine gun fire above the mourners’ heads in angry grief.
“Revenge, revenge!” chanted the crowds.
Airstrikes continued throughout the day. The latest airstrike hit militants in the southern city of Rafah, near where an elaborate network of smuggling tunnels runs between the coastal strip and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. Palestinian officials said one militant was killed and three others wounded. An earlier strike killed two Palestinian militants on a motorbike in the border town of Bani Suheila in southeast Gaza.
Palestinian officials acknowledged that several of the dead were preparing to fire rockets.