On Saturday, the Israeli army launched a ground invasion of Gaza, and by yesterday, it had effectively cut the territory in two.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operated on the ground in the northern Gaza Strip in el-Atatra, Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya and Sajaiya, near where Hamas has been firing rockets and mortar shells at Israel.
IDF ground forces received support from helicopter gunships, while the Israeli Air Force (IAF) continued attacking targets and objectives deep within the Gaza Strip. Most of the fighting is currently concentrated in the northern Gaza Strip, where most of the rockets fired at southern Israel have come from.
Backing up the troops, mobile artillery units fired shells that exploded in heavy veils of white smoke over Gaza’s urban skyline. Tanks pushed south of Gaza city as deep as the abandoned Israeli settlement of Netzarim, which Israel left along with other Israeli communities when it pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
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That effectively cut off Gaza city, the territory’s largest population center with some 400,000 residents, from the rest of Gaza to the south.
Israel’s military chief said Hamas fighters were trying to draw soldiers deeper into Gaza’s sprawling, densely packed urban areas, where the military said Hamas was seeking protection behind civilians.
Israeli troops took up positions in the locations they had been assigned to reach by the IDF Southern Command and the commander of the Gaza Division.
IDF sources said exchanges of fire had ensued throughout Saturday night into early yesterday morning between IDF
troops and armed Palestinians, and dozens of militants had been hit. The IAF and the Israeli Navy continuedâ€¨attacking as well, striking at more than 45 targets throughout theâ€¨night.
The Israeli Navy concentrated some of its attacks on Gaza city itself. In an interview with Army Radio, Director of the Political-Security Staff in the Defense Ministry Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad detailed the operation’s objectives, but he refrained from discussing their duration.
According to Palestinian media reports, Israeli tanks advanced along the Karni-Netzarim road southeast of Gaza city, as they advanced in the direction of the former Israeli community Netzarim that had been demolished by the Israeli government in August 2005. Battles raged throughout the night and into the early morning in the area of Sajaiya in the eastern Gaza Strip, as well as in the area of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza.
Hamas To Israel: You’re Fighting A Losing Battle
Just a few minutes after the IDF ground operation began, Hamas issued a series of dire warnings. “The Zionist enemy needs to know that its battle in Gazaâ€¨is a lost battle,” said Abu Obeida, a senior official inâ€¨Hamas’ military wing, yesterday.
“Gaza isn’t going to be a picnic for you,” Ismail Radwan, another senior Hamas official, said in a direct appealâ€¨to IDF soldiers. “It will beâ€¨your graveyard.”
Although the IDF ground invasion was accompanied by massive shelling, andâ€¨Hamas tried to boost its morale by saying it had successfully used planted bombs against the Israeli forces, Hamas leaders boasted Israel would be defeated shortly.
“The victory announcement is already prepared,” announced a Hamas official yesterday, while Hamas Political Bureau Director Khaled Mashal in Damascus threatened the operation would bring about a “second, third and fourth Shalit,” referring to the fate of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in June 2006.
Iran In The Backgroundâ€¨ â€¨
As of yesterday evening, an estimated 497 had been killed and approximately 2,300 had been wounded since the beginning of ground operations in Gaza.â€¨ Hamas and Islamic Jihad announced yesterday they would only accept a cease-fire according to a new arrangement that would establish new conditions and a timetable for lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip as well as the opening of crossing points.
“We will not agree to a unilateral cessation of rocket fire unless the conditions for a new [cease-fire] are accepted, which means lifting the blockade. Time is in our favor,” the Hamas statement read.
Mr. Mashal, based in Syria, appeared on television last Friday, declaring Hamas would not surrender.
Iran, too, has begun to openly become involved in the fighting. Theâ€¨secretary-general of Iran’s National Security Council, Saed Jalili, metâ€¨yesterday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Mashal and with the secretary-general of Islamic Jihad. Sources suggest the high-ranking Iranian official possibly passed instructions from the Iranian leadership to continue the rocket attacks against Israel and evade Egyptian requests to dialogue with the Hamas leadership.
On Saturday, Egyptian officials accused Iran openly of involvement in managing affairs in Gaza.
“They are the ones who supplied the arms, the ammunition and the funding, and they are the ones who are interested in making sure that Hamas will not stop firing rockets at Israel in order to escalate the conflict,” said a high-ranking official in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
The IAF bombardments concentrated focal points, including major highways in the Gaza Strip; mosques in Beit Lahiya and in Rafah; the airport in Dahaniya; and the homes of Hamas operatives, which had been empty since their residents had fled at the beginning of last week.
On Saturday, IAF aircraft also bombed the editorial offices and the printer of Hamas’ official weekly newspaper.
The bombardments, like the artillery that was fired yesterday at uninhabited areas in the northern Gaza Strip and along the fence, were part of the ground preparations for the invasion.
Meanwhile, the IDF dropped thousands of propaganda leaflets from the air to Gaza’s inhabitants.
“The Hamas leadership is leading you to ruin. Take responsibility for your future,” they read. In addition, the radio broadcasts of the Gaza Strip were jammed, and a statement in Arabic was read: “We are not fighting against you, but against Hamas. Help us. Stay away from the battle areas.”
Israeliâ€¨officials went into chat rooms on the Internet and told Gaza residents, “Help us. Give us information. Hamas will not know about it.”
Wide Diplomatic Support For Israeli Action
So far, Israel has enjoyed widespread support for the time being of not only the Bush administration but from European countries as well.
The Czech Republic, which chairs the European Union as of Jan. 1, 2009, provided a clear endorsement.
Israel has furthermore enjoyed a rare convergence of interests with the leaders of Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, which apparently are giving tacit support to the Israeli action against the Hamas regime in Gaza.
Israel has rejected all suggestions that it unilaterally declare a cease-fire, as had been proposed by the leaders of the Quartet – the United States, Russia, the U.N. and the E.U. The proposal was rejected because it would not ensure the creation of a mechanism to supervise and stop arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
There are a number of initiatives currently in the pipeline, but high-ranking political officials in Jerusalem said no initiative has either ripened sufficiently or received any acknowledgement by Hamas.
The parties involved in the talks include the United States, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; the European Union, Russia and others. President George W. Bush, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan, Mr. Mubarak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have been trying to reach an arrangement that would result in a cease-fire, which would include a built-in mechanism that would supervise its implementation.
They have also been working on operational ideas for coping with the arms smuggling in to Gaza in coordination with Egypt, including by means of building a buffer along Philadelphi Road, the border area between Egypt and Gaza.
Assessment: The Final Arrangement For Gaza: Full Israel Takeover On The Horizon?
The ground operation has one aim:â€¨ the elimination of Hamas’ capability to launch rockets at Israeli territory.
If the State of Israel aspires to “a fundamental change in the situation in the south,” as Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Saturday, which means that Israel’s leaders realize that this objective cannot be accomplished with a partial operation.
A complete operation that would bring fundamental change to the situation in the south, obligates the complete takeover of Gaza from Hamas on a permanent basis.
Israel does not see any chance of bringing about a complete removal of the rocket threat from the Gaza if the IDF does not permanently patrol the area on the ground.
Rockets have never been fired from an area under IDF control.
This is the experience that Israel has had in the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority is only has responsibility for civilian spheres and for keeping public order.
At this point, this model likely will be adopted in Gaza as a model for a final status arrangement. The IDF will maintain security control over the entire Gaza Strip, while the Palestinian Authority will manage civilian affairs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
David Bedein can be reached at email@example.com .
The Estimated Makeup Of Hamas’ Paramilitary Force
• 16,000 armed men.
• Two brigades deployed along the Gaza border.
• Six brigades further in the Gaza Strip, which are responsible forâ€¨planning bombs, mines, firing anti-tank rockets, digging bomb pits andâ€¨bomb tunnels.
• Special Forces: suicide bombers, anti-tank rocket squads,â€¨anti-aircraft fire squads, snipers, mortar squads, rocket launchingâ€¨squads, intelligence operatives.
• 32,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.
• 2,000 rockets.
• 4,000 rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
• 120 tons of explosives.
• 200-300 tunnels packed with explosives.
• 15 BRDM-2 armored personnel carriers.
• Dozens of jeeps fitted with heavy machine-guns.
• Dozens of 120 millimeter mortars.