Israel Resists Calls for Broad Assault in Gaza

Medics tend to an Israeli soldier at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon after a pre-dawn rocket strike from Gaza wounded 69 soldiers at Zikim base, less than two miles north of the strip.
Medics tend to an Israeli soldier at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon after a pre-dawn rocket strike from Gaza wounded 69 soldiers at Zikim base, less than two miles north of the strip. (By Tsafrir Abayov -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

JERUSALEM, Sept. 11 -- The Israeli government resisted calls Tuesday from hawkish lawmakers and angry citizens to begin a broad assault on the Gaza Strip after a pre-dawn rocket strike on an army training base wounded 69 soldiers on their last day of boot camp.

The single rocket struck an unoccupied tent at the Zikim base, less than two miles north of Gaza, near a cluster of other tents in which recruits slept. By the end of the day, one soldier remained in critical condition and nine others had severe to moderate injuries. The majority sustained light injuries and wounds, many from shrapnel.

The number of reported casualties was extraordinary for an attack involving the rocket known generically as a Qassam, a highly inaccurate weapon cut from lampposts and other tubing that usually carries only a small amount of explosive material in its warhead. Palestinian gunmen compensate by firing the rockets with frequency; more than 100 were launched last month.

In a statement sent to news agencies in Gaza, the Islamic Jihad group asserted responsibility for the attack, which the armed movement called "Operation Victory at Dawn." The armed wing of the smaller Popular Resistance Committees was named as a partner.

"We will continue the resistance, whether people like it or not," the statement read. "We're not frightened by the threats to invade Gaza. We will continue to react against Israeli crimes."

Thousands of the crude rockets, which have a range of several miles, have been shot into Israel since 2000, when the Palestinian uprising began; Israeli airstrikes, intensive artillery shelling and incursions by ground troops have brought only brief lulls. The Hamas administration that has run Gaza since June has done little to rein in the fighters who launch the rockets.

In a statement posted on a Hamas Web site, Sami Abu Zouhri, a spokesman for the radical Islamic movement, said Tuesday that "we continue to emphasize the continuation of the project of resistance and the right of all of the armed branches to defend the Palestinian people."

"These rockets are facing the continuing Zionist aggression," Zouhri said. "The problem is with the occupation."

After a rocket landed near a day-care center in the Israeli city of Sderot last week, some Israeli cabinet ministers called for the government to suspend delivery of electricity, water and fuel to Gaza's 1.4 million residents.

Some officials renewed that threat in the angry aftermath of Tuesday's strike. But the only military response occurred a few hours after the attack when Israeli aircraft fired on rocket launch sites in Beit Lahiya. Four Palestinian children were injured in that strike, health officials in Gaza said. Palestinian gunmen later fired seven mortar rounds at the Kerem Shalom border crossing in southern Gaza, causing no damage.

"We were lucky," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said of the strike on Zikim. "It could have been a lot worse, and it followed an attack last week that could have been a lot worse. But we can't base our policy on luck."

Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, is soon to receive a detailed plan from the Israeli military that will include an assessment of whether cutting basic services to Gaza would help reduce the rocket fire.

The temporary halts in rocket attacks achieved through Israeli military action have often been accompanied by high civilian casualties in Gaza. Regev said that the Israeli government understands "there is no magical step," but that "when you have these attacks day after day, week after week, month after month -- it cannot go on."

"It is incumbent on this government to protect its people," he said.

In the hours after the attack, dozens of parents gathered outside the Zikim base, angrily demanding that their children be allowed to leave. Many of them criticized the army for having the recruits sleep in unfortified tents, particularly because the camp has been struck previously by rockets.

"Put them in concrete structures," the father of a son inside the base said in a radio interview. "For three weeks, I've been asking. I've been here now for four hours. It's a mess. Excuse me, but this is no army."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company