By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 29, 2008
JERUSALEM, Dec. 28 -- Israeli warplanes struck a broad array of targets in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Sunday, hitting a security compound, a mosque, the Islamic University, a television station and a network of smugglers' tunnels along the border with Egypt as Hamas fired fresh volleys of rockets into Israel. The Palestinian death toll approached 300 after two days of violence, making this the deadliest operation in Gaza since Israel seized control of the coastal territory from Egypt in 1967.
Israeli officials said that they were prepared for an extended campaign in Gaza, possibly including ground forces, and that the goal is to break Hamas's military capacity. "We will continue to attack as long as they fire," said a senior Israeli military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Israel's military, he said, intends to pressure Hamas to the point where the Islamist movement either "runs out of will or runs out of capability to launch more attacks."
Israeli officials said they were choosing targets that they believed were being used for weapons manufacturing or storage. The Israeli cabinet called up 6,500 reserve forces Sunday, and troops stationed along the border with Gaza were on "the highest level of alert," according to Israeli military spokesman Capt. Benjamin Rutland.
Hamas officials said Sunday that they would continue to fight back, and they called for suicide operations to counter Israeli military strikes. Palestinian fighters launched more than 20 additional rockets Sunday, including two that reached deep into Israeli territory, falling just short of the port city of Ashdod. The rockets, which the Israeli military said were Katyushas, traveled about 20 miles, significantly further than previous rockets from Gaza.
Although the intensity of attacks was slightly lower than it had been on Saturday, Israeli F-16s remained a steady presence in the sky above Gaza on Sunday, dropping heavy, precision-guided weaponry on dozens of targets. The attacks sent plumes of thick, black smoke into the Mediterranean sky. On the ground, dozens of buildings -- including a jail where Palestinian prisoners had been kept locked inside -- were reduced to heaps of rubble. Near midnight, Israeli bombs struck the Islamic University of Gaza, the territory's primary center for higher education and a key recruiting ground for Hamas.
Ill-equipped hospitals across Gaza were overwhelmed by the massive influx of patients, with doctors saying they have treated more than 1,300 Palestinians for injuries.
While Israeli officials said that the vast majority of those killed were active in Hamas's military operations, Palestinian medical officials in Gaza said that more than two dozen women and children were among the dead. Exact numbers were impossible to verify. Israel has barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza since the operation began Saturday.
Israel says Hamas provoked Saturday's surprise attacks by firing hundreds of rockets into southern Israel since a six-month-old cease-fire expired Dec. 19. There were no fatalities from the rockets during the week, but an Israeli man was killed Saturday when a rocket struck an apartment building in Netivot.
Speaking on the NBC News program "Meet the Press," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insisted that Israel does not intend a wholesale takeover of Gaza, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. "Our goal is not to reoccupy" the strip, she said.
Israel pulled out its ground forces from Gaza and withdrew from its settlements in the narrow coastal strip in 2005, but since then has launched frequent military raids inside the territory and maintains a tight grip on Gaza entry and exit points. Hamas, which swept Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, has been in control internally in Gaza since June 2007, when its fighters forced out security forces loyal to the more moderate government of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas and allied groups such as Islamic Jihad have used Gaza as a launching pad for thousands of rocket attacks against southern Israel in recent years. Since the 2005 Israeli withdrawal, 11 Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from the strip. Israel has responded with tight sanctions that have kept out all but the most basic supplies of food and fuel. As a result, the Gazan economy has almost completely collapsed. Israel allowed some humanitarian supplies into Gaza on Sunday, but aid groups have warned of a deepening crisis unless restrictions are eased.
Much of what's available in Gaza -- from food to weapons -- is smuggled in through an extensive network of underground tunnels to Egypt. As darkness fell Sunday, Israel said it had destroyed 40 of those tunnels in airstrikes, although it is believed that many more remain.
At one point Sunday evening, hundreds of Gazans seeking to escape the territory attempted to breach the southern border wall that separates the coastal strip from Egypt. The crowd was largely turned back by Egyptian security officers, who fired their weapons and clashed with the Palestinians. Egyptian state television reported that a Hamas gunman shot and killed an Egyptian border guard.
Egypt brokered the recent cease-fire, despite deep mistrust between Hamas and the Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak, who fears that Islamist extremism in Gaza could spill over into his country and pose a political threat.
Across the Middle East, Arabs rallied Sunday in indignation at the scale of the Gaza attacks and the loss of life. But the response itself illustrated the divide that persists in the Arab world between popular anger and the ambivalence of Arab governments toward Hamas. As in 2006, when the response of most Arab governments to Israeli attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon was muted, so it was again with Hamas, a movement largely marginalized in official circles in the Middle East.
The point was not lost on protesters in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, where tens of thousands of people marched. Many carried banners condemning Israel and what they called "Arab silence" over the second day of the Israeli strikes.
Even Hamas's nominal allies found themselves in an awkward position. Syria is engaged in its own negotiations with Israel to recover the Golan Heights, which it lost in the 1967 war. Iran, too, is waiting to see what the incoming Obama administration will bring to long-fitful diplomacy in the Middle East. Syria on Sunday announced it was suspending its indirect peace talks with Israel.
Iran has been a major backer of Hamas, and on Sunday, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on all Muslims to "defend the defenseless women, children and people in Gaza in any way possible," adding: "Whoever is killed in this legitimate defense is considered a martyr."
Hamas officials echoed that call to action against Israel, warning of possible suicide operations. The Islamist movement's top leaders in Gaza remained in hiding Sunday, fearing they might be targeted.
"Even if they hang us and our blood spreads on the streets of Gaza, and even if our bodies are dismembered . . . we will not make concessions and we will not retreat," Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's leader in Gaza, said in televised remarks.
Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, refused to join that call and blamed Hamas for the failure of the cease-fire.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Abbas still holds sway, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, and two protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
"This is organized crime by the state against civilians, with the blessing of the world," said Mohammad Farahat, a Hamas leader in the West Bank.
The U.N. Security Council expressed "serious concern" Sunday over the situation in Gaza and called for "an immediate halt to all violence." Pope Benedict XVI also urged an end to the violence, saying "the native land of Jesus cannot continue to be witness to so much bloodshed, repeating itself without end."
The White House has demanded that Hamas stop firing its rockets and has called on Israel to avoid hitting civilians.
President-elect Barack Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, received an intelligence briefing Sunday, and aides said he is monitoring the situation. Obama planned to talk Sunday night about the unfolding situation with Gen. James L. Jones and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), his nominees for national security adviser and secretary of state, respectively, according to a transition aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We appreciate the information being shared" by the administration, the Obama aide said. "There is one president at a time, and our work now is focused on being ready to hit the ground running on January 20th."
Israeli officials said Sunday that they are not concerned that international pressure will force them to stop their military campaign prematurely. They also expressed satisfaction that they had managed to surprise Hamas with the timing and scale of their attacks, and indicated that their air campaign -- which so far has destroyed more than 210 targets -- is only beginning.
"The Hamas military machine is still there. It's still formidable. This is not a time for any kind of euphoria," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "This could well get worse before it gets better."
In Sunday's cabinet meeting, Olmert urged patience, and Israeli officials said their operations in Gaza could last weeks, or longer.
In Gaza, residents wondered how they will cope.
Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said the Israeli airstrikes were only succeeding in angering people and driving them into the arms of Hamas.
"Israel is trying to secure itself, but they're making more extremists. People will join Hamas rather than leave Hamas," he said. "But the Israelis are promising more. So we're bracing ourselves for that."
Correspondents Sudarsan Raghavan at the Erez crossing in Israel and Anthony Shadid in Baghdad, staff writer Philip Rucker in Hawaii with Obama, and special correspondents Sufian Taha in Ramallah and Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.