TEL AVIV/GAZA: Israel and the Palestinians stepped back from the brink of a new war in the Gaza Strip yesterday, sending signals to each other via Egypt that they would hold their fire unless attacked, after five days of mounting violence.
Israel is considering resuming its contentious practice of assassinating militant leaders in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in an effort to halt intensified rocket attacks on Israel’s south, according to defence officials.
That Israel might renew a practice that brought it harsh international censure is evidence of the tight spot Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in. With Israeli elections two months away, rocket barrages from Gaza are disrupting the lives of 1 million residents of southern Israel, pressuring the government to come up with an effective response.
In the latest flare-up, Gaza militants have fired more than 100 rockets at Israel in recent days, triggering retaliatory Israeli airstrikes that have killed six people in Gaza. Some Israelis are demanding a harsh military move, perhaps a repeat of Israel’s bruising incursion into Gaza four years ago. Others believe Israel should target Hamas leaders, a method it used to kill dozens of militants nearly a decade ago.
The tacit truce arrested an escalation to all-out fighting, but both sides remain armed and primed for another round in the unresolved conflict that has festered since Hamas Islamist militants took over the enclave in 2007. Ismail Haniyah, prime minister of Gaza’s Hamas government, praised the main armed factions in the enclave for agreeing on Monday night to a truce.
“They showed a high sense of responsibility by saying they would respect calm should the Israeli occupation also abide by it,” he said. Haniyah spoke during an unannounced visit to a hospital to see wounded Palestinians.
An official involved in the Egyptian mediation confirmed both sides were ready to stop.
“The message was clear and Israel too told Egypt they were not interested in escalation if rocket firing stopped. The situation now is calm for calm and I hope it does not deteriorate,” the official said. Israel struck three targets in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of Tuesday, including what the army said was a weapons depot and two rocket launch sites. There were no casualties.
Only one Palestinian rocket strike was reported in Israel by 10am yesterday.
Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds. Critics say they invite retaliation by militants and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday visited the southern city of Beesheba, where he told municipal officials that Israel will strike back against the Palestinian attacks. “Whoever believes they can harm the daily lives of the residents of the south and not pay a heavy price is mistaken. I am responsible for choosing the right time to collect the highest price and so it shall be,” Netanyahu said. Defence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential discussions, said the assassination of Hamas leaders is shaping up as the preferred response to the stepped-up rocket fire.
Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood sharply criticised Israeli leaders yesterday over airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, accusing them of heating up the conflict to score political points ahead of elections. The latest round of violence began Saturday, with rocket attacks from Gaza militants and Israeli airstrikes that killed seven Palestinians. More than 100 rockets have exploded in Israel since the weekend.
In its statement, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party referred to Israel as a “Zionist occupier” and a “racist state,” placing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the “fringes” of the “far right.” “In the framework of elections that Israel is witnessing is a recent military escalation against occupied Gaza and the occupied Golan Heights,” the statement said. Israel has set parliamentary elections for January 22. The Brotherhood’s party called on Arab and Muslim governments “to stop the Zionist war that is operating under electoral calculations for personal gain far from humanitarian calculations for peace, security and stability.”
The Muslim Brotherhood itself released a separate statement shortly after its party’s, sharpening the criticism and accusing Israel of following a policy that tries to appear opposite itself “and God knows they are liars.”