The Jerusalem Post Editorial, August 31, 2003

THE THREAT FROM GAZA

The Hamas terrorism machine didn't remain idle during nearly six weeks of the hudna the intra-Palestinian pseudo-cease-fire. Kassam rockets were improved and tried out almost daily, with impunity, on a Gaza beach. Israeli military observers spotted them being test-fired into the sea, in an effort to increase their range. Even before Hamas abrogated the hudna, it was estimated in Israel that the rockets reached a range of 10 kilometers.

The result of this experimentation hit Ashkelon at midday Thursday, when a Kassam slammed into the industrial area on the city's southern outskirts. It was the northernmost target a Kassam has reached so far, backing IDF suspicions with hard physical evidence about how the hudna was utilized.

Ashkelon's Kassam was preceded last Sunday by a rocket that hit the nearby Zikkim beach. Both wrought no appreciable damage, but this is hardly cause for comfort. The repeated attempts on Ashkelon indicate that the largest population center within theoretical range of attack from Gaza (given the Palestinians' current capabilities) is in the terrorists' sights. Moreover, the Ashkelon southern industrial zone is an exceptionally sensitive target. Only a few hundred meters away from last week's rocket impact site is the huge Rutenberg Power Station easily visible from Gaza. Just as close is the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline and a storage facility for hundreds of tons of fuel and gas.

The modified rocket was fired from Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip, about nine kilometers away. The doctored-up Kassam-2 version is capable of still greater range. At that point densely inhabited residential areas in Ashkelon would become highly vulnerable.

This is Israel's nightmare scenario. It's something which the political "national camp" and other Oslo opponents had predicted from the very outset of the process a decade ago. Such warnings went unheeded, were summarily dismissed, and roundly ridiculed. Former prime minister Ehud Barak was in the habit of sardonically inquiring where the rockets were that were supposed to be rained on Ashkelon. Sadly, they have begun arriving to a large degree because Israel trusted the Palestinian Authority for years, while pursuing the Oslo track in its various transformations regardless of the human sacrifice it exacted.

Security experts believe that the Palestinian aim is to "Lebanonize" the situation by achieving the same balance of terror that exists on Israel's northern border. When Barak ordered the pullback from Lebanon, he again derided warnings but undertook to react harshly to any aggression. So far, however, Israel has refrained from substantial response, because enhancedHizbullah firepower now poses real danger to the entire Haifa metropolitan area, if not even considerably to its south.

Gaza's terrorist masterminds would like nothing better than to emulate this pattern and restrain Israel by holding to ransom a sizable city like Ashkelon. Muhammad Dahlan's forces haven't done much against either rocket or mortar fire, apart from occasional lip service and questionable accounts about engaging Kassam cells in gunfights. This, however, doesn't even begin to scratch the surface as far as Israel is concerned.

The PA line now is that it can't be expected to instantly accomplish what Israel hasn't been able to do with superior firepower. Israel, however, deliberately held back in order not to undermine Mahnoud Abbas's and Dahlan's delicate balancing act. Yet if the two don't take serious steps soon, Israel will have no choice but to take matters into its own hand, no matter how reluctantly.

It has already exhibited too much misplaced trust in the PA's declared intentions to abide by its road map obligations. This has only augmented the Kassam threat. More unwarranted tolerance will further escalate the danger to more Israeli civilians and vital national infrastructure.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon indeed directed the IDF to do "everything necessary to foil further Kassam attacks." The Kassams, incidentally, also threaten Sharon's own ranch near the much-targeted Sderot.

The IDF's initial reaction consists of brief sorties into the Beit Hanun area, where foliage and underbrush are cleared to remove potential cover and camouflage for the Kassams and their crews. These, however, are limited operations with specific local aims. One school of thought in the IDF and Shin Bet is that effective surgical action is at present preferable to a massive ground incursion into the Strip.

Nevertheless, a large-scale IDF reentry into Gaza would become unavoidable if limited moves cannot efficiently contain Hamas rocket units and if Dahlan doesn't astound all and sundry by actually dismantling the broad Kassam infrastructure. Barring such a surprise, an extensive reoccupation of some Gaza territory, along the lines of Operation Defensive Shield in Samaria, is only a matter of time.

The hazards for Israel are enormous. If Hamas concludes that it can get away with lobbing rockets into Ashkelon, then Israel will face a strategic disaster. No responsible government can afford to procrastinate for long and risk rendering the threat irreversible.



HOME Maccabean comments