Israel will continue to target attackers, Netanyahu tells Blair

Israel will continue to attack the groups that fire rockets on her citizens, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu's statement Monday morning during a meeting with Mideast Quartet envoy Tony Blair came after Israeli airstrikes targeted what the Israel Defense Forces described as “launching squads” in two locations in the northern Gaza Strip. Two Palestinian men were killed in the strikes. Hamas' military wing claimed one as a fighter and Islamic Jihad claimed the other as a fighter in its militia, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency. At least two others were reported injured.

The IDF said the attacks were in response to mortar shell fire at a routine IDF patrol on the border with northern Gaza, near the Israeli kibbutz of Nir Am.

“We've got Hamas, supported by Iran, firing rockets at us. They’ve fired again. We're not going to let anyone arm themselves and fire rockets on us and think that they can do this with impunity,” Netanyahu said. “They're not going to get away with it. We attacked them before, we attacked them after and we're going to prevent them from arming themselves. This is our policy.”

Also Monday, five Kassam rockets were fired at the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, with no injuries or damage reported, according to Ynet.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 500 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit Israel, including over 50 during October alone, according to the IDF.

IDF official: Nuclear Iran may curb Israeli border wars

A nuclear-armed Iran could deter Israel from going to war against Tehran’s guerrilla allies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, a senior Israeli general said on Tuesday.

The Jewish state sees the makings of a mortal threat in Iran’s uranium enrichment and missile programs, and has lobbied world powers to roll them back through sanctions while hinting it could resort to pre-emptive military strikes.

Major-General Amir Eshel, head of strategic planning for the armed forces, echoed Israeli government leaders who argue that Iran, which denies wrongdoing but rejects international censure over its secretive projects, could create a “global nuclear jungle” and fuel arms races in an already volatile Middle East.

Eshel made clear that Israel – widely reputed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal – worries that Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia as well as Palestinian Hamas Islamists who rule Gaza could one day find reassurance in an Iranian bomb.

“They will be more aggressive. They will dare to do things that right now they would not dare to do,” he said in a briefing to foreign journalists and diplomats.

“So this is going to create a dramatic change in Israel’s strategic posture, because if we are forced to do things in Gaza or Lebanon under an Iranian nuclear umbrella , it might be different.”

Eshel, who spoke at the conservative Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs think-tank, quoted an unnamed Indian officer who, he said, had described the Asian power’s friction with nuclear-armed rival and neighbour Pakistan in terms of self-restraint.

“When the other side has a nuclear capability and are willing to use it, you think twice,” Eshel said. “You are more restrained because you don’t want to get into that ball game.”

Israel waged offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in 2006 and 2008-2009, coming under short-range rocket attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are supported by Iran.

Eshel said there are now some 100,000 rockets and missiles that could be fired at Israel by the guerrillas, Iran and its ally Syria.

Despite seeing its resources strained by a 10-month-old popular uprising, Syria’s government has invested $2 billion in air defences over the last two years, and more on counter-measures against any ground invasion, Eshel said, linking both efforts to Syrian wariness of Israel.

He declined to be drawn on whether Israel might try to attack Iran’s distant, dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities alone – or, conversely, whether it could decide to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as an inevitability to be contained through superior firepower and fortifications.

Those decisions, Eshel said, were up to the government and the armed forces would provide it with a “tool box” of options.

“We have the ability to hit very, very hard, any adversary,” said Eshel, a former senior air force officer and fighter pilot. But he cautioned against expecting any decisive “knock-out” blow against Israel’s enemies.

Writing by Dan Williams

Schools in southern Israel reopen

Schools reopened in southern Israeli communities after having been closed for three days due to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Children returned to school Wednesday. More than 45 rockets and mortars had fallen on southern Israel in the previous three days.

Many of the schools do not have areas fortified against rocket attacks to protect the students and staff. The Home Front Command announced Tuesday during a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee that all schools within about 15 miles of the Gaza border will have protected spaces by the start of next school year.

Israel security forces foil multiple terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, arrest dozens of Hamas militant

The Israeli Shin Bet security service foiled a suicide terrorist attack last month in Jerusalem, it emerged Wednesday. An explosive belt was seized only 24 hours before the planned attack, after it was already smuggled into Jerusalem.

The interception of the planned attack was part of a large-scale operation by the Shin Bet, the IDF and the police against the Hamas military infrastructure in the West Bank and Jerusalem. During the operation, dozens of Hamas militants – operating in alleged 13 separate cells – were arrested.

The main cell charged with carrying out the attack was based in Hebron. The cell was in touch with the Hamas headquarters in Syria, and the date of the attack was set for August 21. The planned attack involved a fire extinguisher which contained six kilograms of explosives. The device was supposed to be carried by a suicide bomber in a bus or a mall in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood in Jerusalem.

The same cell was responsible for the March 23 attack in the central bus station in Jerusalem, where Mary Jean Gardner, a British tourist, was killed, and 47 other people were injured.


Israel, Gaza militants agree to halt fire

Israel and Islamic Jihad militants agreed to halt fire on Friday after days of deadly cross border violence, a Palestinian official said.

Eight Palestinians, including a local commander of the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, were killed since a truce was called on Monday, raising to 26 the number of Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes in the past week.

An Israeli man has also been killed in rocket attacks launched by Gaza militants since the weekend.

The Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israel and the Islamic Jihad group both told Cairo they would abide by the Egyptian and United Nations mediated truce announced on Monday.

A statement issued overnight by Taher al-Nono, spokesman of the Hamas government in Gaza, said his administration held talks with Egypt and the United Nations to press Israel to stop attacks and urged factions to stop rocket fire into Israel.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said no rockets had been fired from Gaza since Thursday.

The surge of violence began on Aug. 18 when gunmen who Israel said had infiltrated from Gaza via Egypt’s neighbouring Sinai desert killed eight Israelis on a desert border road.

Seven of the attackers were killed by Israeli forces and Egypt said five of its men died in the crossfire.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jon Hemming

Israel moves to ease strains with Egypt

Israel offered on Thursday to investigate jointly with Egypt the killing of five Egyptian security personnel during an Israeli operation against cross-border raiders a week ago, violence that has strained relations with Cairo’s new rulers.

“Israel is ready to hold a joint investigation with the Egyptians into the difficult event,” a statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quoted his national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, as saying.

Amidror said the terms of such a probe “would be set by the armies of both sides”, going a step beyond Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s earlier pledge to hold an investigation and share its findings with Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

While Israel moved to ease tensions with Egypt, it mounted further attacks against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, where more than 20 rockets have been launched at southern Israel since Wednesday despite a truce announced on Monday.

Five Palestinians, including a local commander of the Islamic Jihad group in the Gaza Strip, have been killed in the latest bloodshed.

The surge of violence began on Aug. 18 when gunmen who Israel said had infiltrated from the Gaza Strip via Egypt’s neighbouring Sinai desert killed eight Israelis on a desert border road.

Seven of the attackers were killed by Israeli forces and Egypt said five of its men died in the crossfire. The incident triggered the most serious diplomatic row with Egypt since a popular revolt overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February.

The violence between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip threatens to unravel the shaky truce mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.

U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry, in a written statement, expressed his “deep concern” and called on all sides “to immediately take steps to prevent any further escalation”.

Taher al-Nono, a Hamas spokesman, said any “understanding for calm must be mutual and we will not accept that Israel continues its killing of our people”.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Gaza rocket lands in Egypt as border tension simmers

A woman was injured by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip into the Egyptian town of Rafah on Wednesday, Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported, as tension simmered in the region after a spate of cross-border violence.

The woman was taken to hospital with light injuries, said a security source in the area.

Another source said it was the first time a rocket from Gaza had landed on a residential area and not in the desert, which was “raising concern among the security forces here”.

Egyptian security forces were searching the desert frontier with Gaza and Israel for militants who may be behind the killing of eight Israelis on Thursday along a road north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat, Egyptian officials said.

Five Egyptian border guards were killed last week as Israeli forces repelled the gunmen, causing the worst crisis in Egypt’s relations with Israel since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Israel said the militants had travelled from Gaza through the Egyptian Sinai, and accused Cairo of losing its grip on security in the border region, a charge that Egypt denied.

Israeli forces launched air strikes on Gaza shortly after the attacks north of Eilat. Israel said the leader of the faction responsible for the attacks was killed in the strikes.

Gaza militants responded by firing rockets into southern Israel and some rockets also landed in Egypt. Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza agreed a ceasefire on Monday but it has failed to stop the violence.

Egyptian General Mohsen Fangary of the ruling army council was due to meet Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on Wednesday and they were likely to discuss the events in Sinai and relations with Israel, a cabinet source said.

Reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer

Rockets pound Israel as air force strikes back in Gaza

A day after terrorist attacks killed 8 Israelis and wounded more than 20, Israeli airstrikes continued to pound targets in Gaza as rockets fell on Israel.

Sixteen rockets were reported fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip on Friday. One person was seriously injured after a Grad rocket landed in a yeshiva courtyard in the Israeli city of Ashdod, and five others were treated for moderate injuries or shock.

In northern Lachish an empty building sustained light damage after being struck by two rockets, and the Eshkol Regional Council was also struck, with no damage or injuries reported.

A volley of 10 rockets early Friday morning all landed harmlessly in unpopulated areas.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force continued to retaliate for the previous days attacks. On Friday Israeli planes carried out airstrikes throughout Gaza.

The Jerusalem Post reported that seven Hamas security installations were attacked in Friday morning.

Also Friday, Haaretz reported that a man believed to have been a member of the group that carried out the Thursday attacks killed himself and wounded several Egyptian soldiers in a suicide bombing on the Israeli-Egypt border.

Hamas eyes new attacks in bid to undercut peace talks

In the run-up to the American-initiated Middle East peace parley in November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are accelerating efforts to reach an agreement on the principles of a final peace deal.

At the same time, however, Hamas is aiming to derail the process with a new wave of terrorist strikes and rocket attacks.

Olmert and Abbas want to be able to present an agreement of principles to the peace conference in order to give its deliberations real substance. In parallel, Israel and the Palestinians are working on cooperative economic projects that could improve the peacemaking climate and underpin any future peace deal.

The thinking is that if there is a serious Palestinian agenda, the conference will be able to draw major players like the Saudis and jump-start a wider Israeli-Arab process based on the Arab League peace plan. The proposal calls for the full normalization of ties between Israel and all 22 Arab states in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all areas captured in 1967.

But there are number of obvious snags. For example, what about the Golan Heights? Would Israel be expected to return them to Syria even though Syria, because of its close ties to Iran, probably won’t even be invited to the conference?

Worse, Hamas terrorists have made it clear that they are determined to launch a new campaign of terror to undermine progress between Israel and the Palestinian Fatah moderates. Moreover, what kind of Palestinian state could be established with the fundamentalists still in control in Gaza?

Olmert and Abbas have met several times in the past few weeks to discuss core issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees. What seems to be shaping up is an agreement that lays out principles for a territorial settlement in two stages and a timetable for transition from stage one to stage two.

In stage one, Israel withdraws from the West Bank up to the separation barrier after a period of quiet during which the Palestinian Authority exhibits firm control of security. In stage two, Israel pulls back to lines closer to the 1967 borders and compensates the Palestinians on a one-to-one basis for settler land it annexes.

One of the ideas for compensation is to include land used to connect the West Bank and Gaza over Israeli territory. In stage two, the Palestinians declare a state in the West Bank and Gaza, even if Hamas is still in control there. The idea is to come to the November summit with an agreement in principle on these issues and to continue refining the details in subsequent talks.

Clearly, though, the plan would start going into effect only after a credible cease-fire has been established.

That is precisely what Hamas will do its best to prevent. The last thing Hamas wants is for its secular Fatah rival to get credit for pulling off a peace deal with Israel and then come under pressure to comply.

According to the Shin Bet security service, the Damascus-based leadership of Hamas has ordered the organization to launch a new campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli targets in the West Bank to show Israelis that Abbas’ Fatah cannot keep the peace and therefore is incapable of cutting a peace deal.

Israel intelligence anticipates that in an effort to destabilize the situation further, Hamas also will launch Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza. Palestinian militants have been firing Qassams at Sderot and other nearby towns and villages on a regular basis, but Hamas has not yet joined in. If it does, the Israelis expect a significant increase in the bombardments, which could lead to a major Israeli incursion into Gaza to stop it.

Some Israeli strategists say that is precisely what Hamas, which has been smuggling unprecedented quantities of arms into Gaza, would like to see – a standoff in Gaza in which the Israeli army is forced to take heavy casualties.

Meanwhile, Israel and moderate Palestinians in the West Bank are proceeding with their peacemaking efforts as if the Hamas threat does not exist. In addition to the effort to shape a final peace deal, they are working seriously on economic plans to help create conditions for a sustainable peace. One of the plans is based on a Japanese initiative dubbed “the Corridor for Peace and Prosperity.”

In a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho in mid-August, the foreign ministers of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Japan enthusiastically backed the “peace corridor” idea. The initiative envisages the establishment of an agro-industrial park in the greater Jericho area, with a mechanism to distribute the produce through Jordan to the wealthy Gulf states. The produce and goods would be transported across the Jordan River to a distribution center on the Jordanian side.

The Japanese have identified agriculture and agro-industry as a potential “driving force for sustainable economic development in the emerging Palestinian state,” and see in this kind of cooperative venture a way of laying the foundation for a lasting peace.

Since the renewal of the peace dialogue between Israel and moderate West Bank Palestinians in June, an abundance of ideas have been broached to help the Palestinians create the basic infrastructure for viable statehood. Israeli officials welcome the new energy and see it as a means of underpinning an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“For stable peace you have to have a Palestinian state that is successful,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “A failed Palestinian state would be a recipe for further violence.”

Looking at the West Bank scene, chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace have never seemed better; in Gaza they have never seemed worse. And, it seems, whether the American summit in November actually boosts Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will depend on the outcome of the internal Palestinian struggle.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent of The Jerusalem Report.

Targeted Killings’ Other Casualties

Killing Hamas leaders wounds the terrorist group, Israeli and Palestinian officials agree. At question is whether moderate Palestinians — and U.S. influence in the region — are also casualties of Israel’s targeted strikes.

Israel has killed at least 11 leaders of Hamas since the group claimed responsibility for a deadly Jerusalem bus bombing on Aug. 19, which killed 21 people, including at least five children.

Israel declared "all-out war" against the group after the bus bombing.

The new frequency of the killings — and the targeting of political as well as military leaders — have led some to wonder whether the Bush administration’s "road map" peace plan, which envisions an end to terrorism and a Palestinian state within three years, is still viable.

"It has a serious effect on the Hamas leadership, on the one hand," Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who now lobbies for the Palestinians in Washington, said of the killings.

On the other hand, he said, "it undermines U.S. credibility on the road map."

Abington said the killings would shift moderate Arab regimes — key to the Bush administration’s plans not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but for Iraq — away from support for the United States.

"Israel is assassinating left and right, and the appearance is that the United States is acquiescing," Abington said.

The lack of moderate Arab support in 2000 helped scuttle the Camp David talks when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat refused to take painful steps — such as conceding parts of Jerusalem — knowing he would be on his own.

Israelis say that defeating Hamas ultimately could remove the extremist yoke that has held back the Palestinian leadership until now.

"Hamas has no interest in any political solution," said Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Israel would have preferred the Palestinian Authority to handle Hamas, but they have consistently refused to meet their road map responsibilities and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure."

In any case, the Hamas attacks — and Israeli retaliation — may mean that the United States fundamentally has to reassess its policies in the region.

"American policy is now in a shambles, the road map no longer seems viable, the cease-fire is in tatters," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

If the United States has problems with the intensity of Israel’s reaction, its public expressions have been muted at best.

"Israel has a right to defend herself, but Israel needs to take into account the effect that actions they take have on the peace process," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said after Israel killed top Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab in a rocket attack on Aug. 21.

Shanab was a political leader who helped broker the recent cease-fire, signed onto by the main Palestinian terrorist groups, which led to a brief period of calm. His killing came just two months after Israel attempted to kill Hamas spokesman and senior member Abdel Aziz Rantissi.

Any American attempt to distinguish between political and military leaders runs the risk of hypocrisy, said Matthew Levitt, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"We don’t make a distinction between Osama bin Laden and his foot soldiers, even though bin Laden is not the trigger puller," Levitt said. "Those who commit acts of terrorism and those who order them carried out are just as culpable."

Gold said that political leaders and spokesmen serve the same tactical ends as bombmakers.

"Israel does not accept the argument that there is a difference between the political and military wings of Hamas," he said. "The U.S. used to be very concerned when Al Qaeda spokesmen would appear on Al-Jazeera because they could have had operational messages mixed into their language. The same is true for Hamas spokesmen like Rantissi."

Targeting political leaders is not new: Israel made no distinctions between political and military officials in its famous action against Black September after the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Still, Israel’s recent intensity against Hamas is unprecedented in the way it has confronted the 3-year-old intifada.

Levitt, a former FBI analyst, said there is a tactical advantage to maintaining the intensity of the attacks.

"Having a situation in which all of Hamas has to go underground, moving it from desktops to laptops, is a significant blow to its ability to carry out operations," he said.

Abington agreed that is true in the short term — but is worried that ultimately the targeted killings would only reinforce the militant group.

"It undermines Abu Mazen," Abington said, using the popular name for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

"One reason he has been reluctant to take moves against Hamas is because he thinks the Palestinian street does not support him. Assassinations only inflame support for Hamas."

It was a point echoed by Brown,

"From the Israeli perspective, it’s clear that suicide bombing depends first on capability, and also on a social environment that makes it possible," Brown said. "Assassination targets the first, but makes the second worse."

Still, Brown said, "It strikes me that the killings are motivated by the lack of other options."

Bombing Follows Thwarted Attacks

A suicide bus bombing in Haifa has shattered a relative
period of calm in Israel and served as a stark reminder to a country bracing
for the possible implications of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

With the United States stepping up military and diplomatic preparations
for a possible strike against Iraq, much of Israel was focused this week on
when a war might break out and whether it would affect Israel. But the focus
changed abruptly Wednesday when at least 15 people were killed and more than 30
wounded in a suicide bombing on a Haifa bus.

Heftziba Shetreet, who was in a building opposite the
bombing site, described the initial moments of confusion after she heard the

“In the first few seconds, we thought the war had started,”
she told Israel Radio. “We felt the explosion right above our heads. Within
seconds we realized that there was a terrorist attack. We went outside and saw
the bus, completely scorched, cloaked in smoke and the wounded strewn all over.
Without thinking, we immediately ran to help them.” 

It was the first time terrorists had succeeded in carrying
out a suicide bombing in Israel since Jan. 5, when 23 people were killed, some
of them foreign workers, after two suicide bombers launched an attack near Tel
Aviv’s old Central Bus Station. But Israeli security and political officials
stressed that the feeling of quiet was only an illusion, and that Israel has
thwarted numerous attempted bombings since the Tel Aviv attack.

Ya’acov Borovsky, the police chief of the Northern district,
noted that there were some 50 alerts for possible terrorist attacks across Israel
on Wednesday, but no specific warnings of an impending bombing in Haifa.
Immediately following the bombing, police in other Northern communities went on
alert for a possible attempt by terrorist groups to stage a string of attacks,
Channel 2 television reported. 

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the
attack. But Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the bombing, saying it came in
response to Israeli military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The
attack was the first since the new Israeli government took office, but there
was no immediate indication that the Cabinet would adopt a policy different
from that of the previous government.

As he has done following previous acts of terror, Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon blamed the Palestinian Authority for the bombing, saying
it had done nothing to stop such attacks.

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the Shinui Party, a new
member of the Security Cabinet, said Israel should not dramatically alter its
response to terrorist attacks. 

“We must continue to fight terrorism all the time,” he told
Army Radio. “There is no difference between an attempted attack — and there are
many of these — and an attack that succeeds.

“We should not act with an intent for revenge,” he
continued. “We must keep constant pressure on the Palestinians until the
moderates understand that they must put pressure on the extremists.”

Political sources were quoted as saying that the relative
quiet of recent weeks was the direct result of the Israeli army’s ongoing
anti-terrorist activities by in the West Bank and Gaza. The United States and
Britain were among foreign nations condemning the attack.

President Bush “stands strongly with the people of Israel in
fighting terrorism, and his message to terrorists is that their efforts will
not be successful,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Earlier this week, both the United States and Britain had
criticized Israel for harming Palestinian civilians during anti-terror
operations in the Gaza Strip.

Following the attack, Army Radio quoted Palestinians as
reporting that Israeli tanks entered Jenin. Israel Radio reported that troops
had arrested a senior Hamas militant in Ramallah.

In Wednesday’s attack, the Egged bus was about halfway
through its route from the city’s Central Bus Station to Haifa University, at
the tip of Mt. Carmel, when the explosion took place. The powerful blast blew
off the roof, leaving the frame of the bus as charred, twisted metal. Borovsky
said the terrorist apparently boarded the bus several stops before detonating
the bomb.

The bus driver, who was lightly wounded, said he noticed
nothing suspicious prior to the explosion. 

“I pulled up to the stop and opened the doors and suddenly
there was an explosion,” Marwan Darmouni recalled. “Then I didn’t feel
anything. When I opened my eyes, everything was destroyed, there was blood on
my hands. I tried to get off the bus, and everyone was trying to phone the police
and evacuate the wounded.” 

Darmouni, an Israeli Arab from the town of Shfaram, said
that security guards assigned to public transportation usually get on his bus,
but that he hadn’t seen any on Wednesday.

“It’s sad,” Darmouni’s father told Israel’s Channel 10
television. The terrorists “don’t differentiate between blood and blood.”