Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tzuk Eytan (Protective Edge) Day 24

“Everyone knows someone who has lost a soldier, or has a soldier wounded, or has a soldier in Gaza,” said one Jerusalem resident. Another added, “This hits home when you know a mother who has lost a son in Gaza.”

As of Thursday afternoon, 65 Israeli soldiers have died in this conflict, with over 300 injured. Nearly 1,400 Gazans have been killed, including over 200 Hamas fighters. According to reports, 400,000 Gazans are homeless. Channel 10's military correspondent Alon Ben David said that those driven from their homes are migrating to the wealthier and untouched neighborhoods, knocking on doors, asking for shelter, or food.

Rockets continue to rain down on Israel from Hamas. Most are intercepted by the Iron Dome, some drift through and crash either in open areas, or occasionally land on a house or apartment building usually, but not always, devoid of residents.

But the mortars lobbed into Israel have been exacting a high price. One mortar attack landed in the midst of a group of Israeli soldiers gathered along the border, killing ten, injuring six. Another mortar attacked killed five in a different location. “Mortars are more dangerous than the tunnels,” said one military expert.

Israel is searching for solutions to the mortars, and tunnels, similar to the high-tech answers to Hamas rocket fire like the Iron Dome. Anti-mortar solutions are also in development, ranging from radar-guided radar, to gattling guns. So far none have been battle-tested enough to be put in service. These systems are important, said a military analyst, because of tomorrows threat from Syria, Lebanon, and Iran, not just today's threat from Gaza. Israel has also equipped Merkava tanks with high-tech anti-rocket rockets that have saved many lives. One IDF officer said that Israel also has an answer to the tunnels that would match the Iron Dome, but the system wouldn't be operational at least for another year. Experts point out that many tunnels exist that start in Lebanon and exit in Israel.

Or Heller, a Channel 10 military correspondent, reported today that the Israel army continues to battle with Hamas fighters in various towns along the 60-kilometer length of Gaza, while staying within a two-kilometer range from the border. Analysts say that over 20 of the 32 terrorist tunnels uncovered have been destroyed. “Destroying the tunnels will take time,” said Heller. Reportedly, some of the tunnels descend 35-meters, nearly 10 stories, below ground, and run over two kilometers from Gaza into Israel. Most are at least 45-feet below ground.

The Israel army is busy searching Gaza neighborhoods for the tunnel openings. A number were discovered in the basement of Gaza Mosques. Television scenes show automatic weapons near the tunnel openings in a mosque basement ready for use should Hamas fighters need them.

Many of the tunnel openings are in residential buildings that have been booby-trapped. Fifteen Israeli soldiers walked into such an apartment building without noticing that one wall was packed with explosives. Nine soldiers died when the booby-trap was detonated, five others were taken to hospital in serious condition. Most of the tunnel openings are defended with booby-traps. Usually, but obviously not always, the bombs are discovered. An observer said this is just another example of how Hamas is fighting this battle. One reporter said that buildings housing tunnel openings in the basement are often laden with gasoline. When a sniper fired on Israeli troops from one such building, the entire three story structure blew up.

In another incident shown on Hamas TV a squad of Hamas fighters infiltrated Israel through an underground tunnel, emerging into the fields of a border kibbutz just a few hundred meters from an IDF concrete fortified watchtower manned by raw recruits. The Hamas squad crept unnoticed by the soldiers in the watchtower. Neglecting orders the steel door to the watchtower was wide open. The Hamas soldiers had no trouble engaging the Israeli soldiers, killing four. A fifth fought back, killing a Hamas fighter. The others fled, trying to take an Israeli corpse with them, but gave up and ran. An Israeli Tabor automatic rifle was later shown on Hamas TV as a trophy of the fight.

Wednesday night the Israel air force was less active than the previous nights, only attacking 50 targets rather than the up to 150 the nights before. But the horrific pictures emerging from Gaza were fresh fodder for anti-Israeli feelings. A Sky news correspondent walked through an open-air market in Saujaiyeh reporting that witnesses said an Israeli helicopter strafed the area with machine-gun fire, and then fired a missile into a nearby building. The reporter said the Israelis claimed mortars had been fired from the area and were only returning fire. An IDF air force commander said that no bombs were dropped, or missiles fired until it was clear that no civilians are in the area.

Hamas, according to observers, is reveling in the scenes of destroyed buildings, wounded in their hospitals, and masses carrying bodies in the streets of Gaza. Hamas, say these observers, are using these scenes as weapons, as much as the terror tunnels, mortars, and the fighters sneaking into Israel.

One Italian reporter told the TV that he watched as a Hamas rocket landed in a school, then saw Hamas troops quickly rush in to clean up the debris that would incriminate them. The reporter said he was threatened if he reported the event, and only once on the Israeli side of the fence did he tell what he saw.

Analysts point out that Hamas also prohibits reporters in Gaza from showing scenes of Hamas fighters in anything but heroic situations, like infiltrating Israel through a tunnel. No scenes are ever broadcast of the nearly 200 Hamas fighters captured by the Israeli forces. Or Hamas fighters injured or fleeing from Israeli troops approaching their positions. Hamas fighters fleeing Israeli forces is reportedly a regular occurrence.

Other reports are of Hamas gunning down 20 Gazans that demonstrated in Gaza against Hamas. “Terrorists rule by terror,” said a pundit. “And many of those in Gaza are terrified of saying anything against Hamas. They have even been threatened if they flee their homes where tunnels openings have been drilled in the basement.” Another commentator said, “These people don't talk to the TV cameras. If they did they'd be killed.”

A similar situation exists with the UNRAA schools. So far Israeli troops have found Hamas rockets and weapons in three UNRAA schools. In each event the rockets were returned to Hamas. “The guys who run these schools want to stay alive,” said an observer. “Cooperation is their insurance.” Another analyst pointed out that some of those running the UNRRA schools are Hamas sympathizers.

On Wednesday, Israel declared a 4-hour humanitarian ceasefire but Hamas refused to abide by it claiming they hadn't been asked, and weren't interested in a ceasefire imposed on them by Israel.

Some commentators are critical of the Israeli military for underestimating how long it would take to neutralize the tunnels, originally thinking only a day or two. Other voices have been raised wondering why if the army knew about the tunnel threat, obvious after the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers Gilad Shalit six years ago, nothing was done earlier to destroy them. Defenders of the army say that the cost of destroying the tunnels was something no one wanted to pay until it was necessary.
US Sec. Of State John Kerry has reached out to Qatar and Turkey in an effort to build a coalition in order to reach a ceasefire. The so-called Egyptian initiative is the one citied as the operative plan. Egypt has agreed to host the talks. Both Palestinian Authority representatives, as well as Hamas representatives, are expected to travel to Cairo today. Even Hamas officials from Gaza who have been assured of a safe passage by Israel.

However, observers point out that even if Israel attends, that doesn't mean the Israeli delegation will do more than listen, as they have done in previous meetings. No decisions will be made at these meetings.  Labor Party leader Herzog advised patience. “These talks take time. A lot is being done behind the scenes.”

Still, observers say, Hamas has not yet scored a decisive punch that would justify all the damage to Gaza, and is thus not willing to agree to a ceasefire yet. Especially since the Hamas leadership is safely deep beneath the ground.

Israeli politicians, from PM Netanyahu down, have been stressing that the USA is a firm supporter of Israel and deeply involved in Israel's well-being. This as a way to moderate the ill-feelings in Washington that arose from Israeli press criticism of the way Sec. Kerry was handling the ceasefire negotiations. Today it was announced that the US gave Israel permission to use the stockpile of weapons the US had strategically positioned in Israel. This because Israel's ammunition was dwindling as the conflict dragged on. The US had already agreed to a $250 million allocation to Israel to replace the rockets used in the Iron Dome.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu told a press conference on Thursday that the operation in Gaza would continue until the tunnels were destroyed. Israel is adamant that the soldiers would stay in Gaza until the tunnels were destroyed. Experts believe this may take another week to ten days. Netanyahu's statement was seconded by Moshe Yaalon, Minister of Defense, who said Hamas had suffered greatly from this operation, and was severely weakened.

But for some this is not enough. Gen. (ret.) Uzi Dayan, once head of the Southern Command in charge of Gaza, said that only by sacrificing Israeli soldiers' lives and marching into Gaza city, going down into the bunkers, and killing the Hamas leadership, would Israel insure quiet that would last for more than just a year or two. Similar calls were echoed by Beit Yehudi head Neftali Bennet, and Yoav Shamir of Israel Beitanu.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's problem though is not only from the right-wing of the Israeli political spectrum, but also in the nearly 70 percent approval rating he has from the Israeli population to continue the fight until Hamas' leaders are eliminated. Yitzchak “Bougie” Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, and the opposition in the Knesset, said he was firmly in favor of the operation and the government, stating that this was a time for the country to stand together and 'defend our homes.'

Pundits believe that the fighting will go on for at least another week. TV2's political analyst Aviv Drucker said that the negotiations for a ceasefire were a mess not only because the two sides disagree on terms, but the various participants to the talks, even those from the same side, don't agree even to be in the same room with each other. He was referring to the Egyptians who refuse to speak to Hamas.

Still, the consensus is that a ceasefire will be reached. Israel is hoping the international community will step in and demand Hamas be disarmed. This would obviate the necessity of a further march by Israeli forces deeper into Gaza. Hamas, observers say, will not agree to this since they'd then lose their reason for opposing Israel. Most pundits see the PA's Abbu Mazan as the man to take over the leadership, although they all agree that the PA is too weak to run Gaza, and control Hamas, on its own.

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, said that what is going on in Gaza is a proxy war between “Islamists and authoritarians.” He said this type of war is something that could last for years, and be fought in many other battlefields. Meanwhile it is Israel who is representing the west in the battle against Islamic fundamentalists, and Israeli families who are paying the steep price, along with the simple people of Gaza held hostage by a group willing to sacrifice them as “shahidim” holy warriors.