By David Dolan
The violence came amid growing signs that the extremist Hamas group is preparing to blow up portions of the border fence with Egypt, as it did in January. Israeli officials urged tourists to stay away from popular Sinai coastal resorts due to fears of terrorist attacks there. Security sources said Hamas is also stepping up efforts to seize control over Palestinian Authority territory in the West Bank. But Israeli government leaders vowed to prevent this, while indicating in the strongest words yet that a massive military operation to crush the radical group is pending in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli military forces were placed on heightened alert along both the Lebanese and Syrian borders in early April as Arab leaders charged that the Jewish state was preparing to launch a surprise attack against both countries. The allegation was strongly denied by officials in Jerusalem, who kept a wary eye on unusual Hizbullah and Syrian military activities. Syria’s dictator later admitted that he is preparing his country for war, but added he does not expect imminent conflict.
Security measures were tightened during the month at international airports where Israeli commercial jets fly in and out of amid intelligence reports that Hizbullah may be preparing to launch shoulder-fired missiles at such aircraft. Meanwhile an Israeli cabinet minister said Iran would be left in total ruins if it dared to launch ballistic missiles at Israel. This came as Iranian Shiite leaders announced that their uranium enrichment program was being speeded up—a central component in the production of nuclear weapons.
TERROR NEAR GAZA
Palestinian snipers fired at a visiting Canadian interfaith delegation on April 4, wounding an Israeli security guard protecting delegation host Avi Dicter, who serves as Israel’s Internal Security Minister. The group was touring the Gaza Strip border area when the attack took place. Officials said snipers came within inches of hitting the Kadima Party cabinet minister. Analysts said had he been killed, a major military operation in the Gaza Strip would probably have been launched by the government.
Two Israeli civilian workers were murdered on April 8 when at least four Palestinian terrorists managed to breach the Gaza border fence. Israeli officials said the squad was planning to kidnap IDF soldiers and take them back into the turbulent Palestinian coastal zone. But they apparently altered their plan when they spotted a large IDF presence in the area.
Instead, the heavily armed terrorists headed toward the nearby Nahal Oz petroleum terminal that supplies fuel for Palestinian vehicles, and also for the Gaza Strip’s internal electricity plant. Workers were preparing to head home after pumping European Union-funded fuel into tanker trucks which left the premises for the Gaza Strip just minutes before the deadly assault was launched.
After infiltrating the unguarded terminal, the terrorists opened fire on two civilian workers, both Russian immigrants who lived with their families in Beersheva. The two men, Oleg Lipson, 37, and his longtime friend, 53 year old Lev Cherniak, were riddled with bullets. Eyewitnesses reported their heads and other body parts were literally ripped apart by the torrent of close range bullets.
As shocked employees took cover, nearby Israeli soldiers rushed to the scene and quickly engaged the Palestinian terrorists, killing two of the assailants. But two or three others managed to escape and headed back into the Gaza Strip. At least one was killed minutes later when their vehicle was struck by a missile fired by an Israeli helicopter.
No less than three Palestinian groups claimed “credit” for the bloody assault, which was hailed as a valiant operation by local Arab media outlets. Israeli government officials said the small Islamic Jihad terror group was the most likely culprit. Still, they put the overall blame for the cynical attack—upon an Israeli-run facility that directly aids the Palestinian people every day—squarely on Hamas, saying such a well planned operation could not have taken place without the ruling group’s complicity, if not blessing. Fuel supplies were halted for one week after the assault.
IDF IN ACTION
For the first time in nearly one month, Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza Strip within hours of the terror attack. One soldier, Staff sergeant Sayef Bisan, a member of Israel’s small Druze community who served with an elite reconnaissance unit, was killed in exchanges of fire with Palestinian gunmen. Several other temporary ground incursions were launched later in the week in response to stepped up Palestinian Kassam rocket fire upon nearby Israeli communities.
In a major operation carried out on April 16, three more soldiers were killed and several others wounded by Palestinian gunmen. The army spokesman said the incident began when IDF forces entered the Gaza Strip in early morning fog after spotting a squad of Palestinians next to the border fence, apparently planning another infiltration attempt. But it turned out to be a well planned trap as the soldiers were quickly ambushed by other Palestinian gunmen hiding in nearby bushes and fields.
The incident happened near Kibbutz Be’eri, which was the apparent destination of the Palestinian terrorist squad. Around 20 Palestinians were killed as the IDF responded to the attack, some of them young non combatants, along with an Arab journalist working for Reuters. Palestinian leaders claimed illegal munitions were used by the IDF. Earlier the same day, four armed Hamas militiamen were killed when an Israeli helicopter spotted them moving in the direction of the Nahal Oz fuel terminal.
Yet another major Palestinian terror attack was launched on April 19, this time against Israeli soldiers stationed at the Kerem Shalom border crossing into the Gaza Strip. While Palestinian gunmen hid nearby, suicide terrorists rammed several armored vehicles packed with explosives into the border fence, setting off powerful blasts that killed themselves and injured 13 IDF soldiers, one critically. Officials said Hamas had planned to kill most of the soldiers and then take captive any injured survivors. The border crossing, traversed by around 200 humanitarian aid trucks each week, is next to where IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted in 2006.
FULL WAR ON HAMAS
Speaking to Kadima party activists several days after the two Israeli fuel workers were slaughtered, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert revealed that his government is preparing to crush the Hamas movement: “I promise that our response to Hamas attacks will be such that Hamas will no longer be able to continue to take any action against the citizens of Israel.”
The premier—who was the main Sharon government advocate for the controversial Israeli civilian and military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005—said he could not reveal specific details of the apparent major military operation being planned against the burgeoning Palestinian group, which violently seized control over the entire Gaza Strip from Fatah-linked Palestinian Authority security forces last June. However Olmert pledged that “What I am saying will obligate Israel to act, and I promise you that it will be properly implemented.” Political analysts said that remark was an apparent allusion to the poorly planned and executed 2006 assault on Hizbullah militia forces in Lebanon.
Speaking the same day to his Labor party activists, Defense Minister Ehud Barak echoed PM Olmert, saying “We will restore security to Sderot and other communities along the Gaza periphery.”
Many analysts predict that the government is preparing to launch a massive operation that will rival the scope of the 34 day Second Lebanon War. They say that unless circumstances spiral out of control, such a conflict will undoubtedly not be initiated until after May’s countrywide celebration of Israel’s sixtieth birthday, when American President George W. Bush and other world leaders are scheduled to visit Israel. They anticipate that the planned operation to uproot Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip will feature more ground operations than the Lebanon conflict did, despite the likelihood the number of IDF casualties will match if not exceed the 119 soldiers killed by Hizbullah fighters.
ARMED TO THE TEETH
Just how difficult a full-scale IDF operation against Hamas would probably turn out to be was underlined by a report issued on April 10 by an Israeli think tank. Put together by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, and based on data gathered by Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, the report said the militant Muslim movement has managed to assemble a formidable Gaza Strip militia force of at least 20,000 armed men. Another 4,000 trained gunmen in the crowded coastal zone belong to other militant groups that would undoubtedly support Hamas fighters.
The ominous report said Hamas militiamen, many commanded by men trained in Iran and Syria, are divided into two main divisions. One of them, the Kassam Brigades, is made up of around 10,000 men. A brigade sub-division operates in the northern Gaza Strip just a few miles south of Ashkelon. Two others are stationed in Gaza City, where much of the fighting would be expected to take place given the Hamas inclination to use its own civilian population as human shields, as Hizbullah did in 2006. Another two sub-divisions are positioned in the south near the Sinai border towns of Rafah and Khan Yunis.
The other main armed division, also numbering some 10,000 men, is comprised of members of the Hamas Executive Force which replaced routed PA security personal on Gaza streets last June. The think tank report revealed that Hamas has even created a small coastal patrol made up of over 200 men equipped with several naval vessels.
The intelligence report said Hamas gets its weapons in three main ways—internal Gaza production, from Iran and Syria, and from international illicit arms dealers. It said the Islamic group has smuggled in from Egypt an unknown quantity of the same type of Iranian-built 122 millimeter Grad rockets fired upon Ashkelon in March, along with hundreds of mortar shells. Gaza factories constantly produce shorter range Kassam rockets, with hundred ready to be fired at any given time.
The report said Hamas also has several anti-aircraft missiles and an estimated 30 or so anti-aircraft machine guns. The radical group has also acquired dozens of deadly anti-tank rockets, including some Sagger missiles, and has produced thousands of rocket propelled grenades. It has also smuggled in advanced listening devices from Egypt, along with night vision equipment.
PEACEMAKERS OR WARMONGERS?
Israeli officials were livid over former American President Jimmy Carter’s meetings with senior Hamas officials in Cairo and Damascus during his April Middle East tour. Several Hamas leaders—members of a violent organization high up on the US government’s terrorist list, which has murdered over 20 Americans in attacks this decade alone, along with hundreds of Israelis—actually publicly confirmed Israeli government contentions that they were simply exploiting the Carter visit to bolster their international standing.
The controversial former president, who callously ignored Bush Administration pleas that he cancel his planned meetings, said he would attempt to help secure freedom for Gilad Shalit. However Hamas officials admitted they had no intention of engaging the former politician, who brokered the despised Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, as any sort of an actual go between.
Just as Carter was arriving in Israel, Hamas parliament member Yunis al-Aster said the Muslim world will “soon conquer the Crusader capital Rome” which he charged had helped “to plant the brothers of apes and pigs in Palestine in order to prevent the reawakening of Islam.”
PM Olmert met in Jerusalem with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas during April for the first time since eight young Jewish seminary students were slaughtered in the city in early March. A London-based Arabic newspaper subsequently claimed the Israeli leader offered to hand over 64% of Judea and Samaria to full PA control as part of a final peace deal. But this would not include any land located west of Israel’s contested security barrier, meaning three large settlement blocks and eastern Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands. The unverified report came as the Orthodox Shas party again threatened to leave the ruling coalition, causing its collapse, if Olmert dares to discuss an Israeli withdrawal from any portion of the holy city.
During his early-April remarks before Kadima party leaders, the Israeli Premier said that while he believes he can arrive at a final agreement with Abbas before the end of this year—as requested by George Bush—he does not think it could be actually implemented right away due to continuing Palestinian rocket attacks and terrorism. Israeli media reports said officials from both sides were discussing postponing explosive final status negotiations for five more years, during which time the PA would be granted some municipal responsibilities in Arab Jerusalem neighborhoods to test the feasibility of an Israeli withdrawal from those areas.
Defense Minister Barak reportedly explained to American officials what is undoubtedly the main reason for putting off an Israeli withdrawal from most of the disputed territories—fears that Hamas would quickly take over such areas and use them to carry on with their jihad war to annihilate the detested “Zionist entity.” He said Israel is already taking enormous risks by transferring more weapons and armored vehicles to PA security forces—as US officials have insisted they do—since these could eventually fall into Hamas hands, as many Israeli-supplied weapons have already done in Gaza.
According to opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, transferring weapons to the PA itself is extremely risky even if Hamas does not take over. Seemingly confirming his contention, the PLO envoy to Beirut, Abbas Zaki, told the Lebanese NBN TV network in mid-April that PA leaders “have not given up even one iota” of the PLO’s 1974 “Phased Plan” to destroy Israel in stages and replace it with a Palestinian state.
“In light of the weakness of the Arab nation and American control over the world, the PLO proceeds through phases, without changing its strategy. Let me tell you, when the ideology of Israel collapses, and we take back Jerusalem, the Israeli ideology will collapse in its entirety, and we will begin to progress with our own ideology, Allah willing, and drive them out of all of Palestine."
SYRIA AND IRAN
While actual fighting was escalating with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Israeli military alerts were stepped up along the northern borders with Lebanon and Syria. This came as Arab media outlets reported that Damascus was calling up reserve soldiers and moving forces into the Lebanese Beeka Valley, largely controlled by Hizbullah militiamen. Syrian leaders denied that reserve soldiers were being mobilized, but did admit their military forces were on a heightened state of alert and activity, supposedly in anticipation of a possible Israeli strike.
This came as Israel held its largest ever home front security drill the second week of April, when preparations for a possible Syrian, Hizbullah and/or Iranian chemical or biological missile attack were tested at many hospitals, military bases, schools and government buildings. Air raid sirens were sounded around the country, and adults were ordered to check the readiness status of their home and work bomb shelters and emergency supplies. During the massive four day exercise, several Israeli cabinet ministers said the attack scenarios that were presented to them—unfolding in real time as if an actual war was underway—were both realistic and plausible, even if quite chilling.
Syrian President Bashar Assad later told a Lebanese newspaper that he sees war with Israel as “a real possibility” and was preparing accordingly, charging that this would come during an Israeli or US military strike upon Iran’s nuclear facilities. He claimed that “we know there is someone in the American government who is interested in this war, and we are preparing for it.”
Speaking during the national war drill, Labor party cabinet minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer bluntly declared that “an Iranian attack on Israel will lead to a harsh response by Israel that will cause the destruction of the Iranian nation." Iran’s UN ambassador called upon the world body to rebuke Israel for its “insulting and scandalous threats,” while failing to mention that his country’s visceral president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been repeatedly vowing to wipe Israel off of the map since October 2005.
Those of us who trust the veracity of the ancient Hebrew scriptures can be confident that modern Israel—about to turn 60—will not be destroyed by Iran, Syria, Hizbullah or any other hostile country or group. Instead, the Lord himself has promised that “I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts will be called the Holy Mountain” (Zechariah 8:3).