Stopping short of ordering a ground invasion, Israel has responded ferociously to the Palestinian rocket attacks on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by demolishing the Hamas headquarters and other government buildings in Gaza with a barrage of air strikes.
Apart from flattening the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s police and homeland security offices were also struck. The house of Hamas commander Ahmed Randor was attacked as part of heavy overnight bombing campaign on 200 targets. The Israeli military claimed scores of underground rocket launchers and smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Rafah area were also hit. Hamas company commander Muhammad Abu Jalal and Khaled Shaer, apparently involved in rocket development, were also killed on Friday.
The Israeli government has so far stayed away from a ground invasion, but more worrying signs have appeared suggesting Israeli troops and tanks may soon roll into Gaza. The Israeli military has blocked three major routes into the coastal strip, suggesting that military corridors were being cleared for the movement of forces and equipment.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asserted that the army is “continuing to hit Hamas hard and is ready to expand the operation into Gaza”. Defence Minister Ehud Barak has authorised mobilisation of 75,000 reservists if necessary — a figure that more than doubled the 30,000 who were cleared on Thursday. In a briefing to regular troops and reservists, Israeli military Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz said: “We are here tonight on the eve of a possible ground operation.”
The strikes on Gaza have so far killed 39 people, local health officials said. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has accused Israel of carrying out “massacres”.
Despite the destruction that is being caused, Hamas officials, buoyed by the strikes on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, have continued to show defiance. “We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist [Israeli] or any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises,” said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the military wing of Hamas.
This demonstration of confidence could be attributed to the emergence of a new configuration of regional support for Hamas post-Arab Spring. After the visit of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil on the previous day, it was the turn of Rafik Abdesslem, the Foreign Minister of Tunisia — the country which set in motion region-wide anti-regime revolts — to show up in Gaza city on Saturday. Upon arrival Mr. Abdesslem said Israel “should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river”. After sombrely surveying Mr. Haniyeh’s charred office he added: “[Israel] should realise it no longer has a free hand. It does not have total immunity and is not above international law.”
Mr. Abdesslem’s words preceded a meeting on Gaza of leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar — three countries that seem eager to demonstrate that they are the new patrons of Hamas, which was once dependent on Syria, Iran and the Lebanese Hizbollah for support. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy is set to meet Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss ways of managing the Gaza crisis, Egyptian media is reporting. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could also be present at the meeting, Ahram Online is reporting quoting a Palestinian source. The meeting is likely to end with the formation of a monitoring committee on Gaza. The Arab Foreign Ministers’ Council will also meet Saturday to discuss ways of supporting Palestinians who are under attack.