GAZA CITY — The Israeli siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's devastated office complex in the West Bank is now at the center of international attention.
But Israel appears to be incrementally opening a new front in Gaza City, taking the battle to the senior leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are based here.
Almost nightly, Israeli forces stage raids into this densely populated coastal city. Tuesday's attack with helicopters, dozens of tanks and armored vehicles was by far the largest and most dramatic in the two years since the intifada started.
Israeli troops moved a half-mile into the Zeitoun and Sajaiya neighborhoods, killing nine Palestinians. Six were civilians and three belonged to militant groups, according to hos- pital sources and family members. The raid's stated aim, however, was the destruction of 13 metal-working factories which the Israeli army said were making weaponry and the demolition of a house belonging to a slain Hamas militant.
But Israeli analysts point to a larger agenda: The raid, they say, signals that Gaza is likely to follow in the footsteps of the West Bank, whose cities have been reoccupied by Israeli forces and placed under protracted curfew. "I would say this is inevitable even though it will be a disaster for both sides," says Reuven Pedhatzur, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "This action was partly to prepare public opinion for a major attack and partly to say, 'We are doing something against terrorism.' "
The reconquest of Gaza would be the last nail in the coffin of the Oslo Agreement and Palestinian self-rule, with the territories Israel captured in 1967 reverting to the full de facto Israeli occupation that was in place until 1993.
Hours before the raid was launched, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hinted that a comprehensive incursion into Gaza's urban areas was only a matter of time, saying: "When the day comes that we can concentrate the relevant forces, we will certainly need to act to harm the terrorist structure in the Gaza Strip."
A senior Israeli official says that the focus on Gaza comes as a natural follow up to the conquest of the West Bank cities last spring in an operation launched after a series of devastating suicide bombings. "Now that we have a good control of the major cities in Judea and Samaria, we are focusing on Gaza," he says. "Our idea is to go in every night, blow up houses of terrorists and destroy the factories they use to make rockets, and to make arrests. No one can have immunity. Thus far, the people in Gaza and the Hamas leadership there have believed that they have immunity."
The official adds that the question of an all-out onslaught through the cities of the Strip is complicated by American plans to strike at Iraq.
Depending on its timing, an Israeli push could prompt demonstrations throughout the region, thereby complicating the American effort, he says.
The official concedes that none of the suicide bombers who have struck inside Israel during the last two years have come from the Strip, which is hemmed in by a heavily guarded fence. But he says that the leaders of Hamas and other groups carrying out the attacks give orders from there. He adds that one of the Palestinians killed in the raid had coordinated attacks for Hamas with operatives in the West Bank. Last Thursday, a Hamas suicide bomber killed six people and himself in an attack in Tel Aviv. Israel immediately responded by leveling most of Arafat's West Bank compound, but the government was criticized by hawks for not also taking action against the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Analysts predict high casualties on both sides from any fighting in Gaza City or the refugee camps that house much of the Strip's population.
A senior Israeli army officer identified by the army only as Ron, says of Tuesday's raid: "The Palestinians who were killed were terrorists who fought throughout the night and placed explosive devices. We did not encounter any civilians during the operation.
"There was continuous opposition by small cells in all sectors and also anti-tank fire," he says.
In Shajaiyeh, at Jaaber Harazin's house, relatives described how the middle-aged accountant was decapitated by Israeli gunfire while inside his rooftop apartment, which has a corrugated roof and windows of shredded plastic. Mr. Harazin, who had moved back to Gaza City last year after two decades in Abu Dhabi, was on his way to the bathroom when he was hit, his brother Muein said. He was a father of five-month-old twins, Safa and Marwa, who were crying Tuesday in a wrenching accompaniment to the accounts of his death.
Around the corner, two brothers, Khaled and Adil Deeb, were killed in the street by Israeli gunfire as they sought safety, according to relatives. Khaled worked as a clerk for the Palestinian Interior Ministry and his tasks included issuing Palestinian passports, relatives said. Adil was a manual laborer with five children, they said.
Further losses caused by Gaza fighting are inevitable, argues Professor Pedhatzur. He recalls being scoffed at when he predicted, at the outset of Sharon's tenure in March 2001, that Israel would reoccupy the West Bank cities. He argues that a similar logic will force Israel to take over the cities of Gaza. "Sharon has been very clear all along that that terror is to be defeated by military force. There is no opposition to this in Israel," he says. "Because he does not want a political solution since it would mean compromises, his only solution is to use military force. But in fact, this alone cannot solve the problem and it has not solved the problem. So he keeps using more and more force. He has to keep escalating."
The senior Israeli official says, however, that Israel has no choice but to use greater force in Gaza. It has afforded the Palestinian Authority opportunities to use its own security forces to prevent attacks, but this proved a failure, he adds.
Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, said yesterday: "Sharon will face here a real, real confrontation with big losses. He is most welcome. The people here will resist and be willing to die. I doubt Sharon will be able to tolerate the losses."
Material from Reuters was used in this report.