Israeli peace overture follows Gaza destruction

At least 40 Palestinian houses were razed; Israel approved prisoner release.

The sights, sounds, and emotions in Gaza Sunday were those of war, not of the turning point toward peace being hoped for and proclaimed in the Middle East and abroad.

"This is my house," says Qais Nofal, pointing to twisted metal rods and concrete, the remains of one of an estimated 40 houses destroyed by the Israeli army during a two-day operation that ended Saturday night. After the operation, the Israeli army said in a press release that Palestinians ordered to leave their houses for their own safety were now free to return home.

"What home?" asks Mr. Nofal, a bearded, brown-eyed tailor. "My brother and I lived here with our wives and children. I built it gradually, bit by bit, over seven years."

Omar Sabah, a refugee from the fighting at Israel's creation in 1948, adds: "We came here this morning and found there is nothing left. There is no house, and no existence. It is finished."

Operation Orange Iron, which the army says was aimed at halting a surge of mortar firings against Jewish settlements and army positions, was the largest military operation since Yasser Arafat's death last month. Eleven Palestinians were killed, four of them civilians, and 47 wounded, according to medical officials. One Thai worker was killed and 17 people wounded by more than 30 mortars and rockets during the week preceding the operation, the army says. One Israeli soldier was wounded during the operation, said the army, adding that troops came under fire from antitank missiles and faced explosive devices.

The army statement said that "uninhabited structures used by Palestinians to fire shells and rockets were destroyed."

From the vantage point of Palestinian analysts, the operation is an indication that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is intent upon undermining Mahmoud Abbas, the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Arafat, who advocates an end to the armed intifada. In the perspective of Israeli analysts, the incursion had a similar objective to previous Gaza operations: avoiding the appearance that next year's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip constitutes a running away under fire.

The incursion came amid a tide of statements stressing that there is a unique opportunity for peace after the death of Arafat, who was viewed by Israel and the US as the main obstacle to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

Sunday, in accordance with a deal struck between Egypt and Israel this month that led to the release of accused Israeli spy Azzam Azzam, Israel approved the release of 170 jailed Palestinians. Sharon said the decision to free the Palestinians was a "goodwill gesture" toward Egypt, which he says has become an important stabilizing force in the transformation to the post-Arafat Palestinian era.

Israeli officials also said the decision to release the prisoners was to show that Israel wants to "create an atmosphere of reconciliation" with the Palestinians leading to the Jan. 9 election to replace Arafat, according to the Associated Press.

In remarks published in Der Spiegel over the weekend, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said 2005 could become a year of "great opportunity" for peace. That followed up remarks by Sharon that 2005 poses "an opportunity for a historic breakthrough with the Palestinians."

But few Palestinians share such buoyant predictions. "The question is, is the 'historic breakthrough' to be achieved through incursions, military operations, destruction of homes, and forcing women, children, and the elderly to take shelter in schools?" wrote al-Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper, in its editorial Sunday: "Another massacre in Khan Yunis."

The escalation began when Israel unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate a militia leader, Jamal Abu Samhadana, on Dec. 9. It included a devastating Palestinian tunnel bombing - in which Hamas militants detonated 1.5 tons of explosives underneath an army position on Dec. 12 killing five soldiers - and continued to spiral Sunday. Palestinians fired Kassam rockets into the Israeli town of Sderot, lightly wounding two people, and Israeli helicopters fired machine guns at targets in northern Gaza.

"The Israeli operation is aimed at weakening Abbas," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

"Palestinians are looking for a representative to put their system in order and to maintain their identity and this representative is weak and cannot stop the bleeding." Abdul-Hadi says the operation can only undercut Abbas's bid to persuade Hamas and other factions to agree to a cease-fire.

"It is clear that Sharon wants a weak Abbas, one who is crippled and naked so he can impose his agenda upon him." Abdul-Hadi says.

Lior Ben-Dor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, says, however, that the operation's "only purpose was to defend our citizens and to stop attacks. As long as the Palestinians themselves do not take any steps to stop these attacks, Israel finds itself obliged to do the task."

In the view of Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the operation reflected a desire by the army to maintain a deterrent capability after the tunnel bombing and also was part of an attempt "to sell to the public the Gaza withdrawal so that the government is not running away from Gaza under fire. This requires stabilizing the situation before they leave."

But Inbar predicts further rounds of violence before and after the Israeli withdrawal. "I don't have any hope that Abbas will be able to control the radicals in his society," he says.

The expected agreement by the Labor Party and its leader, Shimon Peres, to join the coalition, will help Sharon continue to pursue a tough posture in Gaza, Inbar adds. "Peres will explain things to the world. Sharon could not get a better public relations person than Peres," he says.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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