Gaza: Why Israel and Hamas are trading rocket fire

Both sides are maneuvering for another ceasefire, and Israeli troops are not likely to invade the Gaza strip, say analysts.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    AIR ATTACKS: A Palestinian family flees after an Israeli missile hits.
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    A policeman inspects damage by a Hamas rocket in Netivot, Israel.
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On the second day of intense Israeli airstrikes that set off street protests throughout the Middle East, Hamas responded Sunday by extending the range of its rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities.

The ferocity and precision of the Israeli blitz sent the Palestinian death toll to nearly 300, surprising the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, and sowing panic. Egyptian border police fired on Palestinians fleeing across Gaza's western border Sunday. Meanwhile, Israeli troops and tanks massed on Gaza's eastern and northern borders.

But Israel is mindful of the lessons from its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago, say analysts, and isn't likely to send in ground troops to topple Hamas.

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Rather than reoccupy Gaza, a politically unpopular move, Israel may want to simply redefine the terms of engagement along the southern frontier and reach a new cease- fire. "[Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert has been chastened by the Lebanon experience," says Michael Oren, a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem who authored a book on the 1967 war. "He talked about toppling Hezbollah and disarming Hezbollah. There are far more modest objectives for this operation – an improved status quo ante."

Israeli helicopters and combat jets struck the Hamas' main prison compound in Gaza city and, in a simultaneous strike, pounded about 40 supply tunnels leading under the Egyptian border on Sunday. Israel said the tunnels are the main artery of Hamas' improved arsenal of missiles. Palestinians say the tunnels are the only route for imported consumer goods after an Israeli blockade sealed commercial crossings.

In the first wave on Sunday, the Israeli air assault targeted training camps, police stations, and a Hamas intelligence headquarters. Despite the urging of colleagues and opposition politicians, Prime Minister Olmert is not talking about regime change in Gaza.

"The operation in the Gaza Strip is designed, first and foremost, to bring about an improvement in the security reality for the residents of the south of the country," said Olmert over the weekend.

On Sunday, Hamas rockets landed near Ashdod, the largest city in southern Israel. The city is 23 miles from Gaza. No serious injuries were reported, but the attack raises concerns that more Israeli cities may be within range of Hamas rockets.

With the conflict spilling over to neighboring countries, that goal may become more difficult. Arab satellite television news broadcast images of crowds of Gazans overrunning Egyptian security posts at the border with Gaza. Along the Lebanon border, the attacks have stirred concern about solidarity rocket strikes from Hezbollah.

Israeli jets flew low-level sorties over southern Lebanon Sunday morning, a muscle-flexing gesture. The militant Shiite Hezbollah has led calls of condemnation in Lebanon, declaring the attack on Gaza an "Israeli war crime and represents genocide."

But analysts say Hezbollah is unlikely to open up a fresh front by attacking Israel from Lebanon. The main risk comes from isolated attacks by Palestinian militants or groups associated with Al Qaeda.

"If it's not Hezbollah, I would not rule out actions by small groups," says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut and former senior official with the UN peacekeeping force in South Lebanon known as UNIFIL. "There are many groups that would like to show solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. But if something big happens, the bill will be made out to Hezbollah."

Meanwhile, Gazans were sent messages on their cellphones by the Israeli military warning them to stay away from "terrorists" and refrain from carrying weapons. Many Palestinians stayed off the streets of Gaza City save for funeral processions.

The Israeli assaults came after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel following the expiration of a six-month cease fire Dec. 19. The Israeli attacks sparked riots in West Bank cities and Israeli Arab villages, as well as protests in neighboring Arab states.

Syrian officials said Sunday they were breaking off indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.

In Lebanon, hundreds of flag-waving Hezbollah supporters demonstrated Saturday and Sunday near the Egyptian embassy in Beirut, to protest what they saw as a tacit green light given by some Arab countries to the Israeli attack on Hamas.

In a widely watched televised address in Lebanon Sunday night, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah echoed the same theme, slamming Arab governments for what he said was complicity in the Israeli onslaught against Hamas.

"Some Arab regimes ... are helping by all means to impose the conditions of surrender on the resistors of the American-Zionist project," he said. "The 2006 July war [between Israel and Hezbollah] occurred under Arab approval, even Arab request.... They told the Israelis to get rid of Hezbollah. They are doing the same thing in Gaza, they are asking the Israelis to destroy Hamas and the resistors."

He leveled harsh criticism toward Egypt in particular for closing the border at Rafah and called on Egyptians to demonstrate in support of Gaza.

"I tell Egyptian officials: If you do not open the border crossing then you are party to the siege and the crime," he said. "Let the Egyptian population go out into the streets ... will the Egyptian police arrest them all?"

The black-turbaned Shiite cleric added that Israeli military movements along the border with Lebanon could be a "defensive measure," but warned that Israel could take advantage of the situation to launch an attack on Lebanon.

"We are not concerned nor afraid.... We are ready to face any attack on our country," Sheikh Nasrallah said.

Demonstrations also were held in South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. The mood in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps was one of anger and mourning. In Ain al-Hilweh, the largest and most lawless of the 12 established camps in Lebanon, black flags adorned streets, and verses from the Koran were broadcast from mosques.

"The people are ready to participate in any action against the Israelis," says Abu Ahmad Fadel Taha, the leader of Hamas in Ain al-Hilweh. "Right now we are gathering blood donations money and food for the people of Gaza. There is no decision yet to take military action along the border [with Israel]."

In an ominous indicator of potential problems in Lebanon over Gaza, a Lebanese farmer discovered on Thursday afternoon eight Katyusha rockets primed for launch from a valley, four kilometers north of the Israeli border. The 122mm and 107mm rockets, with respective ranges of 20 and 12 kilometers, were connected to timers for a launch Thursday night. Lebanese Army troops defused the rockets. UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army have since stepped up patrols along the border.

Israeli officials estimate that more than 300 rockets have been fired by Hamas in the past week. Analysts say that Hamas may have done so with the goal of improving the terms of the next cease fire and to force Israel to open up the border crossings into Israel. Hamas bragged that Israel would not dare an invasion.

Indeed, despite the display of military superiority, Israelis are worried about an "exit strategy" because they are loathe to be drawn back into Gaza three years after withdrawing.

The price of overrunning the tiny coastal enclave would likely be heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side as well as significant numbers of Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials have said that they don't want to bear the responsibility of looking after an impoverished population of 1.6 million.

The absence of clear goals against Hezbollah in 2006 led to a prolonged war in which the Iranian-backed Shiite group was able to survive intact – exposing Israel's vulnerability to short-range rockets and difficulty against guerilla attacks.

Israel's government, which is currently in a reelection campaign, wants to bring to an end the eight years of Hamas rockets landing in southern Israel.

"There's the question of Iran," says Meir Javedanfar, the coauthor of a book on Iran's nuclear program. "If Israel can't defend itself against a small group like Hamas, then it will look weak to the region and embolden the right wingers in Iran to increase support for Hamas."

In the southern Israel town of Sderot, shell shocked from eight years of attacks, local Israelis say they feel a sense of relief and defiantly refused Sunday to take cover in shelters at the sound of rocket alerts. "Today is a day of celebration in Sderot," says Sasson Sara, a local shop owner. "Today I feel that we finally started to deal with terror."

Nicholas Blanford contributed from Beirut, and Safwat al-Kahlout contributed from Gaza City.

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