Israel's incremental assault on Gaza takes heavy toll

29 Palestinians have died in Israeli raids against Hamas in Gaza this month.

It is a few hours after Israel's massive tank raid March 6 in Jabalya, and at Shifa Hospital the halls are packed with relatives and friends of the wounded. After checking the wards, hospital director Nafiz Shalah takes sanctuary in his spacious office to go through some papers.

As local television shows close ups of the faces of corpses among the 12 killed, some in disputed circumstances, Mr. Shalah performs the grim task of tallying the wounded: "Sixty-six in our hospital. Eight are in the Intensive Care Unit, and one of them is a 70-year-old man. Fifty wounds from shrapnel, 16 from gunshots."

It is the hospital's busiest day since an Israeli plane dropped a one-ton bomb on Gaza City in an strike that killed a Hamas leader, Salah Shehadeh, last spring.

But it is by no means exceptional. The raid in Jabalya is part of an offensive in the Gaza Strip which the Israeli army is carrying out in installments and which is causing heavy civilian casualties which the army makes little effort to stem, a leading analyst says. Army officials deny this, saying that Hamas and other armed groups use the civilian population as shields, and regularly kill Israeli civilians with suicide attacks like a bus bombing earlier this month that killed 17 Israelis.

The army sees its objectives in the Gaza Strip, where some 6,000 Jewish settlers live among more than a million Palestinians, most of them refugees, "to strike at the terrorist infrastructure and everyone who tries to harm us," says Lt. Col. Dinor Shavit.

"The idea is to convey that no one is immune, and that even inside Gaza City we can enter and reach them." If metal shops are

being used in Gaza City to make rockets to be fired into Israel or at settlements, the army will find and destroy them, he says.

Hamas and other groups are constantly trying to hit Israeli targets in the Strip, even using children to plant explosive devices, he says. Four soldiers were killed when a tank was bombed, and a soldier was killed by a sniper last month, he adds. Hamas fighters have fired rockets at Sderot, Israel. "We will harm all those who attempt to harm us," he said.

Analysts generally do not see the thrusts - six tank incursions into heavily populated areas between Feb. 23 and March 7 alone - as reprisals for specific acts.

They say the incursions are a bid to prepare for a reoccupation of the Strip or to cripple armed groups without becoming targets of urban warfare or having to take responsibility for the welfare of the occupied population.

"These raids can be a kind of rehearsal, with the idea to arrest someone, but also to see how to get in and out, what tactics to use. A rehearsal on live people. And the thinking is that if the world gets used to these short-term reoccupations, it will digest the long-term one," says Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Alternatively, if no political approval for a reoccupation emerges, the installment approach can serve as a kind of fall-back, he said.

Yoni Figel, an analyst at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, believes that the high population density of Gaza is dictating the tactic of what he terms "swift strikes."

"It's the same dilemma the US faces in confronting whether to attack Baghdad or not," he says. "There could be guerrilla warfare and dealing with the civilians is a problem. So the idea is to go in, do what has to be done, and pull out."

In practice, more than half of those killed in February and March have been civilians, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. The group says that if the rate of fatalities thus far in March - 29 killed to date in Gaza - continues at the same pace, it will be a record month for the number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army during the intifada. Troops also killed four Palestinian policemen deployed to stop rocket fire against Israel. Israeli army officials have not released figures for Palestinian casualties suffered during specific incursions.

An Arabic leaflet residents said was left behind by the army during a raid in Gaza City said: "By not helping the fighters, you will avoid harm to your security, to your sons, to your families and to your property."

In Klein's view, if the army were dissatisfied with the number of civilian casualties, it would investigate some of the incidents, which last week included the death of a pregnant woman, Noha Makadme, when her house collapsed on her as a result of the army's demolition of a neighboring house. "You can talk about these things as accidents once or twice; the third time it is already a system," he says.

Because the army and settlers are so badly outnumbered in Gaza, force is more freely applied than in the West Bank, he argues. "Some in the army pay lip service about civilian deaths, others are truly sorry, but the system as a system does not do anything serious to stop civilian deaths. The message is: 'I am so tough, I'm killing everybody, don't mess with me.' "

The army says it conducts investigations into civilian deaths. But asked about Ms. Makadme's death three days after pictures of her funeral were sent out by news agencies, Gaza Strip battalion commander Gadi Shamani said: "I do not know of any pregnant woman who was killed."

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