Israel 'redeploys' in Gaza, but who won?

This weekend, forces pulled out of Jabalya camp.

Israel says its largest incursion in the Gaza Strip during four years of fighting is a victory. But Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, isn't admitting defeat. Indeed, the characterizations of both reflect a larger battle of perceptions over any eventual Israeli departure from Gaza, say analysts.

The Days of Penitence Operation - officially aimed at ending Palestinian cross-border rocket attacks such as those that killed two Israeli toddlers Sept. 29 in the border town of Sderot - concluded over the weekend as Israeli troops withdrew from the Jabalya Refugee Camp and other densely populated areas to positions nearby. The redeployment was accompanied by warnings that the troops would be back if the rocket attacks resume - which analysts on both sides say is likely.

"The Israeli side has a problem," says Avi Issacharoff, author of The Seventh War, a history of the intifada. "Israel will continue its assassinations against Hamas and this will cause Hamas to fire Qassams at Sderot. Then the army will go back in, perhaps even deeper."

"In a few days, a week, or two weeks, the rockets will resume and we will be back soon in Jabalya" Mr. Issacharoff adds.

The Palestinian death toll reached at least 110 at the close of the 17 days of fighting, according to the Associated Press, making it the highest ever in an Israeli military operation in Gaza. About half of the dead were civilians, including 25 children and youths up to age 18, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR).

The army says the majority of those killed were armed Palestinian fighters. It says it did its best to avoid civilian casualties but that fighting in such a densely populated area that was not always possible. Besides the two toddlers, three other Israelis (two soldiers and a civilian) were killed.

Seventy Palestinian houses were totally destroyed and 200 others partially destroyed through Thursday, according to the PCHR.

Capt. Jacob Dallal, anarmy spokesman, says the operation was a success. "We really impaired the ability to shoot Qassams from Jabalya. We engaged many cells and now there are fewer Hamas members to shoot rockets," he says. "We dealt a hard blow to the whole Hamas infrastructure in Jabalya."

Israel is now waiting to see whether the operation is effective in persuading the Palestinian civilian population to pressure Hamas to stop firing the homemade rockets, writes Zeev Schiff, military affairs correspondent for Haaretz, whose views often reflect those of the security establishment.

"The question is how Hamas will operate in the field, and whether pressure from the hurt population will bring its leadership to behave differently," he wrote.

But Issacharoff, Palestinian observers, and residents of Jabalya say they do not expect such pressure. What Palestinian civilians have endured at the hands of the Israeli army may in fact fuel a desire for revenge and increase support for Hamas.

The Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Information Center says on its website that Hamas achieved a "victory over the Zionist enemy" in northern Gaza. It adds that the "blows of the resistance and the steadfastness of the people caused the occupying forces to withdraw without achieving any of their goals."

In Jabalya, Mohammed Abu Warid, a high school student, pointing to the broken and cracked walls of his house, says the damage was done when an Israeli bulldozer leveled his neighbor's home. "Yesterday I went to my school for the first time since the invasion, not to study but to clear the rubble," he says. "The wall of the school was destroyed. There are bullet marks in the blackboard. The school will need a week of work to be fixed," he says. "I support Qassam rockets because I want the Israelis to feel our pain," he adds.

Subhiya al-Bitar, a widow, was sitting in the rubble of the new house she was supposed to move into at the time of the incursion. "As long as the Israelis don't stop their aggression, Hamas will answer by the Qassam," she says.

Hassan Kashif, editor of Al-Daar magazine in Gaza City, says that the ingredients are in place for further escalations ahead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned withdrawal from Gaza. "Sharon wants to pull out while declaring a victory, while the Palestinian resistance in general and Hamas in particular want to make it appear that he is pulling out because of the resistance which did not give up or raise the white flag," he says.

Issacharoff says the Jabalya incursion offers a microcosm of the way Israel has simultaneously won and lost the war with the Palestinians over the past four years. "Militarily, we won in Jabalya. We hit a large number of Hamas fighters, which will temporarily weaken its capability, and we proved to the Palestinians we can penetrate their largest refugee camp," he says. "But at the same time, we've increased the motivation of the Palestinians. The hatred toward Israel is enormous and every time someone is killed it increases. For every death, Hamas can bring in five to 10 more supporters from the street."

Mohammed Ali in Jabalya, Gaza, contributed to this story.

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