June 10, 2006
Rocket Rumble

By URIEL HEILMAN
JERUSALEM

WHEN Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip last week to ambush a group of Palestinian militants preparing to launch a rocket attack, the incursion represented the first time since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza that Israeli troops entered the Palestinian-controlled strip.

But it was hardly the first time since the withdrawal that Israel has been compelled to respond to attacks from Gaza - Israeli artillery barrages have killed more than 100 Palestinians there since last summer's pullout.

Moreover, Israeli authorities said they found evidence that Hamas - the party that now controls the Palestinian parilament - was behind some recent rocket attacks from Gaza.

But perhaps the biggest problem is the simple fact the withdrawal has not reduced Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

Nearly every day now, Palestinians from Gaza are caught trying to infiltrate into Israel, plant bombs on the Israeli road that runs along the Gaza border fence or fire rocket-propelled grenades at Israeli targets. And rocket attacks against Israeli towns and cities near Gaza have grown in intensity and frequency, killing more than a dozen civilians so far.

Those firings began in 2001 with occasional inaccurate, makeshift rockets; they've now turned into daily barrages of increasingly sophisticated missiles fired almost every morning toward major population centers in Israel.

In the entire year before the pullout, Gazans fired 265 Qassam rockets at Israelis, according to the Israel Defense Forces; this March alone saw 135 - more than six times the pre-pullout rate.

Rather than quieting down since Israel pulled out, the area around Gaza has become a war zone.

Now, the bikini-clad girls, scruffy fishermen and beachside ice-cream stands of the Israeli city of Ashkelon abut a Hamas-run quasi-state. In the Israeli towns closer to Gaza, most mornings begin with pre-dawn air-raid sirens signaling incoming missiles from Gaza.

In the week of May 29 alone, crude Palestinian rockets struck an Israeli kindergarten, a cemetery and a garden just 100 yards from the home of Defense Minister, Amir Peretz.

Twice in the last three months, Gaza militants have fired Katyusha rockets at Israel. Unlike the inaccurate homemade Qassam rockets the militants usually fire, the Katyusha has a range of up to 15 miles, more than enough to reach Ashkelon - with its oil refineries, power plants and 120,000 residents.

Israel's withdrawal did not solve the Gaza problem; it merely shifted the front line. Before the pullout, Palestinian attacks focused on Jewish settlements in Gaza; now Gaza militants aim their guns, rockets and bombs outward, at civilians living in southern Israel.

These developments bode ill not just for Israel, which is beefing up military positions all along the Gaza border, but for the stability of the region as a whole.

If the border does not cool down, Israel will likely to stage more ground operations into Gaza; the conflict could escalate into open warfare between Israel and the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority.

And if Israel's withdrawal from Gaza turns out to have resulted in increased terrorism, it is unlikely that Israel will carry out further land withdrawals in the West Bank - a pullout that would bring Palestinian rockets within firing range of Tel Aviv.

The Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ismail Haniya, said early last month that the attacks do more harm than good for the Palestinians, by inviting severe military responses. But the Israeli charge this week that Hamas has been behind some recent rocket attacks suggests that the Palestinian government is taking a two-faced approach to the attacks. In keeping with this strategy of ambiguousness, Hamas has not responded to the charges.

The Bush administration (along with its its partners in the so-called Quartet of Middle East peacemakers - Russia, the United Nations and the European Union) should treat the rocket attacks as a litmus test for the Palestinian government's willingness to bring an end to the violence. If it refuses to stop them, then it plainly has no desire for true negotiations.