Operation "Hot Winter" a Failure
In a chat on 3 March, Le Monde's Jerusalem correspondent, Michel Bôle-Richard, looks at Israel's recent incursion into the Gaza Strip.
Q. Can one really talk about an Israeli failure? Hasn’t Hamas been weakened and is the real loser following Operation "Hot Winter”?
A. Hamas has not been defeated. What is the outcome of Operation "Hot Winter”? It killed between 110 and 120 Palestinians, but the official justification offered by Israel - to end Qassam and Katiushka rocket fire- was not achieved. The proof is that when Israeli troops departed in the early hours of Monday, Hamas launched a salvo of rockets in the direction of Israel to "celebrate its victory" and to prove that Operation "Hot Winter" was a failure.
As to a favorable outcome for Israel, when it uses warplanes and combat helicopters to hit the militants, obviously there is no balance between Israeli and Palestinian victims.
Q. Israel says it has wrapped up the first phase of the operation…What should we expect from the second phase?
A. There will be new operations, - if military operations can really end rocket fire in the direction of Israel. But the first operation perfectly demonstrated that Israeli forces were powerless to stop such rocket fire. I spent yesterday with Palestinian fighters. The Israeli forces were 400 meters away and right under their nose, 100 meters away, some Qassam rockets were fired.
The Israelis, positioned on a hilltop that dominates the Jabaliya camp, were unable to penetrate it. Jabaliya has twisting, narrow streets and the casualty rate for the IDF would have been very high, as it would have for the Palestinian population. To end rocket attacks, the Israelis would have to control the terrain for days on end, which is nearly impossible because Gaza has one of the densest concentrations of people in the world and a massive Israeli operation would have a tremendous cost.
Q. As the Israeli Army has been weakened over these last few years, can it even launch a ground assault?
A. The Israeli Army remains powerful. It is capable of launching a massive operation, as it did in Lebanon, even if it was a failure. If Israel tries the same thing in Gaza, it will also be a failure. We are now in the same situation as in July 2006: for 34 days during its war against Lebanon, the IDF was unable to stop the Katyusha rockets and now the same thing is happening in Gaza.
Q. What is Hamas’ capacity for harassment with these rocket attacks?
A. In the past the Qassam rockets, as they were homemade, caused little damage. There have been 12 Israeli victims of Qassam attacks since 2001. Today, Hamas has considerably better rockets and launch capabilities, to the point that their rockets reach the outskirts of Ashkelon. I was there this afternoon when a rocket landed on a building rooftop, causing impressive damage. Yesterday, a rocket landed near a house, pulverizing the interior; the children were uninjured because they had taken shelter.
This means that in the space of a few months, the nuisance and damage that Hamas can cause has considerably increased. They have far more sophisticated means.
Q. Do the Palestinian people support the rocket attacks?
A. The population of Gaza entirely supports these rocket attacks. They think it’s the right way to respond to Israeli incursions. As the Gazans say, when an Israeli is killed by a rocket, it makes big headlines around the world but it takes 50 Palestinian deaths to raise a little sympathy among international public opinion for what is happening in Gaza. Thus, the Gazawis believe that the rockets are the only way to respond to Israeli aggression.
Moreover, in the eyes of the Palestinians of Gaza, this type of operation is counterproductive for Israel and discredits Mahmood Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority.
Q. If Gaza’s Palestinians stop firing rockets, would the Israelis stop their incursions? Wouldn’t it be win-win for both of them?
A. The question is asked over and over again: Who started it? In this case, it started with an Israeli attack on Khan Younes in the southern Gaza Strip where 5 Hamas militants, apparently Qassam rocket builders, were killed. In response, Hamas launched a rocket salvo at Sderot and then things escalated. It’s the old question of the chicken and the egg: which came first? The Israelis believe that it is their right to carry out target assassinations, even if they provoke collateral damage. And the Palestinians say: We can't let ourselves be massacred like this; it's our duty to resist the occupier.
Q.Is there Israeli claim of legitimate defense as a justification for its military operations in Gaza unjustified? What would be the alternative?
A. That is a fundamental question. Israel has the right and the duty to defend its citizens against Qassam rockets. But what should it do? Enter Gaza to slaughter Palestinians? Does that constitute a solution? Does it solve the problem? So far, Israeli incursions into Gaza Strip haven’t stopped Qassam rocket attacks.
Since coming to power on 15 June 2007 in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has made an offer of truce to the Israelis. Israel has refused their offer because it does not wish to enter into dialog with Hamas, an Islamist movement that does not recognized Israel.
The Israelis fear that entering into entering into dialog with Hamas, whether directly or indirectly, would be see as a failure. Moreover, the Israelis believe that a truce would permit the Islamist movement to strengthen its military capacity.
Q. Do the rockets fired from Gaza openly target the Israeli civilian population? What about the Israeli raids?
A. Israeli raids are in fact targeted assassinations and the missiles are fired by drones, combat helicopters or F-16s at cars, buildings or people deemed terrorists by Israel. But this method produces lots of mistakes. According to the figures available to me, of the 110 to 120 Palestinians killed over the last few days, at least half were innocent civilians, including 20 children and a dozen women.
The Palestinians do not have the same access to technology as the Israelis. They use rockets with a range of 10 kilometers that mostly land in Gaza and once in a while in Sderot.
What is undeniable is for the last few months, the range of the Qassam and its propulsion system have improved, but they remain very unreliable devices.
Q. What is the meaning of the statement of the Israeli minister saying a Shoah would descend upon the Arabs of Palestine?
A. The Israeli Vice Minister for Defense stated that if the rockets continued to fall in Israel and if their range increased, a “shoah” would befall the Palestinian people. The term means catastrophe in Hebrew and nabka in Arab.
The word shoah is also a synonym for the Holocaust, while nabka is used to denote the eviction and exile of Arabs during the war that led to the partition of Palestine.
The Israeli Vice Minister recognized that the term was inappropriate because today shoah is understood everywhere as the Holocaust and not as catastrophe. To use the term, shoah, in the context of combatting people responsible for launching Qassam rockets in the Gaza Strip was manifestly inappropriate.
Q. How have the Israeli people reacted to the events of the last few days, especially the death of so many children?
A. The Israeli media have spoken of victims but they are really not concerned by what happened in Gaza. Most Israelis take Hamas for a terrorist regime and believe that the Palestinians deserve what they get. But interestingly last week in a survey published by Haaretz, 64% of Israelis believe that negotiations should be opened with Hamas.
Q. Is the United States applying any pressure to end these operations?
A. Obviously. On the eve of the retreat last Sunday, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert both declared that the operation would continue and Barak even affirmed that there would be an escalation. Everyone expected that the 2,000 IDF troops deployed to the Gaza Strip would stay there several days. But in the morning they left.
Why? Because the White House believed that the violence had to end and that negotiations should restart. The same day, Mahmood Abbas decided to end contacts with the Israelis part of the peace process that began three months ago but have reached an impasse.
Thus US pressure was manifest. Moreover, Condoleeza Rice has begun a tour of the Middle East in an attempt to restart the peace process.
Q. Is an independent Palestinian State in 2008 still a possibility?
A. No, it is not. Ehud Olmert said so himself a few days ago while he was in Japan. It is undeniable that since the peace process was restarted by George W. Bush in Annapolis, the Israelis haven’t moved an inch with respect to lifting the checkpoints on the West Bank or liberating Palestinian prisoners.
On the three essential questions -the status of Jerusalem, the drawing of the frontiers of the Palestinian state and the right of return- nothing has been done. As to dismantling illegal settlements, the Israelis have so far done nothing.