Gaza Shelled, Pressure on Hamas Builds

Published April 14, 2006, issue of April 14, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — Israel shelled Gaza this week as Ehud Olmert intesified Israeli political, military and economic pressure on the new Hamas-led Palestinian government, a strategy he hopes will force the terrorist group to change its ways or be overthrown.

The aim is to isolate Hamas internationally, cut off direct funding to the Palestinian Authority and force the Palestinians to stop firing Kassam rockets at civilian targets in Israel.

On Monday, in an effort to thwart future attacks, Israel began targeting rocket launchers in Gaza. A 12-year-old girl was killed in the shelling. Thirteen other members of her family, including toddlers, children and teenagers were injured.

Despite the civilian casualties, Israel continued its attacks Tuesday. “We will continue to fight them [rocket launchers] intensely, while trying to avoid hurting innocent civilians,” said Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Tuesday. “As long as it’s not quiet here [in Israel], it won’t be quiet there [in Gaza].”

Mofaz said Israel was forced to sharpen its response to terrorist organizations as the Hamas-led Palestinian government is sitting by idly.

On Sunday, Olmert convened top foreign policy and defense officials to update Israeli policy toward Hamas. The line he took was tough, saying that Israel will have no ties with the Hamas-led P.A., which it defines as a hostile entity; will seek to prevent Hamas from becoming an established government; will boycott foreign diplomats who meet Hamas officials; will suspend coordination between the Israeli military and P.A. security forces; will not transfer taxes it collects for the P.A. to the Hamas government, and will seek to coordinate with the international community ways of transferring humanitarian aid to the Palestinians without going through Hamas-run government agencies.

Olmert’s policy makes a clear distinction between Hamas and the president of the P.A., Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party, who has not been blackballed in the same way. But though Israeli left-wingers have urged Olmert to establish a peacemaking channel to Abbas, Olmert says he has no plans to meet with him soon.

Olmert’s tough talk is being backed up by strong military pressure. In addition to the artillery pounding, Israeli aircraft were carrying out targeted killings of leading terrorists.

Economic pressure is being stepped up, also, with Israeli banks suspending dealings with the Palestinians and the international community refusing to transfer aid until Hamas meets three conditions set immediately after its election victory this past January: recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and cessation of violence.

The upshot is that Hamas does not have money to pay P.A. salaries for April. Hamas leaders are said to be concerned about a possible rebellion that could sweep them from power. More than half the 140,000 P.A. officials are from the rival Fatah organization, and Hamas leaders apparently fear that they might rebel if not paid soon.

According to Israeli analysts, the thinking behind the tough policy is that if the Hamas government resigns or is overthrown, a more pragmatic leadership will emerge. If Hamas bends under pressure, it will itself have become a more pragmatic leadership. And if it remains in power without meeting the international community’s conditions, Olmert’s plan to set Israel’s borders unilaterally will get wall-to-wall international support.

So far, the international community is staunchly behind Israel. The United States and the European Union refuse to have anything to do with Hamas, which they regard as a terrorist organization. In line with this approach, France recently refused visas to two Hamas officials invited to observe the European Parliament in session in Strasbourg.

Israeli analysts are convinced that the pressure is beginning to work. According to the Israeli military, Hamas is on the verge of taking action to stop the firing of Kassam rockets into Israel.

Hamas also is under pressure from the Palestinian street, with mounting calls for it to accept conditions for re-engagement with Israel and with the international community. Hamas’s response has been to make moderate-sounding statements, without actually recognizing Israel or accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The pressure on the Palestinians has left Hamas virtually unable to govern. It can’t pay salaries, let alone take socioeconomic initiatives or even guarantee food and medical supplies. But so far, Hamas leaders are putting on a brave face.

“We will not bow to international blackmail,” a defiant Hamas spokesman declared Monday.

The question is how long Hamas will be able to continue in this vein. Writing in Ha’aretz, Danny Rubinstein, a leading commentator on Palestinian affairs, predicted the Hamas government’s early demise: “Judging by its performance so far, it can’t be expected to last long.”

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