TEL AVIV — Prior to Wednesday’s strike against Palestinian demonstrators, senior Israeli military officers were expressing confidence that they would have the freedom to finish their mission in Gaza without intervention from Washington, D.C. As pressure and outrage mounted from European and Arab governments, American officials and even from Israeli opposition leaders, that confidence appeared to grow shakier by the hour as the Gaza operation continued. Israel’s attorney general was preparing to consider the legality of house demolitions, and government officials were on the defensive over the scale of civilian deaths.
Publicly, Israel continued to defend its stated objectives in this week’s Rafah incursion, foiling attempts at large-scale-weapons smuggling into Gaza, which Israel links to the growing violence there. In private conversations, however, senior commanders made it clear that the army was attempting in part to send a message, both to Palestinians and Israelis: The events of the previous week, in which 13 Israeli soldiers lost their lives in three separate incidents, would not make the army more hesitant or cautious in its actions. No one called the overall operation “revenge” or even “retaliation,” but it seemed well in line with sentiments expressed by senior military leaders in the days between last week’s attacks on Israel’s troops and this week’s incursion into the Rafah refugees camp in southern Gaza.
Even before the killings Wednesday, there was a mounting outcry from European leaders, international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and elsewhere against what was being described as the “war crime” of Israeli house demolition. But Wednesday’s violence had international diplomats immediately warning of even more aggressive attempts to curb Israeli action in Gaza, and drew a swift condemnation from British Prime Minister Tony Blair. President Bush declined to condemn the Israeli operations directly, but his aides expressed concern.
“The events will push the recent criticism from the U.N. and the E.U. about the house demolitions to a whole other level,” a U.N. diplomat close to the issue told the Forward. “It’s a big, big deal.”
The diplomat predicted that international pressure would build on Israel to pull out of Gaza and to begin implementing the “road map” peace plan backed by the so-called international “Quartet” of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
At least eight Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded Wednesday when Israeli helicopter gunships and tanks fired missiles and shells at a crowd of 3,000 protestors in Rafah. The Israeli army said in a statement that it had not targeted the crowd. Military sources said that troops had spotted the approaching crowd, which included armed men, and asked a helicopter to fire a warning missile at an open field. But when the crowd continued to march, a tank fired three shells at the nearby abandoned building to ward off the protesters.
Senior Israeli military officers said that if there was indeed a mistake in the firing of the shell, it would represent a grave mistake that could short-circuit the continuation of the operation in Gaza.
Within hours of the killings, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon had briefed senior aides at the National Security Council, according to Israeli diplomatic sources in Washington. “We have open channels of communication,” an Israeli diplomatic source told the Forward. “The Americans say that they are very concerned. Obviously so are we. This is a very sad day. Difficult hours.”
“If it turns out that there was a mistake, we will admit it,” the Israeli source added. “ If it’s something else, we will expose it. Whatever happened there, it clearly creates serious problems for Israel, both militarily, diplomatically and otherwise.”
In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s killings, several Jewish communal observers worried that the incident — regardless of blame — would hurt Israel’s public standing.
“Of course its damaging,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the president of the Israel Project, an organization dedicated to training activists to defend Israel in public forums. Mizrahi defended Israel’s need to carry out security operations in Gaza, but said the violence there would end up being linked to events in Iraq — a negative development for Jerusalem. “The visuals in Iraq are similar to visuals in Israel,” she said, “and there is so much concern in Iraq.”
Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that pro-Israel forces faced the danger of many American Jews becoming disillusioned over the continuing violence, even if the Israeli military’s actions are fully justified.
At least one Jewish group, Americans for Peace Now, issued an immediate condemnation of the Israeli actions in Gaza. The organization acknowledged that Israel has legitimate security concerns, but its president and CEO, Debra DeLee, declared that “directing Israeli helicopter and tank fire against peaceful Palestinian protesters is inexcusable.”
“Just as we condemn Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, like the attack that took the lives of a pregnant settler and her four children earlier this month, we condemn this Israeli attack on Palestinian civilians,” DeLee was quoted as saying in the statement. “Israel would be well advised to get on with the evacuation of settlers from Gaza and get back to the negotiating table before more innocent lives are lost in the region and Israel’s moral authority is further diminished.”
Israel destroyed an estimated 88 homes in Rafah last weekend, before this week’s army incursion began. The military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, spoke of further large-scale demolitions in the coming days as the army attempted to seal off smugglers’ tunnels used to bring weapons from Egypt, and to broaden the so-called Philadelphia strip separating Egypt and Gaza. But as international protests mounted, some Israeli officials were warning of exaggerations similar to the myth making that followed Israel’s incursion into Jenin in March 2002. European press accounts spoke of house demolitions in the hundreds in the last week, while the Palestinian Authority (P.A) was calling for indictments of Israeli troops as war criminals.
The emerging debate inside Israel, with critics calling Gaza a new Lebanon — implying military failure to win a protracted war against guerrilla forces embedded within the civilian population — seemed only to strengthen the army’s resolve before Wednesday’s killings. “This definitely is not a second Lebanon,” Ya’alon told reporters, hours before the Rafah operation began.
Nor, it seemed, was this a second Khan Yunis. Three years almost to the day before the current incursion into Rafah, Israeli troops staged a much smaller-scale operation around the town of Khan Yunis, also in Gaza. That operation didn’t involve the demolition of buildings on a large scale, as was the case in Rafah, and the fighting was nowhere as heavy. But swift American response –– indicating the Bush administration wanted the Israeli troops to retreat immediately –– caused the troops to move out literally hours after Brigadier General Yair Naveh, the commander of the operation, told reporters, “We will stay here as long as needed, perhaps days and perhaps weeks.”
This time, the initial response from Washington was mild. During his Tuesday address to members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, President Bush voiced mild concern over events in Gaza, as Israel launched its incursion, but he also insisted that Israel “has every right to defend itself from terror.”
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice called Israeli building demolition in Rafah “a worrying thing,” hardly the kind of response that could cause Israel to reconsider.
Vice Premier Ehud Olmert met with Rice in Washington, and the administration seemed satisfied — or at least not moved into contrary action — by his explanations as to the nature of the Rafah operation. President Bush, addressing Aipac just as the Israeli incursion was beginning, made no direct mention of the events in his speech, though some observers claimed he was referring to the Rafah operation when he said, “The unfolding violence in the Gaza Strip is troubling and underscores the need for all parties to seize every opportunity for peace.”
American response is widely seen as the single most important consideration for Prime Minister Sharon as far as authorizing military actions. In September 2002, the Israeli army tightened its hold on the Muqata’a, the Ramallah headquarters of P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat. As in the Khan Yunis case, a curt U.S. admonition sufficed to force the withdraw of troops back to their original positions, where they have sat for two years, keeping Arafat isolated but leaving him and his buildings alone. For the past few months, though, the Israeli government, feeling that the administration has other things to worry about, seems to act on the belief that its hands are free.
Palestinian voices, warning against a human disaster in Rafah, met with little response. The killing of at least three children on the first day of the incursion, as well as the reports that more than 1,000 Palestinians had fled their homes and become refugees inside the town, did not move many inside or outside the region. Most Israelis, still enraged over the killing of the 13 soldiers, supported a retaliatory action and hardly busied themselves with the consequences. The powers-that-be in the U.S. and Europe seemed interested in other things. A call by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to halt the demolition operations had little effect.
The complete freedom to act on the military side only amplified the feeling that Sharon is paralyzed on most other fronts, especially the political one. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, the same person who ordered the Rafah operation, echoed this feeling in a speech at the Bar Ilan University. “Time without initiative is lost time,” Mofaz said. “We have to do everything in our power to find partners on the other side.” As Israelis awaited the end — and outcome — of the largest military operation in several months, many seemed to feel that their leaders now have free reign to do whatever they want, but that they use it only for operations they themselves feel will be of little use in the long run.
With reporting from Ori Nir in Washington; Marc Perelman, Miriam Colton and Ami Eden in New York, and Ha’aretz.