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After Attack, Tanks Roll Back Into Gaza

TEL AVIV — As Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rumbled into Gaza this week, responding to Sunday’s double suicide bombing in the port city of Ashdod, officials cautioned that the incursions would not be a repeat of the massive 2002 operation known as Defensive Shield. Israel does not intend to reoccupy the streets of Gaza, officials said. In fact, Israel intends to leave Gaza.

Still, the responses to the bombing — including a full closure, cancellation of Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic contacts and likely resumption of assassination attempts against terrorist leaders — showed the seriousness with which Israel took the port attack, in which 10 civilians were killed and 16 wounded. The Israeli government convened an emergency meeting of the Security Cabinet on Monday, the first of its kind in six months, to adopt what officials called “pointed and dramatic” responses.

The Ashdod attack is viewed here as an alarming escalation in the Palestinian terrorist offensive, both because of its target and its launching point, and some officials warn it could indicate a strategic shift by the terrorist groups. It was the first known case of terrorists successfully crossing the security fence surrounding Gaza. The fact that all Palestinian suicide bombers since September 2000 had come from the West Bank — except for two bombers who left Gaza with British passports — had been cited repeatedly by supporters of the still-uncompleted West Bank fence as proof of its likely effectiveness. This week’s attack seemed to weaken their case.

No less troubling was the fact that the bombers, identified as two 18-year-olds, Nabil Massoud and Mahmoud Salem, both from the Jabalya refugee camp, had managed to penetrate the defenses of Israel’s main port, considered a high-security installation. They detonated their explosive belts just a few yards from huge tanks containing toxic gases, very nearly achieving the terrorist organizations’ coveted goal of a “mega-bombing” — one that would harm hundreds or even thousands of Israelis.

The operation was carried out jointly by three organizations: Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Fatah. This too is a fairly new trend, indicating growing cooperation among Palestinian factions in their fight against Israel. Hamas is believed to be increasingly dominant in Gaza, raising questions about the aftermath of an Israeli departure.

The day after the Ashdod bombing soldiers at a roadblock near Nablus arrested 11-year-old Abdallah Quran, who was carrying a 20-pound explosive belt in his backpack. The boy, released later, professed that he was unaware of his deadly cargo. “Two men told me to carry the backpack through the roadblock and give it to a lady on the other side,” Quran told Yediot Aharonot. “They promised me 5 shekels if I did it.” The men apparently intended to detonate the bomb while Quran was undergoing inspection by soldiers. The incident was seen by the Israeli public as further proof, if any was needed, of the cruelty and ruthlessness of the terrorists. For officials, it was yet another sign of the terrorist organizations’ determination to escalate the conflict.

Hamas spokesmen declared the Ashdod bombing a “strategic achievement,” proof of their ability to reach strategic targets and not just crowds of civilians. They said it was meant to avenge a recent series of Israeli military operations in Gaza in which 44 Palestinians were killed, mostly armed fighters but also including children and other noncombatants. Israel “is wasting money on fences — they will not protect you,” Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was quoted as saying. He is considered a top target for assassination.

Israeli officials believe that the terrorist organizations intended for the Ashdod attack to depict Israel as running away from Gaza under pressure, rather than withdrawing on its own initiative while retaining the military upper hand. The attack came while the Sharon government was stepping up negotiations with Washington and with its domestic political partners to win support for the prime minister’s disengagement plan.

Predictably, the plan’s supporters and foes both described the suicide bombing as proof of their positions. Public opinion, however, seemed firmly behind unilateral withdrawal. In a poll conducted before the Ashdod bombing, no less than 56% of Jewish Israelis supported withdrawing from Gaza.

Sharon, addressing the Knesset after the bombing, reiterated his resolve to move forward with disengagement. Immediately after the bombing, he cancelled his long-postponed meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. The meeting, seen by both sides as a gesture toward the Bush administration rather than a real effort at diplomacy, had yet to be rescheduled.

Sharon seems to be facing mounting opposition within his own camp. After a long silence, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, considered Sharon’s likely successor if the present coalition disintegrates, spoke on the subject. “The plan is complex and problematic,” Netanyahu told a trio of American envoys visiting Israel this week to learn more of Sharon’s intentions. “I still can’t find in it the true answer to Israel’s problems.” This was seen as a first sign that should Sharon falter, Netanyahu may not back him up. That could encourage other rebels within Sharon’s Likud party, making the prime minister’s task of pushing the plan through the cabinet and the Knesset much harder.

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