Israel kills top Hamas chief in Gaza offensive – Israel proposes ‘toppling’ Abbas over UN bid
GAZA: Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza yesterday, killing the top military commander of Hamas in an air strike and threatening an invasion of the enclave that the Islamist group vowed would “open the gates of hell”. The onslaught shattered hopes that a truce mediated on Tuesday by Egypt could pull the two sides back from the brink of war after five days of escalating Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes at militant targets. Operation “Pillar of Defence” began with a surgical strike on a car carrying the commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls Gaza and dominates a score of smaller armed groups.
Within minutes of the death of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, big explosions were rocking Gaza, as the Israeli air force struck at selected targets just before sundown, blasting plumes of smoke and debris high above the crowded city. Panicking civilians ran for cover and the death toll mounted quickly. Seven people including two girls under the age of five were killed, the health ministry said. A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew increasingly more intense and frequent.Hamas said Jaabari, who ran the organisation’s armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with an unnamed associate when their car was blown apart by an Israeli missile. The charred and mangled wreckage of a car could be seen belching flames, as emergency crews picked up what appeared to be body parts. The strike prompted an outpouring of grief and anger, with armed men firing weapons into the air outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, and mosques throughout the city calling prayers to mourn the commander’s death.
Israel confirmed it had carried out the attack and announced there was more to come. Reuters witnesses saw Hamas security compounds and police stations blasted apart. “This is an operation against terror targets of different organisations in Gaza,” Israeli army spokeswoman Colonel Avital Leibovitch told reporters. Jaabari had “a lot of blood on his hands”, she said. Other militant groups including Islamic Jihad were on the target list. Immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio. “The occupation has opened the gates of hell,” Hamas’ armed wing said.
And Fawzi Barhum, a spokesman for the political wing of the ruling Islamist movement said it was tantamount to a “declaration of war”. “The occupation committed a dangerous crime and crossed all the red lines, which is considered a declaration of war,” he said in a statement. “The occupation will pay dearly for this and we will make it regret the moment they thought about it.” Smaller groups also vowed to strike back. “Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.
Southern Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza were on full alert, and schools were ordered closed for today. About one million Israelis live in range of Gaza’s relatively primitive but lethal rockets, supplemented in recent months by longer-range, more accurate systems. “The days we face in the south will, in my estimation, prove protracted,” Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s chief military spokesman, told Channel 2 TV. “The home front must brace itself resiliently.”
Mordechai said Israel was both responding to a surge in Palestinian rocket salvoes earlier this week and trying to prevent Hamas and other Palestinian factions from building up their arsenals further. Among the targets of yesterday’s air strikes were underground caches of longer-range Hamas rockets, he said. Asked if Israel might send in ground forces, Mordechai said: “There are preparations, and if we are required to, the option of an entry by ground is available.”
Israel’s intelligence agency Shin Bet said Jaabari was responsible for Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, when the militant Islamist group ousted fighters of the Fatah movement of its great rival, the Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It said Jaabari instigated the attack that led to the capture of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit in a kidnap raid from Gaza in 2006. Jaabari was also the man who handed Shalit over to Israel in a prisoner exchange five years after his capture. Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr condemned the Israeli air strikes and called for an “immediate stop” to attacks on the Palestinian territory, warning against “escalation and its possible negative effects on regional stability.”
Separately, Israel’s foreign ministry has proposed in a policy paper “toppling” Abbas if a Palestinian bid for state observer status at the United Nations is approved later this month. “Toppling Abu Mazen’s (Abbas’) regime would be the only option in this case,” the position paper obtained by AFP says. “Any other option… would mean waving a white flag and admitting the failure of the Israeli leadership to deal with the challenge.”
The position paper is a draft document that is expected to be endorsed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who would then present it to the Israeli officials charged with formulating Israel’s response to the Palestinian bid. Lieberman has already reportedly expressed his view that Abbas’ Palestinian Authority should be dismantled if the UN bid succeeds. The Palestinians are scheduled to present their bid for state observer status at the General Assembly on Nov 29, where they are expected to easily win approval, despite opposition from the United States and Israel.
The bid comes slightly more than a year after the Palestinians sought full UN membership at the Security Council, a request that stalled there because of opposition from the United States, a permanent member and veto-holder. The ministry paper warns that Israel “must extract a high price from Abu Mazen,” and that receiving state status at the UN “would be considered a crossing of a red line.”
Israel’s Channel 10 reported on Nov 5 that Lieberman had backed the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, in comments to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “If the Palestinians pursue their project at the UN, they are definitively destroying the chances of peace talks,” the station quoted Lieberman as saying on October 24. “If they persist with this project, I will ensure that the Palestinian Authority collapses.”
A senior Israeli official told AFP yesterday that Israel is also considering annulling part or all of the 1993 Oslo Accords on Palestinian autonomy in response to the UN bid. “The claim is that the Palestinians’ appeal to the UN is such a fundamental breach of the Oslo Accords that it nullifies them. And if they are nullified, we are not committed to them either,” the official said on condition of anonymity. The 1993 Oslo Accords were intended to pave the way for a full resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which was to govern parts of the occupied West Bank and Gaza until a final agreement.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat scoffed at Israel’s warnings. “The Israeli threats are like a broken record. We heard that at the time of (veteran Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat and now under Abu Mazen,” he said on Israeli army radio. “Even if the Palestinians had a Mother Teresa as president, Thomas Jefferson as parliament speaker and Montesquieu as premier, there would still be a Lieberman to say these are not partners and that they must be killed,” he said. As for scrapping the Oslo Accords, he said that Israel had already made good on its threats.
Israel and Washington fiercely oppose any Palestinian action at the United Nations, and US President Barack Obama called Abbas earlier this week to reiterate his opposition. But the Palestinians have confirmed they will push ahead with the plan, saying that enhanced UN status does not contradict peace efforts, and pointing out that direct talks have been on hold since late Sept 2010. Israel calls the bid “unilateral” and is reportedly also weighing suspending the transfer of tax and tariff funds it collects for the Palestinians and cutting permits for Palestinian workers in Israel in response. Palestinians held rallies across the West Bank yesterday, a day before the 24th anniversary of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s declaration of independence, carrying banners supporting the UN non-state membership bid. – Agencies