Thursday, August 28, 2008

News of the Israeli-Palestinian Confrontation



The lull arrangement was violated once again this week by two incidents in which three rockets were fired at Israel . As usual, no terrorist organization claimed responsibility. Israel reacted to those incidents by temporarily closing down the crossings. Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Egypt and met with President Mubarak in order to promote the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. On August 25, 2008 , Israel released 199 Palestinian prisoners; two of them had been involved with killing Israelis and had served lengthy prison terms. The release was a gesture towards Abu Mazen on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. The Palestinian Authority welcomed the release, while Hamas condemned Israel for releasing only Fatah prisoners.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Israel on a work trip on August 25. She met with PM Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Rice is expected to hold a three-way meeting with Livni and Abu Alaa, the Palestinian chief negotiator. In a press announcement, Rice said that the talks between Israel and the Palestinians were serious and noted that Israel and the Palestinians made considerable progress compared to last year.

More violations of the lull arrangement

Three additional violations of the lull took place in the past week:

• On August 19, a rocket hit was identified near the village of Nir Am in the western Negev . Following the incident, Israel 's Defense Minister ordered to shut down the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip until August 21 (Defense Ministry, August 19).

• On August 25, a rocket hit was identified near a village in the western Negev . Several hours later, another rocket hit was identified nearby. The Defense Minister ordered to shut down the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip starting the morning of August 26 (Defense Ministry, August 25).

Ze'ev Trachtman, August 19
The rocket landing site near the village of Nir Am
(photo by Ze'ev Trachtman, August 19)

Since the beginning of the lull, 16 rockets and 7 mortar shells were fired at Israel . Four additional rockets were fired at Israel but landed inside Gaza Strip territory.
Counterterrorist Activities

The Gaza Strip

As in previous weeks, the Israel security forces avoided conducting counterterrorism activities in the Gaza Strip, continuing their routine activities along the border fence.

Egyptian sources continued to report about preventing weapons and ammunition smuggling into the Gaza Strip. On August 21, the Egyptian security forces reported that they had seized a cache containing 500 kg of TNT explosives and several automatic firearms in the Egypt-Gaza Strip border region (Al-Bashair, August 21). The Egyptians also reported that they uncovered a tunnel between Egypt and the Gaza Strip in the Rafah neighborhood of Al-Barazil (Al-Ghad, August 25).

Judea and Samaria

Two terrorists caught with weapons and ammunition

Two Palestinian terrorists carrying explosives and military equipment were detained on August 23 by an IDF force at the Beit Eiba roadblock (northwest of the city of Nablus ). At first, one of the terrorists approached the roadblock. In a routine search, the IDF force found a dismantled charge ready for assembling and a lot of military equipment on his person. Shortly thereafter, another terrorist approached the roadblock with a ready-to-use pipe charge and a hand grenade, found in his possession by the IDF soldiers. The two terrorists were handed over to the security forces for interrogation (IDF Spokesman's website, August 23).

On August 21, the Bir Naballah roadblock opened for free passage of Palestinian vehicles. Connecting Ramallah to villages to its south, it is the third roadblock to open in August. This can be seen as part of the Israeli security forces' program to ease restrictions on the everyday lives of the Palestinian population.

The numerous roadblocks in Judea and Samaria are designed to prevent terrorist activity and weapons smuggling, such as the smuggling attempt on August 23 (see above). However, in order to reduce the impact on the lives of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria , Israel gradually and carefully removes some of the roadblocks.

The Lull Arrangement

The situation at the crossings

In the past week, the crossings were closed down twice following rocket fire attacks at western Negev villages: the first time was after a rocket was fired on August 19, and the second was after two rockets were fired at Israel on August 25. In days of routine operation, some 90 trucks a day passed through the Sufa crossing and the renewed Kerem Shalom crossing (which is supposed to gradually replace the Sufa crossing). Likewise, civilians in need of humanitarian assistance continued to pass through the Erez crossing, while fuel and cooking gas passed through Nahal Oz.

Faced with Palestinian complaints over the shortage of cooking gas, the head of the Fuel Administration in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Ali, said that the fuel supply into the Gaza Strip would increase in the coming days. He noted that the main cause for the shortage of cooking gas was the fact that some 40% of the gas coming into the Gaza Strip was used to fuel vehicles.

Israel 's Defense Minister visits Egypt

On August 26, Defense Minister Ehud Barak held a work visit in Egypt . He was accompanied by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and by Major General Amos Gilad. Barak met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and was also supposed to meet with Egypt 's Defense Minister Field Marshal Tantawi and Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman (Defense Ministry, August 25).

Following his meeting with the Egyptian President, Defense Minister Barak said that as far as Israel was concerned, the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit was paramount, and that Israel considered Egypt a key player in the release effort. Minister Barak thanked President Mubarak for Egypt 's efforts to prevent weapons and ammunition smuggling into the Gaza Strip, saying it was clear that those efforts were proving themselves, however, further efforts were necessary to diminish the smuggling activity even more (Defense Ministry, August 26).

Hamas continues to threaten Israel about Gilad Shalit

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, reiterated his threat that if Israel kept “procrastinating and insisting, it must understand that some day Gilad Shalit will become the second Ron Arad” (Filastin al-Aan, August 20). A “senior source” in Hamas said that his movement had informed Egypt that it was putting the prisoner issue on hold until Israel was willing to comply with Hamas's demands. The source accused Israel of delaying and not being “really serious” about completing the deal and releasing 450 prisoners, whose names were given to Egypt , in exchange for Gilad Shalit (Al-Hayat, August 21).

Protest ships reach the Gaza Strip

On August 23, two ships with dozens of pro-Palestinian activists from various nationalities reached the Gaza Strip. They were welcomed by Palestinian boats and by hundreds of Palestinians waiting for them on the beach. Organized and orchestrated by Hamas, the arrival of the ships was designed to protest against the so-called “siege” of the Gaza Strip, 1 even though the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip are open following the lull arrangement. Israel did not stop the ships and thus avoided the media provocation which the organizers wished to create, even though, according to the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, supported by the international community, the territorial waters of the Gaza Strip are under Israel 's security control and responsibility. And indeed, the international resonance of the incident was relatively minor, much less than what its organizers had hoped for.

Palestine-info, August 25

Left: the ships arrive at the Gaza Strip shore (Al-Jazeera, August 23). Right: a Palestinian boat welcomes the ships (Palestine-info, August 25)

The Hamas movement took advantage of the incident for propaganda purposes. Jamal al-Khudari, the head of Hamas's popular committee against the siege, called a press-conference in which he said that the arrival of the protest ships will be followed by other measures—by sea, by land, and even by air (Al-Jazeera, August 24). Hamas spokesmen used the opportunity to urge Arab countries to try and lift the “siege” on the Gaza Strip, criticizing Arab countries in general and Egypt in particular (over the fact that the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt remains closed).

PA Chairman Abu Mazen called the crews of the two ships and thanked them for their attempt to “break the siege” (Wafa, August 23). Hamas PM Ismail Haniyah expressed his appreciation for “that bold humanitarian move” and called upon Arab countries and the Arab league to take immediate action to “put an end to the siege”. Addressing Egypt , he said it was “particularly important to open the Rafah crossing” and claimed that “such a measure will end the siege”. Ismail Haniyah was thankful for the media coverage the incident received, and particularly noted the Al-Jazeera TV channel (which frequently widely covers Hamas's media spins, expressing support of its views) (Al-Jazeera, August 23).

Intensive training in the Gaza Strip continues during the lull

The terrorist organizations continue to take advantage of the lull in the fighting for intensive training, designed to increase their defensive and offensive capabilities. 2 The organizations allowed their training to be widely covered by the media, thus attempting to deter Israel . Of particular note are exercises simulating storming IDF outposts and abducting soldiers. Within that context, the following exercises have been held recently:

• On August 16, the Salah al-Din Brigades, the terrorist-operative wing of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), conducted an exercise simulating the abduction of an Israeli soldier from an IDF outpost by some 50 of its operatives (Ali Waqed, ynet, August 16). On August 18, the organization's operatives conducted an exercise in Gaza City in which they demonstrated their skills in urban warfare and storming IDF outposts (Qawem website, August 18). On August 20, a course graduation ceremony was held south of Gaza City . It was attended by several hundred terrorist operatives who had undergone a several week long training and refreshment course. The “infiltration unit” demonstrated its skills during the ceremony, supported by firing anti-tank weapons, rockets, heavy machineguns, and using explosive charges (Qawem website, August 20).

• The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's terrorist-operative wing, conducted an exercise simulating an attack by some 25 terrorist operatives on an IDF outpost, using explosive charges and firing rockets (Filastin, August 22). In mid-August, 1500 operatives completed a course on the use of various weapons (Ibid). On August 22, the Fatah-associated Pal-Press website reported that the fire exercises conducted by Hamas operatives in Khan Younes resulted in the death of one Palestinian civilian. 3

Izz al-Din al-Qassam on training in Gaza

PALDF, August 23

Izz al-Din al-Qassam on training in Gaza (PALDF, August 23)

• The Jerusalem Brigades, the terrorist-operative wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), conducted an exercise in the southern Gaza Strip, in which they used small and medium arms, anti-tank weapons, and explosive charges. The organization's operatives simulated infiltration into buildings and abducting Israeli soldiers (Maan News Agency, Gaza , August 22). A spokesman for the Jerusalem Brigades said that two courses were completed on August 22: one which included 100 operatives and was conducted in the Gaza City neighborhood of Al-Zaytoun; and another which included 40 new operatives, and was held in the neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan in downtown Gaza City (Nidaa al-Quds website and Sawt al-Quds Radio, August 23). 4

The Annapolis Process

Israel released 199 Palestinian prisoners

On August 25, Israel released 199 Palestinian terrorist prisoners as a gesture to PA Chairman Abu Mazen on the occasion of the holy month of Ramadan. 5 The prisoner release began at 9:30 AM in Ofer Prison, near the city of Modiin , from where the prisoners were taken to the Betunia checkpoint, west of Ramallah. The released prisoners were welcomed at the Betunia checkpoint by hundreds of Palestinians. From there, a procession took them to the Muqataa compound in Ramallah. Ceremonies were also held in Nablus , Jenin, and in other cities in which the released prisoners arrived (Wafa News Agency, August 25).

The Palestinian Authority was satisfied over the prisoners' release, but noted that all prisoners held in Israel must be released as well. At the prisoners' release ceremony in Ramallah , PA Chairman Abu Mazen said that there would be “no peace unless all the prisoners are liberated… We say that every man and woman held in prison should know that their time will come…” (Wafa News Agency, August 25). Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu al-Ghait also expressed his satisfaction over the release of the prisoners, saying that it was a long overdue move in the right direction (Middle East News Agency, August 25).

Hamas welcomed the prisoners' release but claimed that Israel discriminated against Hamas by only releasing Fatah prisoners. Hamas senior Ghazi Hamad said that Israel was trying to compromise Hamas and deepen the Palestinian division. He added that Hamas now needed to make more efforts to reach a prisoner swap agreement (involving Gilad Shalit) and to cooperate with Egypt (Al-Jazeera, August 25). Another announcement by Hamas said that Israel was “playing a dirty game by separating the prisoners,” and that it would “come back to haunt it” (Palestine-info, August 25). Another Hamas leader, Moussa Abu Marzouq, said that not releasing Hamas's prisoners makes it even more insistent in its demands for Gilad Shalit (BBC Radio, August 25).

American Secretary of State on a work trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority

On August 25, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came on a work trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. On August 26, Rice met with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In a press announcement (August 26), Rice noted that the talks between the sides were serious and intensive, and that there was progress on some issues compared to the past: “We are certainly not anywhere near the point that we were a year ago, when we didn't even have an active process for the addressing of gaps”.

Rice will also meet with PA Chairman Abu Mazen and with the Palestinian chief negotiator, Abu Alaa. In addition, Rice will hold a three-way meeting with Foreign Minister Livni and Abu Alaa (ynet, August 26).
The Internal Palestinian Arena

Security services continue their activity against Hamas’s civilian infrastructure

This week, the Palestinian Authority security services continued their activities against Hamas's civilian infrastructure ( da'wah ) and took steps to further establish the PA's control over the various Hamas institutions. Thus, the security services continued shutting down civilian institutions and charitable associations, arresting Hamas-affiliated activists, and replacing Hamas boards with Fatah administrations.

This week, the activity of the security services focused on Hamas's institutions in Hebron and in Jericho . Hamas-controlled charitable associations in the towns of Yata, Tarkumia, and Beit al-Awla in the Hebron district were closed down and their contents confiscated, under orders of the Interior Ministry in Salam Fayyad's government. According to the Filastin al-Aan website, new administrative boards, made up of Fatah activists, were put in charge of those associations, replacing the Hamas teams. On August 19, the security services shut down a branch of the Al-Islah charitable association on grounds of “financial and administrative corruption”, arresting some of its board directors (Maan News Agency, August 20).

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri commented on that activity, saying that the Palestinian security services and the “Ramallah bunch” were taking part in a “Zionist-American plot”. He warned Fatah that Hamas would take all measures necessary to protect its people and institutions (Palestine-info, August 21). At the same time, Hamas disbanded 26 Fatah-affiliated associations in the Gaza Strip, claiming their activities were illegal. However, the Hamas Interior Ministry ordered the reopening of 70 recently closed-down associations after Hamas approved their legal status (Maan Agency, August 25).

Partial teachers' strike in the Gaza Strip in protest over Hamas's measures against the teachers' union

The beginning of the new school year sparked a new feud between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip. The cause is the takeover of Hamas (and its radical Islamic ideology) of the Gaza Strip education system, driving out those teachers and school principals affiliated with Fatah and opposed to Hamas. That is part of the Islamization process which the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip currently undergoes.

On August 24, a partial five-day strike, beginning the first day of the new school year, was declared in Gaza Strip schools. About half of all the teachers took part in it. The strike was called by the Fatah-affiliated teachers' union in the West Bank , protesting Hamas's takeover of the union's structure about one week before and replacing Fatah teachers and principals with those affiliated with Hamas (Ramattan News Agency, Firas website, Reuters, August 24). Dr. Muhammad Asqoul, the Education Minister in the Hamas government, rejected Fatah's claims, saying that the school year in the Gaza Strip would proceed as usual and that legal and administrative action would be taken against any teacher taking part in the strike (Palestine-info, August 24). Furthermore, substitute teachers were appointed to replace those on strike (Palestine-info, August 25).

1 For more details, see: “News of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, August 12-19)”

2 See our Information Bulletin : “Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist organizations are taking advantage of the lull in the fighting to promote their military buildup, which includes intensive training, in preparation for the day after” (August 21, 2008).

3 Some of the terrorist organizations' courses and exercises are held in densely-populated areas, and therefore put civilians at considerable risk.

4 This is yet another example of training held in civilian densely populated areas.

5 For more details on the release, see: “News of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, August 12-19, 2008)” .

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