Thursday, February 26, 2009

News of Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


This week rockets and mortar shells continued to be launched from the Gaza Strip at western Negev population centers and IDF forces operating near the border. No casualties and no property damage were reported. The Israeli Security Cabinet unanimously decided that the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit would be Israel 's top priority (i.e., a higher priority than the lull arrangement). Hamas represented the Israeli decision as an attack on the Egyptian initiative and reiterated that there was no linkage between the lull arrangement and the issue of Gilad Shalit, and that each had its own price. A spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry said that the Israeli decision undermined the opportunity to achieve a lull, but added that Egypt was waiting to see how the current situation could be handled.

Important Events

The Gaza Strip

Daily rocket and mortar shell fire continue

This past week rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israeli territory on a daily basis , targeting western Negev population centers and IDF forces operating near the border security fence. There was slight decrease in the volume of rocket fire: 12 rockets were fired, compared with 13 last week. Some of the rockets fell in the Gaza Strip, which may indicate that the terrorist squads are having operational difficulties. There was an increase in mortar shell fire: 15 mortar shells were fired, compared with six last week. Most of them targeted IDF forces operating along the border security fence. Twice terrorist squads attempted to attack IDF forces with IEDs (February 20 and 23). There were no casualties in any of the attacks and no damage was reported.

The main incidents were the following:

• February 19 – Four rocket hits were identified during the day. One rocket fell near the Israeli city of Sderot . There were no casualties and no damage was reported.

• February 20 – Six mortar shells were fired at IDF forces during the day. There were no casualties and no damage was reported.

• February 20 – A three-man Palestinian terrorist squad placed an IED four kilometers northeast of the Kissufim post, and then fled beyond a nearby structure.

• February 23 – Two rocket hits were identified near Sderot . There were no casualties and no damage was reported.

• February 23 – A terrorist squad attempted to place an IED three kilometers north of the Kissufim post. The Israeli Air Force attacked the squad.

In most cases, the Palestinian terrorist organizations refrained from publicly claiming responsibility for the attacks. Usually, a fictitious group called “the Hezbollah battalions in Palestine ” claims responsibility (QudsNews website, February 18, 19 and 22, 2009). In one instance the Ayman Jauda Squads of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for mortar shell fire (Ayman Jauda website, February 21, 2009). The Palestinian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for placing IEDs (QudsNews website, February 23, 2009).

IDF responses

In response to the various attacks, the Israeli Air Force struck terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip, including a Hamas post in Khan Yunis on February 17 and tunnels in the Rafah region on February 17 and 19. On February 19, Adel Zarub, spokesman for the crossing administration, was seriously wounded in the attack (Filastin al-‘An website, February 19, 2009). The Israeli Air Force also attacked a squad placing IEDs three kilometers north of the Kissufim post (February 23, 2009).

Judea and Samaria

Attacks in Judea and Samaria continue

Molotov cocktails and stone-throwing continue:

• February 18 – An Israeli woman sustained slight injuries when stones were thrown at her car near the village of Burqa , east of Ramallah. She received medical aid at the scene. IDF forces searched the area.

• February 19 – A Molotov cocktail and stones were thrown at an Israeli bus near Hebron . There were no casualties. The bus was damaged. In another attack, three Molotov cocktails were thrown at an Israeli bus near the village of Bayt Ummar , south of Bethlehem . Later, another Molotov cocktail was thrown at an Israeli vehicle driving along the same stretch of road. In both attacks there were no casualties and no damage was reported.

Counterterrorism Activities

During IDF ongoing counterterrorism activities, weapons and ammunition were found:

• February 18 – An IDF force detained two armed Palestinians who were carrying improvised weapons and Molotov cocktails ready for throwing. They were spotted by an IDF lookout near the village of Bayt Dajan , southeast of Nablus . Soldiers who reached the location found a barrier of stones blocking the road leading to the settlement of Alon Moreh. They also saw the two armed Palestinians whom they chased, apprehended, detained and transferred to the Israeli security forces for interrogation.

• February 18 – During security examinations at the Bir Zayt checkpoint north of Ramallah an IDF force found an M-16 assault rifle in a Palestinian vehicle. The three passengers were detained and transferred to the Israeli security forces for interrogation.

Easing daily life for Palestinians in Judea and Samaria

IDF officers, heads of the security services and senior members of the Palestinian Authority held meetings to coordinate the improvement of Palestinian daily life in Judea and Samaria . A series of steps was decided on, some which would be implemented immediately and others during the coming months, as follows (IDF Spokesman, February 24, 2009):

• By the end of August 2009 the IDF is expected to remove more than half of the security checkpoints in Judea and Samaria and to give Palestinians more freedom of movement. It is the most significant measure taken in recent years. The move is part of the program developed during the past year by the IDF Central Command, and when all the measures have been implemented it is expected that only 12 checkpoints will remain along the Green Line (as opposed to the 41 currently existing). The IDF also decided to implement selective checks based on profiles of individuals likely to carry out terrorist attacks.

• The access road leading from Route 60 (which runs through Judea from Bethlehem to the city of Beersheba ) to the Palestinian village of Bani Na'im , southeast of Hebron , was opened to traffic after having been blocked since 2001 for security reasons . In addition, the passage conditions of the Huwwara checkpoint near Nablus were improved, while some of the checkpoints in the Tulkarm region were reinforced. Note : during the past year 135 barriers were removed, including the main checkpoint at Rimonim (east of Ramallah) and at Assira al-Shamalia (north of Nablus ).

• Authorization has been given for the opening of 12 new Palestinian police stations in Area B , 1 in addition to the 20 new Palestinian police stations authorized last year. Nineteen new police stations have been built so far. One hundred and ninety certificates were handed out to Palestinian public figures and security forces personnel (from the rank of Battalion Commander) that allow maximum freedom of movement, in addition to the 200 Palestinians currently holding such certificates.

• The entrance of Israeli Arabs into the city of Nablus is now authorized during weekends . A similar step was taken in the city of Jenin , bringing a significant increase in income to local businesses. The quantity of Palestinian workers permitted to enter Israel has increased, while making eligibility criteria more flexible. An extension was authorized concerning the entrance permits into Israel for patients with chronic medical needs and their escorts, as well as medical students doing residences in Israeli hospitals. The authorizations were extended from a period of three to six months.

The IDF reported that implementing the program is a direct result of the reduction in the amount of hostile terrorist activity in the area and the success of the counterterrorist activities of the Israeli and Palestinian security forces. General (Res.) Benny Schick, Engineering Officer for the Central Command, which leads the implementation of the program, said that “…we decided to take a risk, with the understanding that with less terrorism we could allow ourselves more freedom. We are interested in having the other side also understand that the fewer terrorist attacks it carries out, the freer its people will be.” He added that “with this measure we are not restricting our freedom to carry out counterterrorism activities” (IDF Spokesman's website, February 19, 2009).

The Gaza Strip crossings

During the past week humanitarian aid continued flowing into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom and Karni crossings at the average rate of 130 trucks a day . The passage of civilians with humanitarian problems and international relief workers continued through the Erez crossing. Deliveries of diesel fuel and cooking gas continued through the fuel terminal at the Nahal Oz crossing.

The Rafah crossing

On February 22 Egypt opened the Ramallah for three days for Palestinians with humanitarian problems, patients and students. On February 22, 770 Palestinians left the Gaza Strip for Egypt , and more than 250 Palestinians returned to the Gaza Strip. Ihab al-Ghassin, spokesman for the Hamas interior ministry, complained that the activity at the crossing was “too slow” and that Egypt had prevented dozens of Palestinian from leaving the Gaza Strip (Hamas interior ministry website, February 23).

However, Egypt continues toughening its stance regarding its border with the Gaza Strip, and prevents pro-Palestinian activists and aid from entering ( Al-Yawm Al-Sabaa , February 23, 2009). Behind the Egyptian stance is its fear lest a renewal of violent incidents lead to another attempt to break through the Egypt-Gaza border. Thus, on February 21 Egypt deployed hundreds of additional police. A senior Egypt security figure, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Egypt had information about the intention of hundreds of Palestinians to hold a march demanding the opening of the Rafah crossing (Reuters, February 21, 2009). On February 19 the Egyptian security forces prevented 300 Palestinians from infiltrating into Egyptian Rafah after the Israeli Air Force attacked smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip ( Al-Yawm Al-Sabaa , February 20 2009).

Al-Jazeera TV, February 22, 2009
Left: Palestinians leave the Gaza Strip by bus. Right: Egyptian police secure the Rafah crossing and the Egypt-Gaza border (Al-Jazeera TV, February 22, 2009).

Donations for the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip and the development of the West Bank

On February 22, the foreign and treasury ministers of the Gulf States decided to establish a fund of Arab states to rebuild the Gaza Strip. It was decided that the money already raised by Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be included in the fund, which would be directed by a committee nominated by the Arab member countries. The measure is part of coordinating the Gulf State positions in preparation for the conference of donor states expected to be held in Cairo at the beginning of March ( Al-Sharq Al-Awsat , February 23, 2009).

At the same time, the United States has put together a relief package of $900 million which will be divided between rebuilding the Gaza Strip and developing the Judea and Samaria . The program will be presented at the Cairo conference (Reuters, February 23, 2009). Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said that at the G8 conference in July, Italy would present its program for supporting the West Bank 's economy, and that it would include erecting an international airport, a hotel and aid for establishing international businesses (Agence France Presse, February 23).

Power struggles between Fatah and Hamas for rebuilding the Gaza Strip continue

The Palestinian Authority announced it had completed assessing the damages caused in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead. PA prime minister Salam Fayyad said he had signed a agreement with banks operating in the Gaza Strip to finance rebuilding houses which it would make it possible for homeowners whose property had been damaged to receive funds directly from the banks ( Al-Ayyam , February 20, 2009). Hamas was critical of the agreement, claiming it was based only on a partial assessment of the damages, and that its objective was to circumvent the Hamas administration and delay the rebuilding programs ( Felesteen , February 21, 2009).

Egypt authorizes transfer of Hamas money

On February 5 Egypt prevented the Hamas delegation returning from talks in Cairo to take $9 million and 2 million euros in cash into the Gaza Strip. Egypt did not agree to let Hamas have the money, and it was deposited in an Egyptian bank by senior Hamas figure Ayman Taha ( Al-Yawm Al-Sabaa , February 20, 2009). On February 19, however, Ayman Taha entered Egypt through the Rafah crossing ( Al-Basha'air , February 19, 2009), apparently to withdraw the money and bring it into the Gaza Strip.

Threat of “boat intifada”

After the Israeli navy took over a Lebanese boat on its way to the Gaza Strip on February 5, the coordinator of the voyage for the so-called “Committee for the National Enterprise of Lifting the Siege of the Gaza Strip,” Hani Suleiman, said that the organization was getting ready for a “boat intifada.” He said that the intention was to have boats set sail during March from Lebanon , Egypt , Morocco , Bahrain , Tunisia , Algeria and Yemen ( El-Shorouq El-Yawmi , Algeria , February 21, 2009).

Intensive Egypt action to prevent smuggling

On February 21 the Los Angeles Times reported on Egypt efforts to prevent smuggling through the tunnels. The main points of the article were the following:

• There are signs that the Egyptians are succeeding in the battle against the tunnels where Israel failed. However, they Egyptian authorities frequently turn a blind eye to the smuggling because they view the tunnels as a safety valve keeping the Gaza Strip from exploding.

• Despite Operation Cast Lead and the many Israeli Air Force strikes, the owners of the tunnels claim that nothing has changed. They direct their anger at the Egyptian government, which cracked down on the Gaza tunnel trade and stopped the flow of goods. One of the owners claimed that such a situation “could slaughter [ Gaza ] and [its] economy.”

• A policeman stationed near the border said that “they [the Egyptians] seem to be taking it seriously this time.” The tunnel owners claim that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, having repelled calls for an international troop presence along the border, wanted to prove that the Egyptians were capable of controlling it themselves.

• There is also an atmosphere of caution among the tunnel owners, according to the article. In the first days after the ceasefire they welcomed the media, but today, while they still speak freely, Hamas forbids pictures from being taken.

• The tunnel owners interviewed for the report denied smuggling weapons, saying rockets pass through secret tunnels run by Hamas , which are deeper, better fortified, and much longer.

The Arab media a well reported increased Egypt activity against the tunnels:

• The Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that on February 18 the Egyptian security forces detained two residents of El-Arish who worked at the Rafah crossing on suspicion of participating in smuggling “iron pipes to Hamas.” According to the report, the Egyptian security forces were of the opinion that the pipes would be used in “the local Palestinian rocket industry” ( Al-Jarida , February 19, 2009). On February 23 the Egyptian security forces exposed two tunnels ( Al-Basha-air , February 23, 2009). On the same day, an Egyptian policeman was wounded while guarding a warehouse of goods intended for smuggling into the Gaza Strip ( Al-Yawm Al-Sabaa , February 23, 2009).

• On February 19 there was a violent confrontation between residents of Egyptian Rafah and the Egyptian security forces while the latter destroyed tunnels in the Rafah area. The security forces broke into houses and confiscated large quantities of merchandise which were supposed to be smuggled into the Gaza Strip through the tunnels (Muslim Brotherhood website, February 19, 2009). In the past few days the Palestinians, who regard the Egyptian activities as an obstacle to smuggling, shot at the cameras positioned by Egypt along the border (Nablus TV website, February 21, 2009).

Algerian TV team denied entrance to the Gaza Strip sneaks in

On February 21 the weekly Algerian TV show Open Dialogue broadcast a program hosted from the Gaza Strip by Ghassan bin Jado, head of the Al-Jazeera TV office in Lebanon . During the past few weeks he and his camera crew were prevented by Egypt from entering the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing. It is possible that they managed to enter through the tunnels under the border. During the program bin Jado interviewed members of Hamas military-terrorist wing, who told him lies about their military successes during Operation Cast Lead.

The Diplomatic Front

The Egyptian initiative for a lull arrangement and the negotiations
for the release of Gilad Shalit – Update

On February 18 the Israeli Cabinet met and unanimously decided that the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would continue to be its top priority (i.e., higher priority than the lull arrangement). The details were as follows (according to the Prime Minister's Office website):

• “ The release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit is – and will continue to be – Israel 's top priority ; Israel will continue to make every effort to [that] end. The release of Gilad Shalit will entail the release of Palestinian prisoners, according to a list…formulated and approved, as soon as possible, by the duly authorized Israeli officials.”

• “ Israel is not negotiating with Hamas or any other terrorist organization…to reach understandings or arrangements…on a ceasefire.”

• “ Israel expresses its deep appreciation for the attempts and efforts of the Egyptian authorities to stabilize the ceasefire following Operation Cast Lead, and for their readiness to mediate for the return of Gilad Shalit” in which contexts it will coordinate with Egypt .

• “ Israel will continue its [broad] humanitarian efforts , in coordination with the Palestinian Authority and the relevant international bodies…to supply the immediate and basic humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population. To [that] end, Israel will allow partial activities at the crossings from its territory into the Gaza Strip.”

• “Expanded activity at the crossings will be discussed upon the release of Gilad Shalit.”

• “The Rafah crossing will be opened – in coordination with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority – only according to the parameters…set in November 2005.”

In addition, “ Israel will respond quickly, strongly and continuously to the continuation of terrorist actions against it from the Gaza Strip, including rocket fire, the smuggling of weapons and ammunition, and the strengthening of the terrorist organizations…. In [that] context, Israel views Hamas as being solely responsible for everything that occurs in the Gaza Strip and will exact a high price from it for the continuation of terrorist actions, including smuggling.”

Hamas's response to the decision was negative , claiming it hurt the Egyptian efforts to secure a lull arrangement. Hamas spokesmen strongly reiterated that there was no linkage between the lull arrangement and the issue of Gilad Shalit, and that each had its own price. They made the following statements:

• Senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Zahar went to Egypt on February 21 and met with Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian general intelligence. From there he returned to the Gaza Strip. He said that the talks in Egypt were positive and had relieved the tension between Hamas and Egypt . He said that Hamas had reached an agreement with the Egyptians regarding the lull arrangement, and that all that was left, in view of Israel 's “dangerous” position, was to wait and see. He added that “in any case, we won't sell our souls for the lull arrangement…,” and that the atmosphere of the prisoner exchange deal was “not positive” (Interview in the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar , February 21, 2009).

• Senior Hamas figure Usama al-Muzeini said that the issue of Gilad Shalit could not be joined to that of opening the crossings and that Hamas had given Israel a list of 450 prisoners and would not agree to any change. Hamas had no problem, he said, to discuss the issues of the lull arrangement and Gilad Shalit at the same time, “but each one bears its own commitments” (Al-Aqsa TV, February 20, 2009). Mahmoud al-Zahar told the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm that the condition for Gilad Shalit's release was the release of the 450 prisoners on the Hamas list, including Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat ( Al-Masri Al-Youm , February 23, 2009).

• Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that Israel was deliberately sabotaging the Egyptian efforts and evading the commitment of the lull arrangement (Palestine-info website, February 18, 2009). Hamas representative in Lebanon Usama Hamdan said that Hamas would not change its position and that it hoped Egypt would continue exerting pressure on Israel to reach a lull arrangement (Al-Mustaqbal TV, February 18, 2009). Spokesman for the Hamas de-facto administration Taher al-Nunu threatened that Hamas would return to “resistance” [i.e., terrorism] if Israel objected to the lull arrangement ( Al-Madina , Saudi Arabia , February 19, 2009).

Egypt 's response

A spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry said that the Israeli decision “…without a doubt sabotages the chance to reach a lull arrangement which will stop the bloodshed, as Egypt and the rest of the world hope and wish for.” He added that “we are waiting to see how it will be possible to deal with the situation in the near future…” ( Middle East News Agency, February 19, 2009).

American delegation visits the Gaza Strip

On February 19 an American delegation headed by Senator John Kerry , chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited the Gaza Strip. According to media reports, the delegation did not meet with Hamas, although a letter was passed to Kerry through UNRWA and addressed to President Obama (BBC in Arabic, February 20, 2009). On February 22, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the letter had been written by Ahmed Yussuf, an advisor in the Hamas foreign ministry, and apparently did not reflect the opinions of the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said of John Kerry's visit to the Gaza Strip that it would influence decisions made by the American administration (in his dreams) and that “a new phase of support for the Palestinian people” would begin. He added that the visit was an indirect way of lifting the boycott of Hamas and the administration in the Gaza Strip (Al-Bayan website, February 19, 2009).

PA reactions to Peres' instructing Netanyahu to form the new government

Nabil Abu Rudeina , spokesman for the Palestinian Authority's presidential office, said that the PA would collaborate with any Israeli government that would “adhere to the two-state solution, honor previous agreements and the decisions of international institutions, and stop the expansion of the settlements” (Wafa News Agency, February 20 2009). Nimr Hamad , Mahmoud Abbas's political adviser, said that it would be necessary “to impose a siege and boycott on the next Israeli government if it [did] not adhere to the agreements which had been signed” (Ramattan News Agency, February 20, 2009).
The Internal Palestinian Arena

The Fatah-Hamas dialogue

The internal Palestinian dialogue which was supposed to begin in Egypt on February 22 was postponed and is now expected to begin on February 26. The delegation led by the deputy head of the Hamas political bureau is expected to arrive in Cairo to hold bilateral meetings with the Fatah delegation led by Abu Alaa' (Al-Jazeera TV, February 23, 2009).

In view of the upcoming talks, Hamas has increased it pressure for the release of Hamas prisoners held in Palestinian Authority jails. Khaled Mashaal , head of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus , held a telephone conversation with Omar Qinawi , deputy head of Egyptian general intelligence, and told him that the problem of the prisoners had to be solved before the dialogue began. “Egyptian sources” told a correspondent from Al-Hayat that Cairo had invested great effort in dealing with the problem. They said that the Palestinian Authority had already released “many prisoners” and that on February 24 more were expected to be released to pave the way for beginning the dialogue in Cairo ( Al-Hayat , February 23, 2009). 2

In the meantime, the propaganda mudslinging between Hamas and Fatah continues as usual . Each side accuses the other of media attacks, contrary to what was decided at the talks in Cairo . Conspicuous was a press conference held by the interior ministry of Ismail Haniya's de-facto administration, during which he exhibited the recorded “confessions” of prisoners held by the PLO who admitted to collaborating with Israel. A spokesman for the interior ministry accused Palestinian Authority officers and security service activists of instructing their subordinates to trace the “resistance's” movements [i.e., the terrorist organizations] in the Gaza Strip. Hamas claimed the information was transmitted to Ramallah and from there to Israel (Al-Aqsa TV, Hamas interior ministry website, February 23, 2009).

The Islamization of the Gaza Strip continues

Hamas is strengthening religious studies in the school curriculum as part of its program to establish a radical Islamic regime in the Gaza Strip. On February 22 the Dar al-Qur'an wal-Sunnah association, in collaboration with Hamas's ministry of education, announced a program for teaching the correct reading and reciting of the Qur'an. There will be courses in the schools for both boys and girls. At first the program will be implemented in a number of school throughout the Gaza Strip. The head of the association, Dr. Abd al-Rahman al-Jamal, said that the aim of the plan was to make it “a general requirement” so that “the people are completely familiar with the way the Qur'an should be read” ( Felesteen , February 23, 2009).
The Northern Arena

More rocket fire from south Lebanon into Israel

Close to 8:00 a.m. on February 21 two 122mm rockets were fired from south Lebanon into Israeli territory. One hit the village of Mailia in the western Galilee , falling near a house and causing slight injuries to three people at home at the time; two others were treated for shock. The house suffered damage. The second rocket fell in Lebanese territory . The IDF responded with artillery fire. So far no organization has claimed responsibility for the attacks. 3

Hezbollah denied any involvement in the rocket fire (Agence France Presse, February 21, 2009). Ramez Mustafa, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command's political bureau, said that despite the accusations heard in Lebanon , his organization was not connected to the incident. He added that since they appreciated “ Lebanon 's sensitivity,” they did not respond to the events in the Gaza Strip. He claimed that “no Palestinian group is connected to the rocket fire” (NTV, Lebanon , February 21, 2009).

1 Area B is the region of Judea and Samaria defined by agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as being under Palestinian civilian control and Israel security control.

2 On February 22, Azzam al Ahmed, chairman of the Fatah faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council and a member of the Fatah delegation to the dialogue, announced that a number of days previously 21 prisoners had been released as a good will gesture. In addition, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas told the Palestinian security services to examine the issue so that the prisoners would be released in accordance with the progress of the internal Palestinian dialogue was being held ( Al-Ayyam, February 22, 2009).

3 For further information see our February 25, 2009 bulletin entitled “On February 21 two rockets were fired into Israel from south Lebanon ” .

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