Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Significant erosion of the lull arrangement in the Gaza Strip



1. On November 4 a series of events in the Gaza Strip signaled a significant erosion of the lull arrangement. The arrangement which went into effect on June 19, 2008 , initiated a five-month period of relative calm in the Gaza Strip and the western Negev population centers. During the first five months of the arrangement the Palestinian terrorist organizations generally did not carry out terrorist attacks and the IDF has avoided operating within the Gaza Strip. Hamas and the other terrorist organizations have exploited the quiet created by the lull to continue their military buildup and prepare themselves for “the morning after.”2. The events which threaten the lull arrangement and cast a question mark over its validity began on November 4. Following information about Hamas's preparations to abduct IDF soldiers through a tunnel, the IDF operated near the border. The operation prevented the planned attack and killed seven Hamas terrorist operatives. Hamas reacted with massive rocket and mortar shell fire, unprecedented since the lull arrangement went into effect. After the immediate barrages, sporadic rocket and mortar shell fire continued (carried out by the smaller terrorist organizations). Israel responded by closing the Gaza Strip crossings.

3. Another event occurred on November 12, when the IDF killed four Hamas terrorist operatives who tried to lay an IED near the border security fence. The Palestinian terrorist organizations, led by Hamas, again fired dozens of rockets and mortar shells at western Negev population centers, including the town of Sderot and city of Ashqelon . The fire, in various quantities, continued uninterrupted for four days.

4. The ongoing escalation is the first of its kind during the lull. Several of its parameters are conspicuous: its scale (a total of 91 rockets and 38 mortar shells were fired between November 4 and 16); its continuity (the attacks occurred almost daily for ten days and are still ongoing); the various types of rocket used (including standard Grad 122mm rockets, fired at Ashqelon, for which Hamas claimed responsibility); the amount of time that Israel closed the Gaza Strip crossings in response (they have been closed to the delivery of merchandise since November 5). Following the lack of goods in the Gaza Strip and in response to appeals from the international community, on November 11 Israel began delivering a limited supply of diesel fuel for the Gaza Strip power plant. However, the deliveries quickly ended on November 12 because Hamas renewed its rocket fire.

5. Another important facet of the recent escalation is that for the first time, there is direct Hamas involvement in the rocket and mortar shell fire. Moreover, Hamas publicly claims responsibility, as do the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah and the smaller organizations (until now, Hamas did not participate in the rocket and mortar attacks and the other terrorist organizations generally did not publicly claim responsibility for them.) At the same time, Hamas heads and spokesmen publicly stated that their intention was not to end the lull arrangement but to provide “an equal response” to what they call the “Israeli violations.” In addition, even after Hamas had “responded” (as the organization called its attacks) to the Israeli preventive activity, the other terrorist organizations (Fatah, the PIJ, etc.) did not stop attacking but continued sporadic rocket and mortar shell fire into Israel . For example, on the afternoon of November 14 Hamas stopped its fire, and since then the other Palestinian terrorist organizations have continued to fire rockets and mortar shells (while Hamas does not use force to keep them from attacking).

6. In summation , the series of events which began on November 4 with the prevention of a Hamas abduction signals a significant erosion in the lull arrangement and leaves its continuation in doubt. Theoretically, the two most important sides in the arrangement, Israel and Hamas , each for its own reasons, seem interested in having it continue , and both publicly state as much. Egypt , which brokered the arrangement, is also interested in having it continue, and in our assessment is working behind the scenes to calm the situation on the ground. 1 Actually, an examination of events shows that for the first time since the lull arrangement went into effect, the dynamics of the escalation on the ground make it difficult for the parties involved to restore the status quo ante.

Preventing an IED from being laid near the border security fence and the following rocket and mortar shell attack (as of noon , November 16)


7. On the morning of November 12 an IDF force saw a number of armed terrorists in the process of laying an IED near the border security fence in the central Gaza Strip. A firefight developed between the soldiers and the terrorists, during which an explosive device was detonated and several mortar shells were fired. The IDF force shot at the armed terrorists, killing four of them, operatives of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Al-Qassam website, November 12). Weapons and hand grenades were found in their possession. One IDF soldier was slightly wounded and was evacuated for medical treatment (IDF Spokesman's website).

8. The event was a continuation of the escalation which began on the night of November 4 with the prevention of Hamas's abduction attempt. 2 During that operation six IDF soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously, and seven Hamas terrorist operatives were killed. Hamas and the other terrorist organizations reacted with a rocket and mortar shell barrage into Israeli territory. Between November 4 and 12 sporadic rocket and mortar shell fire continued, with a total of 91 rockets and 38 mortar shells fired. At the same time, IDF forces carried out a preventive activity near the border security fence.

The terrorist organizations' massive fire attack

9. In response to the death of four operatives during the prevention of the IED attack, the Palestinian terrorist organizations initiated a massive barrage of rocket and mortar shell fire which continued until November 16. Several standard 122 Grad missiles were fired by Hamas and fell in Ashqelon and the surrounding area. Between November 12 and 16 a total of 30 rockets and 20 mortar shells were fired . One of the rockets damaged a home in Sderot; 20 Israeli civilians were treated for shock.

Al-Aqsa TV, November 12
Mortar shells fired on November 12 in response to the IDF's preventive activity against
a terrorist squad which tried to lay an IED (Al-Aqsa TV, November 12).

10. Hamas claimed responsibility for most of the attacks carried out between November 12 and 14. However, the smaller terrorist organizations also claimed responsibility for some of the sporadic fire on November 15 and 16.

A change in IDF's modus operandi

11. The significant erosion of the lull arrangement began with Hamas's attempt to carry out what they consider a strategic attack by abducting Israelis , even at the cost of endangering the lull arrangement, regardless of the outcome of the attempt. It was the second attempt to abduct an Israeli though a tunnel (the first one was planned for the Israel-Egyptian border 3). Attempts were also made by terrorist squads to lay IEDs near the fence to attack IDF soldiers and possibly to create convenient conditions for abductions.

12. In response to the fire Israeli forces attacked a number of squads launching rockets and mortar shells from the northern Gaza Strip and hit a number of terrorist operatives. For example, on November 14 the IDF attacked a squad on its way to fire rockets from the Al-Atatra region of the northern Gaza Strip and wounded a number of Hamas operatives (Ma'an News Agency, November 14). The attack signaled a change in the IDF's modus operandi, which until November 4 had avoided entering the Gaza Strip and carrying out activities inside it. The new modus operandi was, in our assessment, a result of the threat to the IDF and the western Negev population centers resulting from Hamas's terrorist attacks.

Closing the Gaza Strip crossings

13. After the massive rocket and mortar shell attack and the following sporadic fire, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the closing of the Gaza Strip crossings. They have remained closed since November 6 and are not used to deliver merchandise and fuel from Israel to the Gaza Strip. Civilians with humanitarian issues continue leaving the Gaza Strip though the Erez crossing and Israel continues supplying the Gaza Strip with electricity, despite the terrorist attacks.

14. The closing of the crossings has led to distress among Gazans, especially with regard to diesel fuel for industry (both because of the large amounts needed and the low quality of the fuel smuggled in from Egypt ). Hamas sources in the Gaza Strip complained that there was not enough fuel to run the power plant. On November 9 power outages began throughout the Gaza Strip. It was also reported that some of the flour mills and bakeries had ceased operations (Filastin al-Yawm, November 10).

15. In reality, closing the power plant led to local disturbances in the supply of electricity in the Gaza City area. However, the power outage was not complete because the Gaza Strip power plant supplies only about 30% of its electricity. Hamas, as usual, initiated a propaganda campaign which exaggerated the extent of the suffering caused to local residents, completely ignoring the terrorist attacks and rocket and mortar fire which caused the crossings to be closed. The objective of the campaign has been to exert pressure on Israel through the international community, the Arab countries and Israeli public opinion. That is done to force Israel to open the Gaza Strip crossings, despite the ongoing attacks carried out by the Palestinian terrorist organizations.

16. In view of the difficulties involved in operating the power plant, and bowing to international appeals, Defense Minister Ehud Barak authorized the delivery of limited supplies of fuel to the Gaza Strip, especially diesel fuel for the power plant. As of November 11 Israel allowed the delivery of 2 million liters (almost 53,000 gallons) of fuel . However, within a short time, in view of the continued rocket and mortar shells attacks (which are liable to hit the crossings as well), the defense minister ordered that the merchandise crossings remain closed. Fuel delivery was suspended again on November 12, resulting in the closedown of the power plant on the evening of November 13. As for merchandise, UNRWA announced it would not renew food supplies for 750,000 Gazans unless Israel permitted deliveries through the crossings.

17. As in the past, it is the residents of the Gaza Strip who pay the price for the terrorist attacks against Israel carried out by Hamas and the other terrorist organizations , which are ready to cause suffering to the Gazans if it means promoting their operational needs, such as the showcase abduction of Israeli soldiers. Closing the Gaza Strip crossings shows that the vast network of tunnels in the Rafah area supplies only part of the Gazans' needs and that it is still not a major commercial artery which can provide uninterrupted supplies for the Gaza Strip civilians, especially fuel and raw materials. However, the tunnels are a regular, uninterrupted source of weapons and a life line for the Gaza Strip, enabling basic goods to be brought in for the civilian population even when the crossings are closed, lessening (although not completely obviating) the dependence of the civilians and terrorist organizations on Israel.

Statements made by senior Israeli figures

18. On November 11 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , while on a visit to the IDF's Gaza division, said that the confrontation with Hamas had been unavoidable, that the situation was currently “ on the brink of a collision ,” and that it was only a matter of time. He said that although Israel was not eager to engage Hamas, it was ready, alert and not afraid to fight Hamas, should the need present itself (Prime minister's website, November 11).
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai in Sderot Ariel Hermoni for the Defense Ministry

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai in Sderot (Ariel Hermoni for the Defense Ministry, November 14).

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi with the IDF’s Gaza division (Ariel Hermoni for the Defense Ministry).

19. In response to the statements made by Ehud Olmert, Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha said that “the struggle between Hamas and Israel still exists, despite the ‘lull,' which is conditional an depends on time.” He added that the lull, according to Hamas's claim, was supposed to end on December 19 (Al-Alam TV, Iran , November 11). Abu Obeida , spokesman for Hamas's Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said that Olmert did not frighten Hamas and that “there is no option except for confrontation, resistance [i.e., terrorism], and struggle” ( Al-Biyan Center website, November 11).

20. During a tour of Sderot, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel had to defend its citizens and that it would not accept such a reaction [from Hamas, i.e., rocket and mortar shell fire]. He said that Israel would use force to defend its soldiers and civilians, adding that if the other side chose the lull arrangement, Israel would consider giving the lull another chance (Ynet, November 14).

21. On November 15 Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that if there were calm and Hamas did not exploit the time to prepare its next attack, it would receive calm in return. However, if Israelis were attacked, Israel would respond with force to defend them. Israel , she said, was not interested a deterioration of the situation ; however, it would not accept continuing violations of the cease fire (Haaretz, November 16).

Other Reactions to the Events of Recent Days


22. Hamas spokesmen repeatedly represented the IDF's November 12 preventive activity as a gross violation of the lull arrangement. They were careful to represent their action as the reaction to the IDF activity, stressing that Hamas was still committed to the lull . However, they also noted that if IDF attacks continued, Hamas would react more forcefully .

23. The main reactions were the following :

i) Senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Zahar accused Israel of responsibility for the escalation and said that Hamas would continue its actions of “self-defense and resistance to the occupation.” He said that if Israel had been committed to the lull arrangement it would not have created the escalation (Al-Jazeera TV, November 14). Asked by an Iranian correspondent if that meant the end of the lull arrangement, he answered decisively that it did not (Al-Alam TV, Iran , November 15).

ii) Spokesman for Hamas's military-terrorist wing Abu Obeida said that the Israeli actions violated the lull arrangement and “brought [ Israel ] to the edge of the abyss” (Al-Aqsa TV, November 12). He said his men had many more rockets which could attack deep within the settlements near the Gaza Strip (Sawt Al-Aqsa, November 14).

iii) Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that the “crime” [of killing four Hamas operatives] was a illustration of the “great program” to destroy the resistance [i.e. the terrorist organizations]. He also said that [Hamas's] response would be commensurate with the degree of “aggression,” and that Hamas had to right to react to an Israeli action regardless of the lull, which had to be examined jointly by all the organizations (Al-Biyan Center website, November 12).

iv) Hamas faction speaker Salah al-Bardawil pointed the finger of guilt at the PA, saying that “this aggression comes at a time when Mahmoud Abbas gave [Israel] the green light to continue fighting the resistance movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while his security services hit in the West Bank (Filastin al-Yawm, November 12).

v) Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said that the IDF action brought the lull arrangement to brink of collapse, and that the Palestinians had the right to react to an IDF action (PalPress website, November 12).

vi) Hamas's “ Reform and Change Faction ” issued an appeal to Egypt , which sponsored the lull, demanding it exert pressure on Israel and accept responsibility for the arrangement. The faction threatened that the lull arrangement would end, which would mean “entering the stage of struggle, which will not be like the previous period” (Palestine-info website, November 12).

24. The PIJ did not publicly announce the end of the lull arrangement, but a source within the organization said that the chances of renewing it after December 19 were slim. However, he said that the decision to end the arrangement would be taken jointly by all the organizations (Ilaf website, November 14).

The PA

25. PA spokesmen represented Israel as carrying out attacks in the Gaza Strip to topple the lull arrangement in view of the coming Israeli elections, while the terrorist organizations were represented as reacting to Israeli aggression.

26. At the same time, the PA demanded that the Palestinian organizations not react to Israeli actions and that they preserve the lull arrangement. Nabil Abu Rudeina called upon them to adhere to the arrangement and to demand that Israel not escalate (Wafa News Agency, November 14).


27. An article in the Egyptian establishment newspaper Al-Gumhuriya said that Israel wasdirectly responsible for violating the lull arrangement (Al-Gumhuriya, November 15). The newspaper Al-Messa accused Israel of the collapse of the arrangement, which, it claimed, had given Israel calm for its settlements in the Gaza Strip area, while the Palestinians had received nothing (Al-Messa, November 11

The International Community

28. In response to the escalation in the Gaza Strip the European Union and the UN Secretary General expressed worry over the developments and called on both sides to show restraint and preserve the lull. The Secretary General called on Israel to open the Gaza Strip crossings and to allow UN aid to be delivered, and on Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel .

29. The president of the European Union called for the immediate opening of the Gaza Strip crossings. She also criticized Israel 's “unprofessional decision” to close the crossings in response to the events in the Gaza Strip. That, she claimed was “collective punishment” for the Gazans (Agence France Presse, November 14).

1 The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that on November 13 Israel sent a message to Hamas through Egypt stating that it was not interested in continuing the escalation in the Gaza Strip, but would respond to any Hamas attempt to carry out an attack (Haaretz, November 13). According to reports, at the end of the last week General (Ret.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's military-political department called Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian general intelligence, several times. On November 15 Omar Suleiman told him that Hamas had told Egypt it was willing to commit itself to stopping the rocket and mortar shells and to inform the various organizations operating in the Gaza Strip that they would continue holding their fire (Ma'ariv, November 16). Actually, fire from the Gaza Strip continues (as of November 16).

2 For further information see our November 5 and 6 Bulletins entitled “Escalation in the Gaza Strip: the IDF operated inside the Gaza Strip near the security fence to prevent the abduction of soldiers” and “Escalation in the Gaza Strip – Update, November 6” .

3 For further information see our October 26, 2008 Bulletin entitled “ The Israeli security forces detained a terrorist from Rafah who infiltrated into Israel through Egypt. ”

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