Steven Erlanger
International Herald Tribune
February 29, 2008 - 6:00pm

JERUSALEM: Friday was a day of threats, protest and rhetoric in Israel's conflict with Hamas, with considerably less violence and death than over the previous two days, when some 33 Palestinians died, five of them children, and one Israeli died in the border town of Sderot.

As tens of thousands of Gazans protested on Friday, and the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, brushed aside Israeli threats to aim at political leaders, another Palestinian died from wounds received on Thursday. An Israeli Army operation targeting rocket-launching squads near Jabaliya wounded four people, including two children and their grandmother, according to Dr. Moawiya Hassanain of the Gazan Health Ministry.

Five Palestinians were wounded when the rocket they were attempting to launch exploded.

At least 13 rockets were launched on Friday from Gaza toward Israel, the Israeli Army said. Five landed in Sderot, one directly hitting a house and lightly wounding a woman. Four others were treated for shock. Two rockets hit the Sderot cemetery.

But there were no industrially manufactured Katyusha-style rockets fired on Friday, after at least eight, smuggled in from Egypt, were fired Thursday on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people about 16 kilometers, or 10 miles, from northern Gaza. Israel says the rockets were probably manufactured in Iran, but the Gazans lack the mobile launchers normally used for these rockets.

Putting Ashkelon under a persistent threat of rocket attack raises the stakes considerably for Israel and is increasing pressure on the government to respond in force. Israel has activated a rocket-warning system for Ashkelon like the one for Sderot, which gives residents about 20 seconds to find shelter.

The Israeli deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, told army radio that Israel would respond to escalation and "we will not shy away from any action" to halt the rocket fire on Israeli civilians.

Vilnai called Hamas leaders irresponsible, and said they knew that "by intensifying the rocket fire and extending their reach they are bringing onto themselves a worse catastrophe, as we will use all means to defend ourselves," including, he said, a major ground operation.

Vilnai used the Hebrew word "shoah," which means holocaust or disaster, and is rarely used for anything other than the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been reluctant to order a major ground operation in Gaza, in part because it would be difficult to stop rocket fire without reoccupying most of Gaza. With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due to visit Israel next week after a previous stop in Egypt, which has been counseling restraint, Olmert will be reluctant to order a major move now.

The army would prefer warmer weather in any case, which would mean clearer skies. But Israel has been sending messages to its allies that it may have to resort to a ground operation. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in the messages that "Israel is not keen on an offensive, but Hamas is leaving us no choice," according to the daily Yediot Ahronot.

Barak visited Ashkelon on Friday and said Hamas "will be the one to bear the cost of our response." But he also told Western diplomats that a major offensive was not "imminent," a diplomat said on the condition of anonymity.

Khaled Abdel Shafi, an economist in Gaza, said in a telephone interview that the situation was getting worse there, with Gaza essentially still closed to normal commerce, with severe shortages of oil, gasoline, medicine and chlorine for drinking water. "I cannot see a horizon with a solution, and there is no chance that the crossings are going to be opened again," he said. "Israeli military operations are still taking place, and they only cause more poverty, despair and will eventually cause a Palestinian reaction."

Abdel Shafi criticized both Hamas and Fatah. "They are both attached to their political stances, but the victim is the Palestinian citizen who is suffering from poverty and this division," he said, adding that ordinary Gazans felt abandoned.

In parallel to the fighting, there has been a diplomatic effort between Egypt and Israel, aided by the European Union and the United States, to negotiate a package deal between Israel and Hamas. The idea, according to European and Israeli diplomats, would be to reopen the Gaza-Egyptian border at Rafah under renewed European monitoring, allow Gazan exports through Rafah, push the Egyptians to patrol the border better, release a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and arrange a cease-fire in Gaza, with Hamas promising to stop rockets in return for a halt in Israeli military action.

But even a cease-fire does not solve the problem of Gaza, since Hamas would continue to build up what is essentially a Palestinian army on the Hezbollah model.

In Gaza, at the Hamas rally, a legislator, Fathi Hamad, urged the Hamas military wing to develop Qassam rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

Haniya called the threat of an Israeli offensive "craziness and hysteria" and said: "Gaza today faces a real war, a crazy war led by the enemy against our people." He accused Arab governments of "encouraging the Israeli aggression" through silence and Washington for supporting Israeli attacks as "legitimate self-defense."

But the Israeli opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, said that Israel had not hit Hamas hard enough to force the group to halt the rocket fire.

"We've not exacted a sufficient cost from the Hamas terrorist organization," he told CNN in New York. "I think we have been fighting essentially a war of attrition. They do something, we do something and so on. And the nature of deterrence, of course, is that you change the rules."


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