Mel Frykberg
Middle East Times
December 22, 2008 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM -- Over the weekend, a barrage of rockets hit Israeli towns bordering the Gaza Strip following the end of a six-month truce between Israel and the Islamic resistance movement Hamas.

While Israeli security officials prepare for a possible large-scale military invasion into Gaza, Hamas officials have said that they may renew suicide bombings.

Hamas accused Israel of reneging on promises to open Gaza crossings and lift the economic blockade that has caused major suffering to the coastal territory's 1.5 million citizens, the vast majority of them civilian.

The U.N. Relief and Welfare Agency, on which half of Gaza's population is dependent for food aid, was forced to suspend operations several days ago after food stocks ran out and Israel refused to allow convoys of aid to enter Gaza.

The shaky ceasefire had held, despite periodic breaches by both sides, for most of the six months. However, last month 10 days of intensive fighting broke out after Israel carried out a cross-border military incursion into Gaza to destroy tunnels that they alleged were going to be used to smuggle captured Israeli soldiers.

This prompted a response from various Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza followed by retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.

Over the last few days, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a series of strikes on rocket launching squads, killing a fighter from the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip.

On Sunday nine Qassam rockets and three mortar rounds were fired into Israel by Islamic Jihad, lightly inuring one Thai worker employed on a kibbutz. Sunday's violence followed a weekend which saw a total of 13 rockets and 20 mortar rounds hit Israel's western Negev region on Saturday. No injuries resulted, but a house on a kibbutz was hit.

Israel has been reluctant to launch a full-scale military invasion into Gaza, with senior defense officials arguing that this would result in significant casualties on both sides and trap the IDF in a quagmire to which there is no military solution.

Moshe Ma'oz, a professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and senior fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, told the Middle East Times that it was only a matter of time before a major military conflagration between the two sides flared up.

"Israel knows that ultimately there is no military solution to the conflict and that it would get dragged into a long and bloody conflict if it did invade.

"An ongoing occupation would also be expensive as Israel would be obliged legally to take care of the civilian population," Ma'oz told the Middle East Times.

Further exacerbating Israel's reluctance for a large incursion are the upcoming Israeli elections scheduled to be held in February next year.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also leads the Labor party and will stand as a candidate for the vacated seat of incumbent premier Ehud Olmert when he steps down, is reluctant to get caught on two fronts at once.

Fighting a battle in the Israeli parliament or Knesset while fighting a bloody one in Gaza could strongly influence Israeli public opinion and who Israelis vote for, as previous elections held during periods of turmoil have proved in the past.

However, public pressure is building for strong action to be taken as the residents of Sderot and Ashkelon, who've borne the brunt of the incoming missiles, call on the government to take some action.

Israeli security officials are also concerned about Hamas' upgraded arsenal and stated that during the six-month truce Hamas used the period to strengthen the training of its fighters. At present Hamas has missiles with a 20-kilometer range capable of only hitting Israeli towns bordering Gaza. In a few months new missiles with a range of 40 kilometers will be in their possession, the security officials say.

Ultimately the organization wants missiles with a 70-kilometer radius that would be able to target central Israeli towns and cities such as Jerusalem.

To date the IDF has limited the scope of its attacks to rocket launching cells. However, it stated that a new policy would be enforced in the coming days which would see Israeli air force strikes targeting weapons stores, workshops and leaders of the cells.

As Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, heavier civilian casualties will result from the new policy as these workshops are situated in Gaza's refugee camps, towns and cities.

Fueling the flames further is the possibility of Hamas renewing its campaign of suicide bombings. Ayman Taha, a spokesman from Gaza, warned that under the current circumstances and no ceasefire all forms of resistance were legitimate.

"Rocket fire is in the hands of the military wing. It will decide how to react," he said. "Resistance must continue in every way and by every means, as long as the occupation continues."

Israel controls Gaza's borders, coastline, airspace, population registry, electricity and water.

Up until now, Islamic Jihad has been behind most of the minor ceasefire breaches and firing of rockets toward Israel.

Now as the divided Hamas leadership, situated in both Damascus and Gaza, have finally agreed on a resumption of hostilities following weeks of dissent, the gloves are off.


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