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Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Gaza attack could prompt Israel to pull out

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - Middle East observers felt a sense of deja vu Tuesday as Israeli tank shells slammed into a U.N. school near Gaza City, killing at least 30 Palestinians who had taken refuge there from the war raging around their homes.

In 1982, a massacre carried out by a Christian militia group at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps killed hundreds of Palestinians; the camps had been under Israeli control. In 1996, there were 118 people killed at a U.N. compound by Israeli artillery in the town of Qana, and in 2006, an Israeli air strike killed 56 in an apartment complex in the same town. All three events spelled the beginning of the end of Israeli campaigns into Lebanon.

Until now, the international community - including Egypt - has given Israel a long leash to strike a heavy blow against Hamas. But with the shelling of the U.N. school in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya on Tuesday, the clock might start ticking for Israel to withdraw its troops.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, which branded the deaths "a heartrending tragedy," said it would continue with the offensive until Hamas stopped launching rockets on its southern towns and agreed not to restock its weapons. At least 15 rockets were fired into Israel on Tuesday, including one that injured a baby in the town of Gedera, about 25 miles northeast of Gaza, the farthest north a Hamas rocket has reached.

The Foreign Ministry also said it had good reason for targeting the school.

"Initial investigations indicate that Hamas terrorists fired mortar bombs from the area of the school towards Israeli forces, who returned fire towards the source of the shooting. The Israeli return fire landed outside the school, yet a series of explosions followed, indicating the probable presence of munitions and explosives in the building."

The Israeli army also accused Hamas of "cynically" using civilians as human shields. Intelligence reports indicated the dead included Imad Abu Askar and Hasan Abu Askar, "two known Hamas mortar crewmen," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Two neighborhood residents who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, confirmed the Israeli account, telling the Associated Press that a group of militants fired mortar rounds from a street near the school, then fled into a crowd of people in the streets.

But such justification might not be enough to silence the growing chorus of international disapproval as civilian deaths rise.

Dr. Bassam Abu Warda, director of Kamal Adwan Hospital, told reporters that 36 people were killed in the strike on the school. The United Nations confirmed that 30 were killed and 55 injured by tank shells.

At least 70 Palestinians were killed Tuesday, and more than 600 have died since Israel sent ground forces into Gaza on Saturday, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials. The United Nations says about 25 percent of the victims were civilians. Ten Israelis have died, including a soldier who was shot Tuesday.

A predictable clash

In Jerusalem, Western diplomats said privately Tuesday it was predictable that Hamas would draw Israeli army fire toward civilian targets and that Israel would oblige them.

"A ground invasion was expected and, in some Hamas quarters, hoped for," said the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization engaged in conflict resolution, in a position paper published this week. "The Islamist movement hopes to reap political benefit from material losses. It knows it is no military match for Israel, but it can claim victory by withstanding the unprecedented onslaught."

Shlomo Brom, the former head of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army, said minimizing civilian casualties requires "a combination of excellent intelligence, very accurate weapons systems and very good planning that takes into account collateral damage. Mistakes are bound to happen, and they will happen in this war."

Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said the strike against the U.N. school and ensuing diplomatic pressure it could create were not only foreseen but discussed in advance by Israeli policymakers.

"There were many meetings on how to deal with this before the fighting started. It happens every time. The effect this time very much depends on how the story plays out in the next 24 hours," said Steinberg. "If organizations like Amnesty (International) and Human Rights Watch give this issue much greater visibility as they have in the past, the pressure on Israel will build and it will have some impact, but if it's strictly Palestinian claims it won't have much effect."

But international pressure is mounting.

Egyptian proposal

A cease-fire initiative won support from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on rival sides to follow up.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday the initiative seeks an immediate cease-fire by Israel and Palestinian factions for a specific period to allow secure corridors for delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza and to give Egypt time to continue efforts to reach a permanent cease-fire.

Egypt is inviting Israeli and Palestinian sides for urgent meetings to resolve issues underlying the fighting, including securing Gaza's borders and reopening all crossings, Mubarak said.

The deaths at the school could shake Israel's broad national consensus in favor of the war, as did the Qana air strike in 2006, which included 32 children among the 56 killed.

"It is clear that should a misfired bomb kill and injure dozens of civilians, including women and children, the U.N. would be the first to condemn Israel and accuse it of committing war crimes," Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai said last week. "This could also end the operation prematurely."

Meanwhile, some other observers fear both sides will continue to make the same errors as in past conflicts.

"Because this drama has played out before, there are lessons that ought to have been learned," said James Zogby, a pollster and president of the Washington-based Arab-American Institute. "But, sadly, have not."

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