Last night’s Update dealt with the escalating violence between Israel and Hamas over Israel’s border with Gaza, and included a number of analyses predicting that if the constant rocket fire on southern Israel did not cease, Israel would launch a large-scale military operation to destroy terrorist infrastructure associated with Hamas and other violent groups in the enclave.
As Ha’aretz reports, this operation was actually launched very shortly after:
The IDF hit more than 20 targets in the Gaza Strip, including rocket warehouses and rocket-launching facilities. Palestinians say eight people in the Gaza Strip were killed, including Jabari,and more than 30 were injured in Israeli strikes Wednesday.
“In a wide-scale attack, the IDF struck the long-range missile capabilities (capable of reaching almost 40 miles) of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, severely damaging the underground launch sites and the ammunition warehouses in the Gaza Strip,” the IDF Spokesman said in a statement. “The targets were pinpointed by Israeli military intelligence information. The Gaza Strip has become a front base for Iran. The IDF will continue to attack targets that are used for carrying out terror attacks against the State of Israel.”
Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff note further that the goal of the preliminary airstrikes was to take out the most threatening part of Hamas’ rocket arsenal:
“Hamas and the Islamic jihad also have in their possession a small quantity of Fajr rockets smuggled from Iran, which have a range of 75 kilometers. When launched from the northern Gaza Strip, their range covers most of the area of Tel Aviv and the suburbs surrounding it. The Hamas leadership is most probably also weighing the use of this “Judgment Day” weapon.
Attempting to prevent it, immediately after the strike Israel Air Force attacked some twenty underground sites, where both Hamas and Islamic Jihad hid Fajr rockets. The assault was meant to neutralize their mid-range capabilities, just as the IDF attacked Hezbollah in 2006 in what is since known as ‘the Fajr night’. In both incidents, the attacks used accurate intelligence which was carefully collected.
The IDF have some useful information regarding the rocket fire that has led to the operation, including a few infographics:
The US State Department has released a statement condemning Hamas’ rocket fire and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself:
We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination.
On the other end of the spectrum was the reaction of the Foreign Minister of Qatar:
“I condemn in the name of Qatar… This filthy crime must not pass without a punishment,” Sheikh Hamad told journalists after a meeting in the Saudi capital between Gulf Cooperation Council Foreign Ministers and their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss Syria.
“The U.N. Security Council must shoulder its responsibilities in preserving peace and security in the world.”
As is coming to be expected, bellicose messages have been emanating from the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt — which is officially an ally of Hamas — although this has been accompanied by other signs that escalation is not what the Egyptian government seeks. President Mohammed Morsi has recalled his ambassador to Israel in protest, however he has also reportedly been working with the US to attempt to broker a ceasefire between the two sides:
Obama and Morsi agreed on the importance of working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible and agreed to stay in close touch in the days ahead. Netanyahu and Obama agreed that Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow the situation to de-escalate (Natasha Mozgovaya)
Meanwhile, several rockets have been reportedly fired into Israel from the Egyptian Sinai.
The operation kicked off with the targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari, the commander of Hamas’ ‘military wing’, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigade. Jabari is believed to have been behind most of Hamas’ major military operations over the last few years, including the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the 2007 ouster of rival faction Fatah from Gaza, and the constant barrage of rockets fired at Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
He was the major Hamas negotiator in the prisoner swap in which Israel released 1,500 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. After the swap, he vowed that more soldiers would be kidnapped. In 2006, he released a video, in which he said:
“Brave Jihad fighters, You sacrifice your souls for the sake of Allah, until the rats [i.e Israelis] return to their holes. Today Gaza [was liberated by Hamas], and tomorrow, by Allah’s will, Jerusalem, and tomorrow the West Bank, and then Haifa, Jaffa, and Tel Aviv [Israeli cities]. Until the liberation of the homeland, all of Palestine.”
As explained in a detailed obituary by Ha’aretz reporter Jack Khoury, Jabari was one of the most senior leaders of Hamas and has been involved in all levels of the organisation, including the shuffling of money from Hamas’ ‘charities’ into its military activities:
One of his activities in the movement’s charitable organizations was being in charge of coordinating between the collection of money and military activities. …
As the military chief, Jabari led a process of developing Hamas’ core military abilities in the Gaza Strip. Instead of concentrating on sending suicide bombers from Gaza into Israel, Jabari devoted resources to building widespread military abilities and turning the armed wing into a real military organization.
The IDF released footage of the actual airstrike that killed Jaabri shortly after it took place:
There was also an interesting Twitter exchange between the IDF and the Qassam Bridages, in which the IDF warned Hamas operatives not to ‘show their faces above ground’, and the Brigades responded with ‘Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)’.
Operation Pillar of Cloud
The operation has been codenamed ‘Amud Anan‘ (Pillar of Cloud), but is being touted in English as ‘Pillar of Defence’ as Israelis do not believe that the Western media would understand the biblical allusion in the name. This is probably a safe assumption, not least because of the whole issue over the previous Gaza incursion — Operation Cast-Lead — which referred to the act of ‘casting’ a menorah for Hannukah, but was often interpreted as launching bullets.
The significance of the Pillar of Cloud has been explained by Tablet‘s Yair Rosenberg:
The phrase is a direct biblical allusion to the divine cloud which guided the Israelites through the desert and shielded them from those who might do them harm. As a couple representative verses from Exodus 14:20-21 state:
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.
The midrash on this section-which is cited by Rashi, the most famous Jewish biblical commentator, and taught in many Hebrew schools-elaborates:
They [the Egyptians] shot arrows and catapult stones at them, but the angel and cloud caught them.
For a campaign intended to halt the barrage of rockets currently raining down on southern Israel, “Pillar of Cloud” is thus a particularly apt title. Just as the cloud protected the Israelites from Egyptian projectiles, so to does the IDF hope to protect Israel’s citizens.
The IDF spokesperson’s office appears to have been completely vindicated in their concern. Shortly after the operation began, a malicious and poorly-researched post written by John Cook appeared on Gawker, claiming that the pillar of cloud is ‘A worldly instantiation of an all-powerful, vengeful God seeking to demonstrate the primacy of his chosen people’ and accusing the Israeli leadership of ‘increasing religious and ethnic fanaticism’.
Reports from the ground
A number of Australian journalists are currently on the ground in Israel and have filed some very perceptive and powerful reports that give a great insight into the dynamic that gave rise to the situation and to the general atmosphere as the conflict plays out.
Simon Benson and Damon Johnston from News Ltd’s Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun have written this joint report concerning their experiences in the Israeli border town of Sderot, which has been the recipient of most of the rocket fire:
FIFTEEN is the most important number for the people of Sderot.
That’s how many seconds they have from when Israeli radar detects a Hamas missile launched and when it strikes.
And with the Middle East this morning bracing for the outbreak of full-scale war between Israel and Hamas controlled Gaza, for the 20,000 residents of this border town in southern Israel time has run out.
Overnight an Israeli air strike killed top Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jaabari , prompting the Islamic group to declare the action had opened “the gates of hell”.
“Mothers have to stop their cars, get out, try and unbuckle two kids, then get them to the shelter,” director of the Sderot Media Cente, Noam Bedein, told News Ltd.
“What the mothers are discovering is it’s impossible to stop the car, get out and get seatbelts off two kids …. they are being forced to choose: which child do I save?”
Similarly, Michael Short from The Age has written a short but moving piece, describing the experiences of residents on the border:
After Sderot and before our final dash into the desert and back to Tel Aviv – where I sit in a hotel writing this and listening to television reports of the escalating, explosive situation and the Hamas threats that Israel has opened “the gates of hell” – we visited the Israelis living closer to Gaza than any others. Their kibbutz is literally on the Gaza border and the inhabitants told us they had been directly hit by Hamas rockets the previous day. We called them when we got back to Tel Aviv. They have evacuated. This time, it has become too dangerous even for them.
Meanwhile, while there are no reliable reports to speak of from within Gaza, Stratfor has managed to obtain the following footage: