Israelis strike Hamas in Gaza on Lebanon war anniversary

The Baltimore Sun

Jerusalem -- Hamas dealt Israel its first combat death in nine months yesterday during an army raid on a stronghold of the Islamic movement's military wing in the Gaza Strip.

The clash occurred a year after the start of Israel's 34-day war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and underscored the Jewish state's difficulties in confronting Islamic adversaries on its doorstep.

Hamas took a lesson from that war - how to use rockets against civilians to undermine Israeli confidence. But Israel has felt constrained in Gaza by the same limits it met in Lebanon last summer, when it failed to crush Hezbollah or bring back two captured soldiers.

Since then, Israeli leaders have been wary of Gaza: A full-scale occupation of the coastal territory could leave the army bogged down in costly battles, as it was in Lebanon, while too much restraint might signal that the psychological defeat last summer had eroded Israel's deterrence capability.

Yesterday's pre-dawn raid in the Bureij refugee camp was an example of a middle-ground strategy that Israel has adopted to try to blunt rocket fire from Gaza and what officials call Hamas' large-scale stockpiling of weapons smuggled from Egypt.

The camp, near Gaza City, lies about 500 yards from the Israeli border, within range of the periodic but brief "pinpoint" incursions staged by Israeli ground troops. Like previous incursions, this one was backed by helicopters and fighter planes.

Hamas' armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters detonated two large mines and fired rocket-propelled grenades as Israeli troops neared the camp. Staff Sgt. Arbel Raich, 21, was killed and two other Israeli soldiers were wounded, the army said.

Israel detained dozens of Palestinians and seized weapons in house-to-house searches. Two Palestinians were wounded by Israeli aircraft fire.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zohri, said Palestinians have a right to defend themselves.

"We expect that these incursions will continue but will be limited," he said, "because wider offensives always fail and the occupiers pay a heavy price."

Israeli officials said the raids have increasingly targeted weapons factories and smuggling tunnels, not just the launch sites from which Hamas and other militant groups have fired hundreds of crude rockets into southern Israel in recent years, killing at least 10 Israelis.

Capt. Noa Meir, an army spokeswoman, said Hamas had brought 30 tons of weapons-grade explosives into Gaza this year and was "armed to the teeth right on the other side of the border."

The Hamas buildup in the nearly two years since Israel's withdrawal of military bases and Jewish settlers from Gaza has resembled Hezbollah's stockpiling of weapons in Lebanon after Israel's pullout in 2000, Israeli officials said. The two Islamic movements, which advocate Israel's destruction, have close ties.

Aside from rockets, Israeli officials said, Hamas has acquired anti-tank missiles like those Hezbollah used effectively in Lebanon last summer, built Hezbollah-style concrete bunkers in Gaza, recruited a 10,000-man paramilitary force, and obtained a small number of ground-to-air missiles.

"The process of Hamas growing stronger demands some sort of solution on our part," Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli army chief of staff, told parliament recently. "It involves large quantities of arms and an increase in the level of their operational planning."

Advocates of a re-occupation of Gaza have raised their voices since mid-June, when Hamas defeated the secular Palestinian movement Fatah after months of factional fighting. Hamas now has full military control of Gaza and more freedom to bring in weapons.

Yuval Steinitz, former chairman of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Israel should "recapture" Gaza long enough to destroy rocket factories and kill or capture the bulk of Palestinian militants.

"This will be complicated from a military point of view, but sooner or later Israel will have no choice," he said.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, has urged the Israeli government to prepare for a major incursion into Gaza and proposed a total closure on the territory, including a cutoff of electricity, water and fuel.

Other Israelis have counseled restraint.

"We occupied Gaza for 38 years and couldn't turn it into a better place," said Efraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister. "We shouldn't get bogged down there. The damage would far outweigh the benefit."

Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel would face widespread criticism if it took over Gaza once more.

Even yesterday's limited incursion was "totally rejected and condemned" by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement, his spokesman said.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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