Tipping Point: Hamas Ends Truce After Israeli Strike
By Steve Schippert
The first news reports read Israel Navy shelling Kassam launch sites in Gaza. A BBC account from an eyewitness immediately concluded as such saying, "It was a terrible scene, with blood everywhere. We could see a gunship in middle of sea, so we knew what had happened."
However, Israeli Defense Forces said that there were no naval or air fire at the time of the incident, leaving ground artillery as the source. A suspension of all artillery fire was ordered by IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and Israel’s southern commander, Major General Yoav Galant, said, "I express deep regret over the fact that uninvolved persons have been hit. We shall try to find a way to ensure not to harm the uninvolved."
The IDF said that it “regrets any harm caused to innocent civilians," and offered medical assistance and evacuation. It said, however, that the strikes in the area were a continuation of its efforts to respond to and stop the wave of Kassam rocket attacks. Just hours before the beach incident, an Israeli airstrike was called nearby as members of the Popular Resistance Committees attempted to fire Kassam rockets into Israel. Their car was struck by a missile as they fled and secondary explosions indicated that the car was loaded with explosives when struck.
From the air, ground or sea, seven civilians on the beach were killed, including three children. A Palestinian video published by the BBC shows the aftermath on the Gaza beach. The incident has perhaps served as an unexpected unifying force, as both Fatah and Hamas immediately acknowledged their common enemy.
Hamas immediately declared the end of their informal truce with Israel, which had been largely recognized for over a year, though increasingly many believe Hamas has been using the Popular Resistance Committees as their proxy attacking force. In a leaflet later distributed by Hamas, renewed open warfare with Israel was declared imminent. It reportedly read in part, "The earthquake in the Zionist towns will start again and the aggressors will have no choice but to prepare their coffins or their luggage. The resistance groups ... will choose the proper place and time for the tough, strong and unique response."
The reference to a “unique response” stands out. Hamas and Fatah both have been stockpiling weapons since the Israeli pullout from Gaza, especially since the rise in internal tensions between the two factions, presumably in preparation for conflict amongst themselves primarily. That now is likely to change.
Many believe that Hamas' observance of the cease-fire with Israel has been primarily to both give them international political credibility leading into the 2006 Palestinian elections and also to build up its forces free from the duress of battle. Israeli officials believe Hamas has been preparing for large-scale attacks. To that end, the commander of Hamas' military wing, Abu Abdullah, recently in fact said in an interview with Aaron Klein, "In the last 15 months, even though the fighters of Hamas kept the cease-fire, we did not stop making important advancements and professional training on the military level. In the future, after Hamas is obliged to stop the cease-fire, the world shall see our new military capabilities."
Today, Hamas clearly felt obliged to stop the cease-fire, and the reference to a “unique response” in their announcement indicates a degree of confidence in these new abilities.
Fatah has been long pre-occupied with their own violent internal political conflict with Hamas over negotiations with Israel and creating a two-state solution. It should be noted that Fatah’s military wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, has been largely and uncharacteristically quiet for weeks.
But today’s incident on the Gaza beach evoked a strident response from Fatah’s leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian president condemned the attack as a 'bloody massacre', saying in a news conference, "What the Israeli occupation forces are doing in the Gaza Strip constitutes a war of extermination and bloody massacres against our people."
The ill-advised Israeli artillery strikes on the Gaza beach seem to have served to minimize the angry internal differences between Fatah and Hamas, serving to galvanize them at least for the moment. The degree to which the sands have shifted will be more clearly visible over the next 48 hours, largely determined by the actions of Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’ reaction to them as well as that of the Palestinian general population. If Abbas smoothes the edge of his words over the next few days and the Palestinian population rejects them, he may feel compelled to maintain the rhetoric of a “war of extermination.”
But, in what must come as a relief to Israelis, Abbas has since announced that he still plans to announce the referendum date on Saturday, which has been expected to be June 31. If he backs that date up any considerable amount of time, that will give Hamas more time to stoke the angry call for war and revenge. This would be violent bad news for Israel if successful and would put the two-state referendum outcome in peril, which both Abbas and Israel have expected and Hamas has feared will pass. According to a poll by the Arabic Media Internet Network, 77% will vote (YES) to the (Prisoners’ Declaration), while 14% will vote (NO).
The next 48 hours will be the most important for the region and the conflict since the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006, perhaps even more so.