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New stage in Israel's onslaught in Gaza

By Lee Sustar | June 1, 2007 | Pages 1 and 8

ISRAEL'S LATEST onslaught against Palestinians looked set to become much bloodier as May ended.

Israel's cabinet approved expanded ground operations for the Israeli military in Gaza, a move that will likely lead to a sharp increase in the death toll of 50 killed by Israeli air strikes in the previous 12 days.

Five days earlier, Israeli soldiers swept into the West Bank and arrested 33 politicians from the Islamist Hamas Party, including Nasser Ad-Din Ash-Shair, minister of education, and Abdul-Rahman Zidan, former minister of public works. The other arrestees included the mayors of the towns of Nablus, Beta, Qalqilya and Bedya, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and government officials.

This is Israel's third wave of arrests of Palestinian officials since Hamas won legislative elections held by the Palestinian Authority in January 2006. Last June, Israel arrested eight Hamas ministers and 21 legislators, and a few weeks later arrested the president of the legislature.

The latest round of detentions this May was followed by a message sent to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniya--in the form of a missile that struck a security guard's building outside his home.

More arrests and assassinations of Hamas officials are likely. "There is no one who is in the circle of commanders and leaders in Hamas who is immune from a strike," Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said. "For what does political Hamas do? It gives the operational approval to those doing the fighting."

Sneh's voice is among the more moderate in the Israeli government. He opposed calls from some ministers to cut off food and water to the 1.4 million living in impoverished Gaza, one of the world's most densely populated areas.

"We want to drive a wedge between Hamas and the populace, not to rally the populace behind Hamas," he said. "The more collective the punishment, the more people are swept up to back Hamas."

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THE PUNISHMENT of Gaza is already collective. United Nations researchers who surveyed the impact of U.S.-Israeli sanctions against the Hamas-led government for nearly 18 months found that more than 80 percent of Palestinians live under the poverty line.

Some 84 percent of Gazans and 60 percent of those in the West Bank have been forced to reduce spending, with many selling all of their belongings to survive. Fully one-third of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are food insecure. And with Gaza sealed off by Israel--only the Rafah border crossing into Egypt remains open, at least intermittently--the pressure is even worse.

Israel's latest attacks have inevitably killed civilians. A recent attack by Israel on the Sheja'iyeh neighborhood in Gaza May 20 was typical.

According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, "The Israeli air force killed eight persons. Seven of them were members of the al-Haya family, relatives of Khalil al-Haya, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The dead included three minors, aged 16 and 17, and two men, aged 56 and 64."

Israel's crackdown is nominally a response to rockets fired into southern Israel by militants from the Islamist Hamas party. But since the rocket fire is a regular occurrence and rarely causes Israeli casualties, the timing suggests that Israel wanted to maximize pressure on Hamas as Hamas personnel were engaged in armed battles with the former ruling party Fatah, with which Hamas formed a unity government in March.

More than 50 people were killed in fighting that analysts on the Palestinian left view as an attempted coup by Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian Authority security official and powerful businessman.

Israel's attacks led to a ceasefire between the two factions, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called on Hamas militants to stop their rocket fire, but Hamas has refused. In any case, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that a Hamas ceasefire is irrelevant.

"I cannot promise that our activities will be conditioned by the behavior of Hamas, whether it shoots at us or stops firing," Olmert told his cabinet, striking a get-tough pose that he hopes will boost his chances of keeping his job despite miniscule political support.

"Even if there is an internal [Palestinian] agreement for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, and this agreement holds, it is valid only among the various factions. We need to prepare for a long-term confrontation, irrespective of the agreements between them, and use our capabilities according to the circumstances."

Whether or not Olmert remains in office, Israel's "long-term confrontation" with the Palestinians will continue. After Israel's failure to defeat Hezbollah in last year's blitz against Lebanon, Israeli politicians are moving rightward to secure the mantle of being tough on security--and as usual, they will have the backing of the U.S.

The savage assault on Gaza again highlights the urgency for the antiwar movement to support justice for Palestine.

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