Sunday, May 13, 2007

Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning and learn that the Gaza Strip has become a lot like Lebanon was last summer. Gaza looms as a major battleground in the larger global struggle with jihadism, with the Israeli military squaring off against terrorist proxies of Iran and Syria in addition to al Qaeda factions burrowing into the region. Hamas has built in essence a 12,000-man militia — two to three times the size of the Hezbollah force in last summer’s Lebanon war. Gaza is crawling with hundreds of terrorists affiliated with the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, part of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organization; Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Popular Resistance Committees, an amalgamation of terror groups in Gaza.

The buildup of Gaza’s jihadist network has proven to be a largely cost-free exercise for Tehran and Damascus, which provide funding and weaponry but remain largely immune from substantial Israeli military retaliation. Many of the terrorists in Gaza have trained with Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, and much of their funding and weaponry is smuggled from Egypt into Gaza through tunnels under civilian homes. Israeli intelligence agents estimate that more than 50 tons of TNT have been smuggled into Gaza during the past year or two — enough to build and produce tens of thousands of rockets in the small arms shops in Gaza.

Palestinian and Israeli security officials said last week that there are 15 active tunnels in the Rafah area of Gaza being used to move arms, drugs and agents between Gaza and Egypt. The tunnels are controlled by powerful family clans who operate independently of the PA. Almost every day there are rocket firings into Israel, and/or gun battles involving the clans, terrorist factions and Palestinian security services. Over the past few months Islamists, some apparently affiliated with al Qaeda, have attacked video stores, Internet cafes and an elementary school in Gaza to protest “un-Islamic” behavior.

As Gaza descends into chaos reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban, Israel, which withdrew all of its soldiers and civilians from there two years ago in the hope that the Palestinians would respond by building a viable independent state), has difficult decisions ahead. The government must decide whether to conduct major military operations against Gaza-based terrorists who are expanding their capability to attack neighboring Israeli towns. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s center-left government wants desperately to avoid a large anti-terror ground operation that could include reoccupying parts of Gaza, but the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, says bluntly that the only solution to the continuing problem of Palestinian rocket fire into Israel is an army ground operation.

In November, Israel agreed to a “cease-fire” in which it would refrain from any large-scale campaign against Gaza-based terrorists, while the Hamas-dominated PA government would halt the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. But since November more than 250 Qassam rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza — some by Hamas, with others by various Palestinian factions, all with the tacit approval of Hamas. While Mr. Olmert and the country’s civilian leadership hope to avoid a ground operation, officials say privately that their hand will likely be forced on the issue — particularly if the terrorists firing from Gaza hit a school or a day-care center.

That almost happened a week ago in Sderot, an Israeli town of 20,000 less than a mile from Gaza, which has been the target of hundreds of rockets from Gaza during the past two years. In Sderot, nine- and ten-year-old children in day-care centers routinely practice what to do in the event of rocket strikes, and a week ago a rocket fired from Gaza struck a Sderot house close to a kindergarten. The PIJ — which is based in Damascus and gets most of its funding from Iran —claimed “credit” for it. But miracles are scarce, and the first school or day-care center that takes a hit will provoke an irresistible demand for military retaliation. When the Jewish state withdrew from Gaza almost two years ago, tens of thousands of Israeli civilians were within range of Palestinian rockets in Gaza; today, that figure is 200,000 and growing.

The situation is likely to become more dire. The rockets smuggled into Gaza, like those produced inside Gaza, are of much higher quality than the rockets of a year ago, enabling terrorists to create a stockpile. This poses a dilemma for Israeli officials who understand that delay creates ever more peril on their southern border.

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