- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

TEL AVIV | After destroying Hamas‘ smuggling tunnels on the Egyptian border during five days of bombing, Israel escalated its offensive Thursday by killing Hamas leader Nizar Rayan, his four wives and at least nine of his children.

Undeterred, Hamas proclaimed Friday a “day of wrath” by urging Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem to protest en masse after midday prayers.

“Let Friday be a day of solidarity with our people in Gaza and a day of wrath against the Zionist occupation and its settlers,” Hamas said on its Web site.

Israel said 12,000 police had been mobilized to maintain order.

“Friday is a testing ground,” police commander Yoram Ohayon told the Israeli news site Ynet.com. “Friday prayers around the country and specifically in Jerusalem can be a ground for incitement and disrupting public order.”

Even as it pursued its bombing campaign, Israel kept the way open for intense efforts by leaders in the Middle East and Europe to arrange a cease-fire. Israel said it would consider a halt to fighting if international monitors were brought in to track compliance with any truce, according to the Associated Press.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel is “not interested in conducting a long war” but insisted “we will deal with Hamas and terror with an iron fist.”

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who held talks in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said Israel would decide in due course when to halt its offensive. “The question of whether it’s enough or not will be the result of our assessment on a daily basis,” she said, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

Adding to the urgency of the diplomatic maneuvering, the Israeli military said its preparations for a ground assault were complete and that troops stood ready to cross the border if the air operation to stamp out Hamas rocket fire needed to be expanded.

Soldiers massed along the Gaza border said they were eager to join the fight, and some even cheered as they heard thunderous air strikes in the distance.

Six days of Israeli bombing in response to Hamas’ relentless rocket fire on Israeli towns and cities have all but sealed the coastal strip from the outside world.

Journalists have been prohibited from entering Gaza, and a not-so-secret network of smuggling tunnels on its Egyptian border are thought to have been destroyed.

Before Israel began bombing Saturday, Gazans jokingly referred to the tunnels as their “duty-free zone.”

In the final years of Israel’s on-the-ground occupation of Gaza, Israel established the so-called Philadelphia corridor to patrol the border and stop weapons smuggling, but it never managed to stop the illicit trade.

After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the number of tunnels grew exponentially. Before the start of the operation, hundreds were thought to be in operation. Hamas controlled the trade.

Israel targeted the tunnels from the early days of its air offensive, but the bombardment was especially intense late Wednesday night, according to reports from the area.

The tunnels allowed Hamas to smuggle arms and provided a lifeline for basic items such as flour, cooking oil, powdered milk and infant diapers to the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians that has been blockaded by Israel for the past year and a half.

Israel allowed a limited supply of relief to prevent outright hunger, but the hardship for Gazans had become increasingly severe in the past two months as the Jewish state tightened the blockade.

“I fed the children cooked tomatoes today. I can’t find bread,” Nima Burdeini, a mother of 11, told the Associated Press at the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border.

The blockade by Israel and Egypt dates back to June 2007, when Hamas seized Gaza by force from the Palestinian Authority, which continues to run the West Bank.

Most of Gaza’s factories have since shut down. Even before the blockade, most of the territory’s people depended on outside food aid.

Israel also broadened its offensive Thursday to target the Palestinian leadership in Gaza, bombing the home of Mr. Rayan, a senior Hamas leader.

The 49-year-old professor of Islamic law was known for personally participating in clashes with Israeli forces and for sending one of his sons on a 2001 suicide mission that killed two Israelis, according to the Associated Press.

The Israeli army said that several explosions confirmed their suspicions that Mr. Rayan’s residence had been used for storing rockets. The army said the residence also had become a communications center for Hamas.

The military said it had information that Mr. Rayan’s home had a tunnel for use as an escape route.

Mr. Rayan was the most senior Hamas figure to be killed by Israel since Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in 2004.

An Israeli source said the killing of Mr. Rayan would boost the motivation for revenge attacks to halt the Israeli military operation. They are concerned that Hamas will try to carry out more dramatic attacks like suicide bombings in large Israeli cities.

Witnesses said Mr. Rayan’s headless body was hurled from the apartment block where he lived with his four wives and their family, Agence France-Presse reported.

Reports from the site said the wives and at least nine children were killed.

Unlike other Hamas leaders who went into hiding when the Israeli bombings began, Mr. Rayan maintained a defiant public profile.

“God willing, Hamas will win,” Mr. Rayan said Wednesday in a vitriol-laden speech.

Hamas television broadcast the speech after Mr. Rayan was killed.

Mr. Rayan also had called for a suicide bombing campaign against Israel.

Reports of the attack were conflicting. Some said the apartment complex was destroyed by rockets fired from F-16 jets and others said his apartment complex was leveled by a half-ton bomb.

Palestinian officials said more than 400 people had been killed in the offensive, dubbed Operation Cast Lead. Four Israelis have been killed by retaliatory rocket fire.

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