IMEU, Aug 21, 2011
A deadly three-pronged attack by unidentified gunmen on Israeli soldiers and civilians near the Red Sea resort town of Eilat on Thursday triggered a serious escalation in violence, with Israel launching three nights of air raids on the Gaza Strip.
Following the attacks, Israeli forces also pursued the attackers into Egypt, where Egyptian security officers were shot dead, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
Even before Thursday's attack, Israel carried out a series of deadly military actions in Gaza last week.
Early on Tuesday 16 August, Israeli warplanes launched an airstrike that killed a 29-year-old Palestinian man. The Israeli military said the strike was in response to a rocket from Gaza that caused no damage or injuries.
In a separate incident later on Tuesday, Israeli troops shot dead a teenager near Gaza's boundary with Israel. Palestinian medical officials said the teen was shot more than 10 times.
According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, six Israeli civilians and one soldier were killed during Thursday's triple attack.
In the first incident, men following a public bus opened fire with Kalashnikov assault rifles. The attack took place on Israel's Highway 12, about 12 miles north of the city of Eilat.
In the second incident, an Israeli military vehicle several miles away was hit by a roadside bomb, while mortars were fired at workers building a fence along Israel's border with Egypt.
The third incident was a gun battle between Israeli forces and militants. According to the UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai, Israeli forces pursued the gunmen across the Egyptian border, and an Israeli helicopter fired on Egyptian security officers, killing at least three of them.
Israeli officials immediately blamed the attacks on Palestinian armed groups from Gaza, claiming the gunmen crossed into the Sinai Peninsula through tunnels from Gaza, and then infiltrated Israel.
"This is not speculation, not conjecture, not joining the dots. They are sure these terrorists left Gaza," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.
In the first Israeli airstrike following the Eilat attacks, Israel targeted the leadership of the Popular Resistance Committees, a secretive armed group in Gaza. According to the Palestinian news agency Maan, the strike hit the home of official Khaled Shaath, who was killed instantly. His two-year-old son Malek later died of injuries sustained in the strike.
The raid, in the city of Rafah, killed four other men reported to be senior members of the PRC.
Following the bombardment, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, "We have killed the heads of the organization that sent the terrorists."
Lack of evidence
Aside from the insistence of Israeli officials, no evidence has come to light clearly linking the Eilat incident to any group in Gaza. Indeed, Hamas and the PRC themselves denied responsibility for the attacks.
In addition, the governor of Egypt's North Sinai region, Abdel Wahab Mabruk, denied militants had entered the territory from Gaza, citing his country's heavy security presence in the area.
In a striking turnaround on Saturday, the Israeli military's chief spokesperson, Lt. Colonel Avital Leibovitz, denied that Israel blamed the PRC for the Eilat attack.
In an interview with The Real News Network's Lia Tarachansky, Leibovitz said, "We did not say that this group was responsible for the terror attack. We based this on intelligence information as well as some facts that [we] actually presented an hour ago to some wires and journalists."
As evidence that the attackers came from Gaza, she said, "Some of the findings that were from the bodies of the terrorists, and they are using, for example, Kalashnikov bullets and Kalashnikov rifles [which] are very common in Gaza."
Leibovitz's claim makes little sense, however, since the Kalashnikov is the most popular gun on the planet, with more than 75 million produced since the Second World War. Paul Woodward, the author of the blog War in Context, responded to this assertion saying, "that's about as logical as saying they know they came from Gaza because they appeared to be Arabs."
Gaza under fire
Despite the apparent lack of concrete evidence linking the Eilat attackers to groups in Gaza, Israel pressed ahead with an air offensive on Gaza.
The first night of airstrikes left a total of seven Palestinians dead, including a 13-year-old boy named Mahmoud Abu Samra, who according to medics was killed when Israeli warplanes struck a Hamas intelligence compound in Gaza City.
After three nights of Israeli bombardment, the death toll in Gaza stood at 14 Palestinians dead and more than 40 wounded.
The bombing also damaged civilian infrastructure, including government and NGO offices, water and sewage pumps, and a psychotherapy clinic.
Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, including the PRC and the military wing of Hamas, responded to the Israeli strikes by launching rockets into Israeli territory.
Some of these rockets were homemade projectiles - so-called Qassam rockets - that ordinarily have a maximum range of five kilometers, although some have been recorded to fly up to 20 kilometers (12 miles). These crude rockets are completely unguided and rarely cause casualties.
Armed groups also fired Grad missiles, another primitive weapon, originally developed by the Soviet military in the 1960s. In contrast with the Qassam, however, the Grad is in fact a deadly weapon. One Israeli man was killed by a Grad fired from Gaza into the city of Beersheba on Friday.
By any measure, however, the armaments of the Palestinian guerilla fighters are no match for those of the Israeli armed forces. In three days of strikes on Gaza, the Israeli military has already used American-made F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters, along with unmanned aerial drones.
Israel is one of the best-armed states in the region, possessing more than 500 combat aircraft, more than 3,300 tanks, nuclear weapons, and its own communications and surveillance satellites.
End of the ceasefire
After 24 hours of strikes, the military wing of Hamas, Al-Qassam Brigades, announced on Friday that it no longer considers itself bound by a unilateral ceasefire that had been in place since the end of Israel's winter offensive in Gaza in 2009.
The truce was agreed upon by all of the armed factions in Gaza, and was periodically reaffirmed in consultations among the groups. However, a handful of small, radical Salafist groups refused to abide by the ceasefire.
In spite of intermittent confrontations, the ceasefire had produced relative calm in Gaza and its surroundings. The Hamas government took pains to enforce the truce, frequently jailing members of splinter groups who violated the agreement.
Hamas and the rival Fatah movement reaffirmed the ceasefire when they signed a reconciliation agreement in April 2011.
Although some Palestinian individuals and groups violated the ceasefire over the course of two and a half years, Israel has violated it with far more deadly consequences.
According to data compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, from the end of the 2009 offensive until 28 July 2011, Israeli military action killed 202 Palestinians in Gaza.
By contrast, during the same period, according to the UN database, Palestinian armed groups killed only three Israeli soldiers. Israeli government data show that Palestinian shelling from Gaza during this time killed another two people.
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