Gaza Conflict Days of War, Days of Rage

Israel hopes to critically weaken Hamas with its attacks in the Gaza Strip. Governments in the West and even in the Arab world can understand Israel's aims, but civilians are the ones suffering the most from the bombardment. How much bloody retribution is legitimate?
Von SPIEGEL Staff
Palestinians stand amongst the debris of the destroyed house of Hamas senior leader Nizar Rayan after Israeli missiles struck the Jabaliya refugee camp.

Palestinians stand amongst the debris of the destroyed house of Hamas senior leader Nizar Rayan after Israeli missiles struck the Jabaliya refugee camp.

Foto: DPA

It isn't exactly a character trait befitting someone in her position, but Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is always nervous when she steps onto a stage. She crosses her arms defensively, no matter how much this wrinkles her outfit. Her voice begins to shake, especially when she has to speak English. But war changes things.

On the fifth day of Israel's aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip, when Livni appeared before the world press for the first time, she practically bounced onto the stage of the community center in the southern Israeli city of Sderot. She was friendly and even cracked a few jokes, and she seemed confident when discussing the current status of the war.

When the lights in the auditorium were dimmed, the foreign minister showed videos that the Israeli Air Force had taken from aircraft and unmanned drones as it bombarded Hamas command centers and weapons storage sites, laboratories and mosques. One video showed the destruction of a number of tunnels in the town of Rafah, on the border between Egypt and Gaza, through which Hamas had been smuggling weapons. "You can see the second explosion," Livni explained, noting that it was caused by the detonation of explosives stored in the tunnels.

The next image was supposedly of a truck, from which several people were quickly unloading long, narrow, tube-shaped objects. The objects were rockets, according to Livni. Crosshairs appeared and the vehicle was blown up in a cloud of smoke.

Livni goes on to stress that Israel is making a distinction between Hamas members and Palestinian civilians in the operation. It's a sentiment she has expressed several times in recent days, as have Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But even by the fifth day of the war, Livni had not yet used the word "war" in referring to the fighting.

And yet it already seems clear that Operation Cast Lead, which Israel launched in the form of a surprise attack during the Christmas week, will go down in history as the seventh Middle East war. The first day alone was the bloodiest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than 40 years. The last conflict that caused as many deaths and as much suffering was the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel captured and then occupied the Gaza Strip.

Currently we are seeing the first phase in an asymmetric war : air attacks by the vastly superior Israeli armed forces, while Hamas fired rockets from residential areas into Israel. In the first nine hours of the offensive, dozens of F-16 fighter jets dropped more than 100 tons of explosives on targets in the Gaza Strip, including police stations, weapons arsenals, mosques, ministries and apartment buildings. In the first four minutes alone, the Israelis bombed more than 50 Hamas facilities.

"After the operation," says General Dan Harel, deputy chief of the general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, "there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza." But that can hardly be the goal of this operation. According to Defense Minister Barak, Israel intends to change the "security-related reality" in Gaza and southern Israel, while Foreign Minister Livni expresses herself more cautiously: "We want to weaken Hamas."

It is certainly hard to believe that Hamas could be bombed out of Gaza. And soon, the F-16 fighter jets will run out of targets.

The second phase in this asymmetric war would be a ground invasion  using the tanks stationed along the border with Gaza, waiting for orders to attack. Switching from a limited air operation to a ground invasion with tanks and thousands of troops changes the character of the war: Israel's conventional army will quickly lose its superiority when faced with 20,000 guerilla fighters capable of killing large numbers of soldiers by retaliating with tank traps, suicide bombings and house-to-house combat -- delighting, in the process, their supporters in Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

The same thing happened in the war two years ago, when the Israeli army marched into Lebanon, quickly lost its luster and ultimately withdrew in humiliation. Rocket attacks were the cause both of that war and of the current conflict. In 2006, air attacks were followed by a ground offensive. In the current conflict, Hamas would like to emulate Hezbollah's success two years ago, when the Lebanon-based group managed to successfully resist the Israeli war machine, an outcome regarded by many Arabs as a victory.

Both sides are preparing for a ground war. The Israeli government has approved the mobilization of close to 10,000 reserve troops, while soldiers in the elite Golani unit are waiting for their marching orders in their Merkava tanks near the border with the Gaza Strip.

It would be a bitter irony of history, however, if the army were to recapture the coastal strip that Israel gave up three-and-a-half years ago in the face of fierce opposition from the Israeli right. If the Israeli infantry marches into Gaza, a spokesman of the military arm of Hamas said threateningly, the Gaza Strip "will blow up like a volcano in the face of the occupiers."

This is typical of the kind of rhetoric that Hezbollah and Hamas like to use. But there is also a reason that they feel strong: Iran. Iran is the big brother that has offered public support in recent days in the form of demonstrations and threats. The conflict between Israel and Iran already overshadows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened several times that Israel will be wiped off the map. Military and political leaders in Jerusalem, for their part, have been equally vocal in their threats to strike Iran's nuclear facilities unless the mullah-controlled nation abandons its nuclear program.

What happened in Lebanon two years ago and is happening in Gaza today can also be seen as a proxy war -- as operations against Iran's spiritual little brothers, who deny Israel's right to exist.

A Popular War

As long as the first phase in this asymmetric war continues, Israel will enjoy support and understanding from its allies around the world. "We … hold Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence (in the Gaza Strip)," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a statement. President-elect Barack Obama has also made it clear he would soon lose his patience if regular rocket attacks against Israeli cities continued, costing human life.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was similarly protective of Israel when she said: "The terror perpetrated by Hamas is unacceptable." But Martin Schulz, head of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, promptly criticized Merkel, calling her remark too one-sided and pointing out that it limits the options of German foreign policy.

But the United States and Europe are unlikely to feel as sympathetic to Israel after a ground invasion, which could have dramatic consequences, including the possibility of Hezbollah opening up a second front in Lebanon, as well as unrest in the West Bank and in Arab cities ruled by autocrats like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Behind the scenes, the European Union, the United Nations and Turkey, which has assumed the role of an intermediary in the Middle East, are using diplomacy in an attempt to prevent escalation. This week European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country recently assumed the six-month rotating EU presidency, will travel to Jerusalem and urge the Israeli government to exercise restraint.

The Arab world is divided more than ever in its position toward the war between the Israelis and Hamas. Egyptian President Mubarak blames the Hamas leaders for the attacks. "We warned you (Hamas) repeatedly that rejecting the truce would push Israel to aggression against Gaza," Mubarak said. Most Arab governments feel antipathy toward the mullah regime in Iran, which seeks to develop itself into a hegemonial power in the region. But their populations are enthusiastic about Tehran's aggressive rhetoric, such as the words of the Iranian revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: "Can there be a catastrophe greater than the behavior of the Muslim states who strengthen the Zionist regime?"

The hero of the Arab street is Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Fearing assassination attempts, he rarely appears in public. "To Gazans I say: Your pain is our pain and your wounds are our wounds," Nasrallah said in a videotaped address. Now that the organization has replenished its weapons supplies, Western intelligence agencies believe that Hezbollah is strong enough for another war with Israel.

Last Friday, Hamas called for a "day of anger," which led to thousands demonstrating in the streets of the West Bank, Kabul, Jakarta and Tehran. But the supposedly spontaneous popular protests looked staged.

In Israel, Defense Minister Barak -- a man who does not normally go out of his way to promote himself -- stands at the center of current events. The war is seen as his war. The war is -- at least for now -- still popular, and it has helped Barak, who hopes to become prime minister after the election in February, greatly improve his own popularity. Calling the conflict a "war without mercy," Barak says: "There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting." As a retired general, he enjoys authority -- for now.

The escalation of violence began taking shape shortly before Christmas, when a six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas ended. Hamas launched a new offensive, striking southern Israel with 300 rockets within a few days. In the midst of festivities surrounding the Jewish Hanukkah festival, a quarter of a million Israelis suddenly found themselves within striking distance of the rockets.

As the days wore on, the missiles began hitting targets farther and farther away. Since the rocket assault began, Hamas has fired up to 80 homemade Qassam rockets and imported Katyusha rockets at Israel every day. On the first day, the rockets struck Netivot, 12 kilometers (seven miles) from the Gaza border. On the second day, the downtown of Ashkelon, 13 kilometers (eight miles) from the border, was hit, followed by Ashdod on the third day (27 kilometers, or 17 miles, from the border), and the major city of Beersheba (42 kilometers, or 26 miles, from the border) on the fourth.

Israel, says Defense Minister Barack, has the "moral high ground," because the Jewish state has long endured the rocket fire from Gaza without doing anything about it. But how much longer will this advantage last?

More than 200 Palestinians died on the first day of the air attacks, and by the end of the week the number of dead had climbed to almost 450. There are an estimated 2,000 wounded, including many women and children. The Israelis began their bombardment in broad daylight. Because Hamas members live and hide themselves and their weapons in schools, residential areas and mosques, anyone who attacks Hamas has to be prepared for civilian casualties. And Hamas, with its aura of victimhood, has essentially taken Gaza's 1.5 million civilians hostage, and is pinning its hopes on the power of television images. Until now, these images have been coming from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network; Israel has refused to allow the international press into Gaza.

When does a legitimate act of self-defense turn into a dirty war? Are the roughly 10,000 rockets that have killed 32 Israelis in the last seven years justification enough for a military operation that has already claimed 450 lives, with one in four of the dead a woman or a child? And is the loss suffered by an Israeli girl whose mother was killed by a Katyusha rocket at a bus stop in Ashdod last week more significant than the loss suffered, on the same day, by a Palestinian girl living in the Jabaliya refugee camp when her five sisters died in an Israeli air attack?

The Israeli army distributes flyers to warn residents of upcoming attacks. According to Foreign Minister Livni, Israel made some 90,000 telephone calls to civilians in Gaza during the first few days of the offensive alone, warning them of impending strikes. Responding to one of the warnings, the Balusha family from Jabaliya sought shelter in the house of relatives until late at night, but then returned to the camp. A short time later, Israeli jets bombed the adjacent mosque. When the roof of the mosque was destroyed, the family's house was buried, together with five of the daughters.

These are tragic events. They create the impression that Israel is interested in more than their stated aim of "destroying the terrorist infrastructure" of Hamas. Indeed, it seems that the Israelis are motivated by retribution, and are using war as a punitive measure.

'The Israelis Are Trying to Wipe the Palestinians off the Map'

Ahmad Yusuf asks to keep the telephone conversation short. Otherwise, says Yusuf, the chief strategist of Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, the Israelis could pinpoint his location. Yusuf, like the rest of the Hamas leadership, has gone into hiding. "The Israelis are trying to wipe the Palestinians off the map," he says agitatedly.

Yussuf says that he watches Al-Jazeera all day long in his hiding place. "The Arab masses support us," he says, and calls the Egyptian government "collaborators with Israel." What else, he asks, could explain the fact that the Israeli bombardment began only two days after President Mubarak met with Israeli Foreign Minister Livni? "This is a war of extermination," the Hamas official claims. "We Palestinians are merely defending ourselves."

This is not even half-true. In fact, Hamas has spent the last year and a half preparing for this war, which it provoked. "Unfortunately they (Hamas) served Israeli the opportunity on a golden platter to hit Gaza," says Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Resistance against Israel has been Hamas's raison d'être since it was founded 21 years ago in the Gaza Strip. It has combined the Palestinian liberation struggle with Islamic charity to form an integrated ideology.

The Islamists gained full control over the Gaza Strip after the successful coup against the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. They have developed an effective administrative system with a focus on control. They built mosques until cement became scarce, and they deployed a "morality police" that would occasionally beat up women for not wearing a headscarf. Shops selling alcohol or condoms went up in flames, as did Internet cafes and restaurants. Hamas appointed judges and hired teachers and traffic policemen. Although not all are ideologically on the same page as Hamas, their regular monthly salaries guarantee at least some degree of loyalty.

The predicted chaos failed to materialize in Gaza. On the contrary, the Islamists arrested members of Mafia-like family clans that had treated the Gaza Strip as their property in the past. They fired corrupt government officials and hired police officers to combat drug dealers. Even Fatah supporters admit they have felt safe in the streets at night since Hamas came to power.

But there was one thing Hamas did not think of: improving the standard of living for Gaza residents. Instead, they turned the Gaza Strip into a fortress. They copied Hezbollah's underground strategy, probably with the help of trainers from Lebanon and Iran.

The armed Islamists trained in house-to-house combat in the ruins of synagogues in former Jewish settlements, and they built weapons arsenals and rocket storage facilities through the territory. They dug emplacements, installed booby traps and built tunnels near the border, presumably with the intention of abducting Israeli soldiers.

Hiding places were prepared for the leadership and a communication infrastructure is in place. As a result, only one senior Hamas leader has been killed in the Israeli attacks to date. Despite the bombardment, Hamas units have managed to continue firing rockets at Israel on a grand scale. The F-16 fighter jets are not much of a threat to these units, because Hamas fires the rockets from camouflaged holes in the ground, often using timed detonators.

But Israel has also contributed to Hamas's radicalization. After the coup, the government imposed a strict boycott and even declared the coastal strip an "enemy entity." Since then, poverty has been on the rise in Gaza. Residents now use donkey carts instead of cars, the shops are empty, the factories have run out of materials and construction sites are abandoned.

Gaza has always been poor and never beautiful, and yet for a long time there were people who chose to live there. But that was before the 40-kilometer (25-mile) coastal strip became a prison. The markets boasted strawberries piled high into tall pyramids, grilled fish was sold on every street corner, and heavy gold jewelry was available at the bazaar in the old city. Today it is extremely dangerous to go into the fields, the fish is contaminated by raw sewage dumped into the sea, and no one can afford gold anymore. Forgotten are the days following the withdrawal of the Israeli settlers, when developers dreamed of building a Palestinian Dubai on the Mediterranean and began building a luxury hotel on the beach.

The cease-fire did nothing to change the dire circumstances in Gaza. Israel allowed only a small amount of goods into Gaza and none out, closed the border crossings dozens of times and liquidated Hamas members. Roughly 20 rockets were fired into Israel each month, compared with more than 300 before the cease-fire.

It is clear that neither of the two sides has completely lived up to its obligations. Not the Islamists, who wanted to continue their show of strength by firing their Qassam rockets. And not Israel, which wanted to force Hamas to its knees with the blockade. There were hopes that the starving population in the Gaza Strip would eventually revolt or the Islamist government would simply implode. But the opposite has happened, mainly to the detriment of the Palestinian population.

Israel tightened its blockade in November. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which supplies food to about half the residents of the Gaza Strip, was forced to suspend its aid for days. The banks closed in early December after running out of cash. Wages could no longer be paid. Unemployment is now believed to be at 80 percent, and the economy has collapsed. Electricity -- and drinking water -- is only available for a few hours every day. Gasoline and cooking gas are scarce, which has forced bakeries and chicken farms to close, so that bread and meat are now almost non-existent. Children collect garbage instead of going to school, while their unemployed fathers stand in line for hours for small rations of flour or rice.

Soaring Sedative Sales

Those who are despondent, hungry or suffering from panic attacks go to pharmacies to buy sedatives. Sales have skyrocketed since the Israeli blockage began, says Fayes al-Jasni, a pharmacist in Gaza City. "Children, in particular, are having trouble sleeping and are now taking the tablets," he reports, adding that sales have increased even further since the Israeli military operation began.

But now the pharmacies are beginning to run out of sedative pills. Until now, they received their supplies through the smuggler tunnels underneath the Egyptian border in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Until the Israeli military strike, the tunnels, conduits for everything from gasoline to goats sacrificed during religious festivals, were the Gaza Strip's lifeline. If their use had remained limited to these goods, Israel would have had no reason for its air strikes -- but Hamas began using the tunnels to also beef up its weapons arsenal.

For this reason, many Palestinians assign at least some of the blame for the air attacks to Hamas, and they now long for a return of the Fatah party, once so sharply criticized for corruption. Some have even dared to express such sentiments publicly. "It would be good if Fatah were to return to Gaza as soon as possible," says pharmacist al-Jasni. "Most of my customers agree."

"People have become disenchanted with Hamas; it will lose the next election," says Mohammed Dahlan , Fatah's former head of security for Gaza, even though the opinion polls imply that the opposite is the case. Dahlan, a tall, powerful-looking man, is sitting in a large office furnished with new, white leather armchairs. He seems cold-blooded, but his words are thoughtful. For Hamas, Dahlan epitomizes the corrupt fat cat. When the Islamists assumed power in Gaza, Dahlan only managed to escape with his life because he had already flown to Germany for a knee operation.

He is reluctant to come across as a traitor; if he is secretly happy about the Israeli campaign, he doesn't show it. "Hamas is one of the worst organizations in the region," he says. "Its leaders enjoy watching Palestinian children die" -- because their death fuels hatred against Israel.

Fatah, created by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is the older of the two Palestinian political movements. For years, Fatah failed to develop the infrastructure of a regular state. It was only Arafat's successor Abbas who sought to improve conditions. Hamas arose as a religious counterpart to the secular Fatah movement.

Since Dec. 27, Hamas and Fatah have also been locked in a conflict which has already claimed lives. In Hebron, Palestinian Authority police officers fired shots at demonstrators. In Bethlehem, they prevented Palestinians from throwing Molotov cocktails at an Israeli watchtower. And in the Gaza Strip, Hamas gunmen killed at least five Fatah members in the Shifa Hospital with shots to the head -- in full views of doctors and other patients. The five men had escaped from the bombed Saraya prison, where they had been incarcerated for "collaboration" with Israel.

Dahlan and Abbas could well be dreaming of the day when Fatah will return to Gaza in triumph. If that happens, it will be because the Israeli Air Force has bombed the way, which would bring dishonor on them for a long time in the eyes of many Palestinians. The alternative would be the stationing of an international peacekeeping force in Gaza. In Israel, it is primarily Foreign Minister Livni who is developing such exit strategies -- the biggest problem in any asymmetric war.

The rest of the cabinet is distrustful of Livni. The decision to go to war was probably unanimous, but opinions differ on how it should continue and, most of all, how it should end. Part of the reason for the controversy lies in the elections scheduled for Feb. 10, making it more difficult for politicians to keep a cool head and make logical decisions.

Prime Minister Olmert sees the conflict as his last chance to make up for the humiliation of the Lebanon war. The contenders for his office are Foreign Minister Livni, of the Kadima Party, and Barak, a Social Democrat. The war and the election campaign will soon be inextricably linked.

There is a minor epilogue to the video presentation in Sderot, the one in which Livni seemed noticeably confident. A short time later, the Israeli human rights organization Betselem prepared a different version of the story of the supposedly rocket-transporting truck which was blown up. The driver, who survived, now claims that the men in the video were not unloading Katyushas, but oxygen bottles meant for welding work.

In most cases, the truth about war only emerges after the war has ended.

Editor's Note: The current issue of SPIEGEL, in which this article first appeared, went to press prior to the Israeli ground offensive.

JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, DANIEL STEINVORTH, BERNHARD ZAND

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan