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Residents of Gaza told to evacuate

Troops enter city to eliminate rocket site

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Israelis stand on a hill in the town of Sderot, Israel overlooking the Gaza Strip, as they watch smoke rising following a strike on Gaza Saturday.

LEFTERIS PITARAKIS / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Israelis stand on a hill in the town of Sderot, Israel overlooking the Gaza Strip, as they watch smoke rising following a strike on Gaza Saturday.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Tens of thousands of panicked residents fled their homes in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday after the Israeli military dropped leaflets from the sky warning those who stayed behind they were risking their lives because a large, intense operation was imminent.

Residents in Gaza were whipsawed by growing anxiety and frustration. More than 17,000 people poured into makeshift shelters as Israeli commandos entered the coastal enclave early Sunday to knock out a Hamas rocket-launch site. A brief gun battle with Hamas militants ensued and left four Israeli soldiers lightly wounded.

The brief incursion by commandos followed the single deadliest Israeli bombing of the six-day campaign.

Israeli missiles hit a house where Gaza's police chief, Tayseer al-Batsh, was praying Saturday night. The explosions killed 18 members of his extended family, including six children, and sent the top Hamas law enforcement officer into intensive care, where he was clinging to life Sunday.

The latest violence in Gaza came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated Israel has no interest in halting its assault. Israel's objective, he said at his weekly cabinet meeting, is to inflict "a significant blow on Hamas" that will yield "the restoration of quiet for a long period."

That goal closely tracks Israel's ambition in two previous offensives against Hamas -- in the winter of 2008-09 and in late 2012 -- both of which succeeded in setting back the Islamist movement's capabilities, but not for very long. In each case, Israel won just a few years of relative calm, even as Hamas's arsenal and the range of its rockets expanded.

The cycle has come to be known in Israel as "mowing the lawn" -- a temporary disruption of Hamas's ability and will to fire rockets.

Pressure is growing in Israel to make sure that this time is different.

"The army should not stop until they wipe out Hamas," said Avner Peretz, 46, just minutes after the windows in his brother-in-law's house were blown out by a Hamas rocket attack in the southern Israeli town of Netivot over the weekend. "The last two conflicts, we came out looking like the losers. This time, we need to be the winner."

So far, there's no doubt Israel has inflicted far more damage than Hamas has, but that's consistently true in this deeply asymmetrical fight.

There have been 166 residents of Gaza killed in the current Israeli operation, including 36 children and 24 women, said the Gazan Health Ministry. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the dead are civilians.

Hamas and its allies have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel -- including 130 on Sunday -- but most have either landed in open areas or been shot down by Israel's sophisticated anti-missile system, the Iron Dome. Several Israelis have been seriously injured by the rocket fire, but none have been killed.

In central Gaza, where Israeli missiles hit the house where the police chief was staying Saturday, there are 17 fresh graves, the bodies marked by mounds of earth, with cinder blocks for headstones.

The police chief may not have been widely liked in Gaza -- his police are aggressive and zealous in their defence of Hamas -- but he was respected. The incidence of ordinary crime in Gaza is low.

Israeli officials and analysts say there's little chance Israel will try to destroy Hamas entirely, given the enormous cost and risk involved. But they say Israel has several key advantages it lacked the last two times it traded blows with Hamas.

Hamas is now far more isolated internationally. The Gaza leaders have alienated their former patron in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad, by siding with that country's rebels.

And Hamas lost its closest ally last year when Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president of Egypt, was ousted and replaced by a military-backed government that sees Hamas much the same way Israel does: as an enemy.

Egyptian authorities once looked the other way as Hamas used tunnels beneath the Gaza border to load up on rockets. But Egypt has essentially shut down all tunnel traffic.

Hamas's battered finances may be adding to Israel's leverage. Hamas has been unable to pay government workers for months. Itamar Yaar, a former top official with Israel's national security council, said Hamas may be willing to promise a period of calm in exchange for Israeli co-operation in reviving the devastated Gazan economy.

But such a deal would require cease-fire talks.

Michael Herzog, a former top Israeli military official who has conducted past negotiations, said Sunday that Hamas wants a reopening of the border crossing with Egypt, the release of prisoners and money to pay Gaza's 40,000 government employees.

Israel, meanwhile, wants a guarantee of several years of peace, at least, without appearing to reward Hamas's militant behaviour.

"It's challenging to bring this conflict to a conclusion, because the two parties have totally different pictures of how they want it to end," Herzog said.

 

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2014 B4

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