Israel Bombards Hamas Symbols, Power Plant in Gaza
Aims to Force Islamist Group to Accept Cease-fire Demand to Disarm
By Nicholas Casey in Gaza City and Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv
July 29, 2014
Israeli forces pounded Hamas symbols of control and Gaza's only power plant in one of the heaviest bombardments in the three-week conflict, trying to raise pressure on the Islamist group to accept Israel's terms for a cease-fire.
A strike early Tuesday engulfed the power plant in flames, forcing it to shut down and leaving many of the Palestinian territory's 1.8 million people without electricity. To Gazans, the attack on such a vital lifeline seemed aimed at weakening Palestinian support for the extended conflict both sides say they are ready to fight.
"With the power station gone, all of Gaza is going to collapse," said Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza's Al Azhar University. "They're trying to put direct pressure on the Palestinians."
The strike on the plant added to the international alarm over soaring casualty figures, mostly in Gaza. The Palestinian death toll for the fighting that began on July 8 surpassed 1,200, according to Gaza's health ministry. On the Israeli side, 53 soldiers and three civilians have died.
As international efforts to achieve a cease-fire gain pace, a senior Israeli official said the military escalation was meant to force Hamas to choose between losing control of Gaza and yielding to Israel's terms for a sweeping disarmament of the territory.
"Bringing them to a point of breaking is not a target, but if they break we don't feel sorry," the official said. "We don't want to rule the Gaza Strip, but we want less to see rockets fall on our citizens.''
He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was betting that Hamas would opt for peace because it wants to maintain its rule of Gaza.
"Time is on our side more than theirs,'' the official said.
Hamas responded defiantly to the stepped-up offensive, which wrecked scores of targets in Gaza City before dawn, including government offices, headquarters of Hamas' radio and TV, and the home of the group's top official in Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Late Tuesday, the Hamas military leader, Mohammed Deif, emerged from years of hiding to declare on television that his forces were prepared for an extended fight with Israel. He insisted that Hamas would agree to a cease-fire only if a crippling blockade of Gaza's borders by Israel and Egypt is lifted.
Israel last week rejected a draft cease-fire proposal offered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, saying it would have ceded to Hamas's demand without addressing Israel's security concerns. The U.S. is still working for a truce.
While Israel was stepping up its attacks on Gaza on Monday night, Mr. Netanyahu raised the prospect of a humanitarian cease-fire in a phone call with Mr. Kerry. The secretary of state said the Israeli leader "consistently" said he would embrace a cease-fire that allows Israel to protect itself against a network of cross-border tunnels that Hamas fighters are increasingly using to infiltrate Israel.
Israel says it launched the offensive on July 8 to degrade Hamas's rocket arsenal and to find and destroy tunnels the group uses to funnel militants and arms.
But Hamas's rocket fire has continued and on Monday a group of militants tunneled into Israel and killed five soldiers, raising pressure on Mr. Netanyahu within his government to broaden the offensive and threaten Hamas's leadership.
Announcing the escalation on television late Monday, Mr. Netanyahu told Israelis to brace for a long fight until those security goals are met. Military officials have said the task might take another week.
At best, defense specialists say the stepped-up offensive could achieve an outcome similar to that of Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon. That ended with the military failing to rout Hezbollah but flattening civilian neighborhoods where Hezbollah's militias holed up. Since then, Hezbollah has fired few rockets at Israel.
"It showed terrorists can be deterred'' by military force, said Michael Oren, an Israeli military historian and a former ambassador to the U.S., noting that Israel had destroyed power plants and other civilian infrastructure in the Lebanon campaign.
The attack on Gaza's 50-megawatt power plant had an immediate effect on hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Without air conditioning, they sweltered in the summer heat. They lost touch with relatives as mobile phones ran low on battery power and couldn't be charged. As night fell, many homes were dark.
A relatively small portion of Gazans have generators, "but the question is when does the fuel run out," said Stu Willcuts, the mission director for Mercy Corps, an agency distributing meals and sanitation kits for Gaza's displaced residents.
Nearly all Gaza's water is brackish and is filtered with electric pumps to make it drinkable. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency is distributing bottled water to more than 200,000 Gazans displaced by the fighting, and Mercy Corps is trying to rent water delivery trucks to assist.
The intensity and scope of the military operation is similar to Israel's three-week offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009 with a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. The fighting damaged Hamas's forces and rocket arsenals but failed to deter the group from rearming.
Mr. Abusada, the Gaza political scientist, said many of the territory's civilians felt then, as they do now, that Israel was inflicting deliberate punishment on them to erode Hamas's popular support. He said the tactic didn't work then, and won't now, in large part because Palestinians have no way to protest against Hamas.
"Any Palestinian who speaks out against Hamas will be marked as an Israeli collaborator," he said. "You can't expect Palestinians to go out in the street to protest Hamas."
Write to Nicholas Casey at email@example.com