Hamas had an operational success in Rafah yesterday that exceeded its wildest expectations. While Egypt is trying to arrange a cease-fire that will impose restrictions on the actions of all Palestinian factions and Israel is preparing to disengage from Gaza in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas signaled that as far as it is concerned, the struggle continues. As long as a truce has not actually been declared, it is important for Hamas to demonstrate who is really evicting Israel from Gaza. The destruction it sowed in the JVT outpost last night - in which almost all the soldiers in the area were hurt (five killed and at least six wounded at press time) - was an "achievement" equivalent to the destruction of two armored personnel carriers (APCs) in May.
After Qassam launches at Sderot have been to some extent restrained after Israel exacted a heavy price from the Palestinians, tunnels now appear to be the Israel Defense Forces' No. 1 problem in Gaza. Arms smuggling continues, but it depends to some extent on the attitude of Egyptian forces on the other side of the border. Booby-trapped tunnels, in contrast, are dug entirely on the Palestinian side and are thus a purely Israeli problem.
At least 10 times in the past half year, Palestinians have tried to blow up Gazan outposts via tunnels. Once, they succeeded in demolishing an outpost, killing one soldier. Another time, an explosion killed a soldier in the process of exposing a tunnel. Just last week, the IDF uncovered a tunnel that was supposed to reach the Karni checkpoint, but a bomb that exploded inside killed a member of its dog-handling unit.
Yesterday's attack occurred during a ceremony at Southern Command headquarters in which a medal was posthumously awarded to the first commander of the IDF's tunnel crew, Captain Aviv Hakani (killed in May). This symbolizes the IDF's trouble in dealing with this threat. The resources invested in coping with it have been substantially increased, and tunnel-hunting methods have become slightly more sophisticated, but the army is still largely groping in the dark. At any given moment, the IDF knows that several tunnels are being dug, but it manages to find only some. And while the outposts are relatively well protected against mortar shells and sniper fire, a way has yet to be found to protect soldiers against 1.5 tons of explosives blowing up near them.
Hamas' success yesterday was no accident. It was the result of lengthy and careful planning, almost certainly involving dozens of people. It seems likely that the guiding force was located outside the territories: In recent years, for instance, Hezbollah has transferred a great deal of information on how to plan complex attacks to organizations in the territories, including via the Internet. But the explosion also reflects a problem with Israeli intelligence: Only belatedly did the Shin Bet security service start giving the tunnels high priority, and even now, it has trouble supplying the army with quality information on this subject. A complex operation such as yesterday's requires many people in the know - but their plans remained secret.
The outpost's destruction confronts Israel with a dilemma over how to respond. In May, following the destruction of the APCs, the IDF launched Operation Rainbow in Rafah, during which it killed dozens of Palestinians (most of them armed) and destroyed dozens of houses. The Southern Command has other, similar plans for widening the Philadelphi Corridor and distancing the threat from the outposts. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who would like the army to leave Philadelphi in any case, has to decide whether he wants to add fuel to the Gazan fire.
Since May, two major changes have occurred: Yasser Arafat departed from the picture, and Egypt entered it. If Egypt embarks now on an accelerated effort to arrange a cease-fire, Hamas might opt to end the violence with yesterday's success. But attacks of this scope have a momentum of their own, which generally leads to a harsh Israeli response, including house demolitions and the killing of Palestinian civilians, tongue-clicking from the media and the government - and ultimately, the army's withdrawal.
And then, the whole cycle begins again.
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