Headed for the Gaza Default

If Palestinian leaders wish to prove to the Israeli public that canceling the military presence in the Gaza Strip was an expensive mistake, the Ghalia family disaster on Friday provided another signpost on a blood-soaked path.

If the Palestinian leaders wish to prove to the Israeli public that canceling the military presence in the Gaza Strip (as opposed to ousting the settlers) was an expensive mistake that had better not be repeated in the West Bank, the Ghalia family disaster on Friday provided another signpost on a blood-soaked path. The family's dead and wounded would be alive and well had the Palestinian authorities enforced their sovereignty in Gaza and prevented the rocket fire at Israeli communities. This fire drawing fire might lead to a wholesale raid by the Israel Defense Forces on the Gaza Strip.

The IDF is called upon to protect the citizens of Israel and to free elected officials from entanglement in major offensive operations with a human (for both sides) and political price tag. The Qassam rocket fire, 10 months after the withdrawal from Gaza, is intolerable. The main difficulty facing the organizations that employ high-trajectory weapons is storing the explosives for the warheads. If Hamas' engineers and their colleagues overcome this obstacle and also manage to extend the rockets' range, this will enable them to stockpile until they decide to fire volleys. Success of that kind might also enable them to transfer rockets - and not just know-how - from Gaza or Sinai to the West Bank.

Given that Ismail Haniyeh's government is unwilling to prevent Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and at least one Hamas faction (which launched rockets last week) from operating against Israel, Israel has three basic options. The first, showing restraint, is unethical and impractical. The second, clashing on the ground with Hamas' irregular forces and the other organizations in Gaza, is the default option and a last resort. Its benefits would be transitory, it would entail heavy IDF and Palestinian civilian casualties, and it would also necessitate blocking the Egyptian border to prevent the human and materiel reinforcement of Hamas.

The third option, whose implementation is the prime suspect in Friday's slaughter, is a combination of partial measures: fence, surveillance, the interception of cells trying to infiltrate Israel, strikes against the rocket production chain, nighttime special forces operations and "counter-fire" - from the air, sea and artillery - without direct contact exposing IDF soldiers to danger.

The fire from various aircraft is the most effective and accurate, but it is also the most vulnerable to arbitrary weather conditions. The IDF uses artillery fire for an indirect purpose it terms "house calls" - preventing Qassam cells from returning to previous launch sites and redirecting them to other points, where they are hit by other fire. The shells fired on Friday close to the beach south of the former settlement Dugit were intended for that purpose. The safety range of the shells is 200 meters - they are not fired at residential neighborhoods - and flyers are distributed showing a map of the areas that might be hit.

On Friday the Southern Command celebrated the half-accidental killing of Jamal Abu Samhadana (they believed he might visit a training camp from which he had slipped out minutes before the previous bombing). Yesterday they analyzed and synchronized the clocks, orders, ledgers, recordings and films to ascertain the origin of the fire that hit the family, although two other possibilities were not ruled out - that the victims were playing with an unexploded shell from a previous salvo and that a Qassam had struck. A detailed breakdown was performed for the minutes between 4:30 P.M. and 5 P.M. Since the explosion was apparently shortly after 4:30 P.M., air and sea options were ruled out. Of the six shells fired, the flight trajectory and point of contact were identified for five - for all except the first.

The Qassam cells launch rockets in two main directions: northward (Ashkelon, Zikim, Carmia, Nativ Ha'asara) and eastward (Sderot). The activity against them, code-named "Pisga," is the responsibility of the Southern Command, which supplies the intelligence, decisions and artillery, currently by means of a battery that belongs to the Northern Command and is subordinate to the commander of the artillery base Shivta. Airborne activity is controlled by the air force, and naval activity by the Southern Command or the navy, depending on the type of operation.

The navy's observation means, from close range and high altitude, can provide a complete picture of the stretch of beach and of the ruins of the settlements Nisanit, Dugit and Elei Sinai, termed "the northern boundary." This picture, which was scanned again yesterday, does not show the explosion and disorder that would accompany such an incident. According to the timetable from the Palestinian version, the incident occured before the navy began firing and after or during the artillery fire.

In the next few days, until matters calm down, we can expect to see a moderation in Israeli fire - preventive fire will be suspended and only direct fire against cells in the midst of an operation will continue. This could be the preface to a mutual cease-fire, but it is more likely to be a passing phase until the next salvos, which will leave the deliberation in place: to show restraint, to shell or ultimately to return to the places from which the IDF withdrew last August. The only way to thwart such a deplorable result is a Palestinian decision to cancel its causes.