Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Iran is increasing its influence over Palestinian terrorism through Hizballah's involvement in terror attacks that target the remnants of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, a senior Israeli military official said on Tuesday.
There has been an escalation in attempts by terrorists during the last few months to strike at "islands of sanity" -- places where Israelis and Palestinians have continued to work together despite the troubles, said Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, the Israel Defense Forces (Army) spokeswoman.
Yaron pointed to the Erez crossing point and Industrial Zone in the Gaza Strip as examples of the developing terrorist phenomenon.
"The Erez Industrial Park was for many, many years an island...of sanity in a sea of insanity," Yaron told members of the foreign press on Tuesday.
"As terrorism was raging around it, the Erez crossing...was feeding tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, was a secured island where Israeli and Palestinian industrialists were working together shoulder to shoulder and minding...their own business and dealing with the economy and the welfare of their own people," she said.
Thousands of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip worked in the 170 Israeli and Palestinian factories in the joint industrial park, which is seen by Israel as a bastion of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, even during the last three and half years of violence and trouble.
Thousands more crossed through the Erez checkpoint daily to go to work in Israel. (Tens of thousands used to cross prior to the outbreak of Palestinian violence when they were prevented from doing so for security reasons.)
Even two years ago, Palestinians working in the industrial zone had to run the gauntlet between stringent Israeli security and Hamas threats to arrive at their jobs, which paid above average wages. Now a spate of terror attacks there may change even that.
"We have managed throughout the years to preserve this island of sanity," Yaron said. "This island [was] a good example of almost coexistence that could reign here in the region, and it was this specific target that the Palestinians, especially the Hamas, have targeted."
In the last few months, 14 people have been killed at Erez, including four Israeli security guards who were killed by a female suicide bomber. Prior to that attack, Israel almost never closed the industrial park, because doing so was seen as a victory for Hamas. Israeli crackdowns boosted the militants' popularity.
"To a certain degree...industrialists both Israeli and Palestinian are saying that this industrial park is ruined," Yaron said. "It will be almost impossible to go back to where we were...allowing more than 15,000 Palestinian families to get their daily living out of this place."
Yaron also pointed to the Karni crossing point, which was a secured area, where Palestinian businessmen were able to continue their trade and through which they could export their goods.
In March, two terrorists hid in a large shipping container entering Israel through the Karni crossing and carried out a double suicide bombing at the Israeli seaport of Ashdod, killing 10 Israelis. In the last few days, the Army discovered two explosives belts at Karni, Yaron said.
"The terrorist organizations are aiming specifically at those points where ...the Israeli society and the Palestinian society [are] meeting...where we are able, in spite of the madness that goes on in the war against terror, to secure certain islands of sanity...that will enable the Palestinian society to go on with their daily life in spite of what's going on in there," she said.
Hizballah behind the attacks
Although Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Tanzim, the military wing of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, may be responsible for carrying such terror attacks, the Lebanese-based Hizballah also is playing a greater role, Yaron said.
Hizballah, funded and ideologically linked to Iran and logistically aided by Syria, considered itself victorious over Israel after Israel withdrew its troops unilaterally from a swath of land in southern Lebanon, known as the security zone, it had secured for 18 years against terror attacks along its northern border.
As such, the Palestinians have looked toward the Hizballah as a role model. But now the organization is getting more directly involved in the terrorist war against Israel.
"For us the Hizballah is not the name of an enemy on our northern border only," said Yaron.
"The Hizballah is very much present in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and Gaza. The unseen bond and the unseen connection existing between the Hizballah and the Hamas and the Tanzim and the Islamic Jihad is unveiling more and more in the past few months," she said.
According to Yaron, Hizballah is not only sending funds, but also is giving instructions and advising on methods of operations. The trail does not end with the militant Islamic group, however..
"We understand that we have to connect the dots," she said. "What we are facing here is a war against terror that does not begin and does not end with a certain local terrorist organization in Gaza or in Nablus [in the West Bank]...
"We will have to look at the Hizballah and understand, [that] the long hand of the Hizballah is reaching much farther than only our northern border and we have to understand that the Hizballah is the extended arm of countries like Iran and Syria who are supporting, sheltering, financing and directing terrorism," Yaron said.
They must be held accountable, she added.
Both Iran and Syria are on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. Iran was named by President Bush as one of three countries in the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.
Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act late last year requiring President Bush to slap sanctions on Syria if Damascus did not stop supporting terrorist organizations and end its occupation of Lebanon.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has rejected a U.S. demand that he close down the offices of some one dozen Palestinian terrorist groups headquartered in his capital, saying that they are merely public relations offices for the groups. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is based in Damascus.
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