Israel's Response to Rocket Fire Seen as Declaration of War by Hamas

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Hamas threatened to resume its suicide bomb attacks on Israel Thursday after the Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas facility in the Gaza Strip. Later, the air force struck a vehicle carrying Hamas terrorists, the army confirmed.

In response, Hamas spokesman Abu Ubaida was quoted as saying that "the Zionist enemy has declared war." Ubaida added that "all options are open, including martyrdom [suicide] operations."

Israelis are fed up with Hamas' continual rocket attacks -- more than 70 rockets fired in the last two days. The border city of Sderot is taking the brunt of them, and the Israeli government said this week it would "find a way to respond" to the attacks.

Israel's limited response came on Thursday with the air strikes. In addition, a few Israeli tanks rolled into the Gaza Strip in an apparent show of force. But the Israeli government said Thursday's moves are not part of a large-scale incursion.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with his security cabinet on Wednesday and decided on a "harsh and severe response" to the rocket fire.

But as of midday Thursday, at least 13 rockets had been fired at Israel, including one that hit a school.

Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisen said Israel's policy of restraint in Gaza had come to an end. "We restrained ourselves for five months out of respect to the Palestinian President [Mahmoud Abbas]," Eisen said by telephone. But Israel intends to defend its citizens, she said.

Last November, Israel agreed not to carry out operations inside the Gaza Strip, despite continual provocations from the other side.

Since Israel evacuated all Gaza Strip settlements in the summer of 2005, Olmert has been reluctant to re-enter the area, even though Israeli intelligence officials say Hamas is conducting a massive arms buildup there. One official was quoted this week as saying that the situation in Gaza poses a strategic threat to Israel.

Most experts agree that a full-scale ground invasion eventually will be needed to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza and get rid of the tons of weaponry and ammunition there.

Civilians suffering

Meanwhile, civilians on both sides are suffering.

The Jerusalem Post offered eyewitness accounts from the rocket-pelted Israeli town of Sderot and from Palestinians caught in the cross-fire in the Gaza Strip. Those eyewitness reports appeared side-by-side in Thursday's edition.

In Gaza, Associated Press journalist Ibrahim Barzak, 30, said that he had never seen the situation so bad.

"Today I have seen people shot before my eyes, I heard the screams of terrified women and children in a burning building, and I argued with gunmen who wanted to take over my home," Barzak wrote.

According to the al-Jazeera website, Gaza has turned into a "ghost town," with terrified people hiding indoors from the Hamas-Fatah battles raging outside.

Al Jazeera quoted one store owner as saying he didn't understand what the security forces are fighting over. The store owner said he expects the violence to subside eventually, then start up again. "We're in a maelstrom and I can't really see a way out," he was quoted as saying.

In Israel, Masha Rifkin, an American student who is volunteering in Sderot, described the hysterical reaction of one young mother pushing a baby carriage when the alarm sounded to warn of incoming rockets.

"What do you picture when you read about Sderot's 'anxiety victims?'" Masha wrote. "It's this woman, convulsing, flailing. It's her inability to think rationally - to protect her child. She was only able to collapse, beating the ground."

Israel's Defense Ministry temporarily evacuated about 250 residents of Sderot for their own protection on Thursday.

US says 'stop it'

The United States is urging rival Palestinian factions to end the violence plaguing the Gaza Strip, but the factions aren't listening.

"We're concerned about the violence in Gaza," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said at a May 16 briefing. "We want to see that stop."

Dozens of militants have been killed in four days of clashes between Hamas forces loyal to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Hamas-Fatah violence comes two months after the two sides entered into a national unity government that was intended to stop the in-fighting and end an international boycott of the Hamas-led P.A.

Casey said the violence is counterproductive for the Palestinians. "This is something that certainly does nothing to help advance the cause of the Palestinian people," he said. "It certainly doesn't help bring them any closer to achieving the Palestinian state that people want and desire, and it certainly doesn't help the humanitarian situation for the Palestinian people."

Casey also condemned the Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel. "It's a fundamental obligation of the Palestinian Authority to stop them," he said.

Casey called on all parties to work with Abbas to calm the situation. The U.S is backing Abbas as a moderate, but many inside Israel say that's a mistake.

See Earlier Stories:
Hamas Trying to Drag Israel Into Gaza Fighting (May 16, 2007)
Rocket Attacks Draw Warning From Israel (May 14, 2007)

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