Israel Readies Ground Troops for Gaza Operation
By CHARLES LEVINSON in Tel Aviv, MATT BRADLEY in Gaza City and SAM DAGHER in Cairo, TEL AVIV (WSJ)—Israel’s military stepped up its mobilizations for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Friday after Palestinian rockets struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as neighboring Egypt escalated its own war of words against Israel.
Late Friday, Israel’s cabinet approved the call-up of 75,000 Israeli reservists, more than doubling the number authorized the previous day. Heavy armor and soldiers from two elite brigades continued to mass at staging grounds on the Gaza border. A decision to launch a ground invasion could come within 24 to 36 hours if rocket fire continues, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told CNN on Friday.
“They don’t call up all these reserves to keep people standing in the stands watching,” said a senior Israeli military official. “After rockets on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it’s pretty hard not to” order a ground invasion.
For three hours on Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited the Gaza Strip and stood hand-in-hand with leaders of Hamas, the militant and political group that rules Gaza. Coming after two days of Israeli strikes there, it was a bold show of support for Hamas from Cairo as well as a diplomatic gambit to gain a break in the fighting.
Israel had pledged to hold its fire during Mr. Qandil’s three-hour visit. But rockets from the Palestinian territory could be heard taking off toward Israel, even as the Egyptian premier spoke to reporters.
The emerging question in the latest conflict—which was sparked by a rise in Gazan rocket attacks on Israel earlier this month, and broke into the open when Israel assassinated Hamas’s top military commander on Wednesday—is how far Egypt’s new Islamist government can extend itself on the behalf of its ideological allies in Hamas.
Egypt is a peace partner of Israel. Its gasping economy depends on Western largess and its military largely is funded by the U.S. In recent days, U.S. President Barack Obama has been in contact with Egypt’s recently elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, aimed at bringing Hamas in line.
“Morsi’s room to maneuver is very limited,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group. “He is dependent on the West. Everything he has done so far is pretty standard, not very different than what [former President Hosni] Mubarak would have done. Even sending the PM to Gaza, he declared that only after his conversation with Obama. So he’s not out there acting unilaterally.”
If Israel’s leaders give the order for a ground assault on Gaza, it would be the first such operations since 2009 and would plunge Israel’s government into risky territory—risking soldier casualties and steep political fallout should the operation go awry, and jeopardizing its international backing.
Israel’s three-week ground war against Hamas in 2009 left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead, and destroyed entire villages and much of Gaza’s infrastructure. Israel’s image tanked internationally as it fended off war-crimes accusations.
On Mr. Morsi’s orders, Mr. Qandil arrived in Gaza on Friday morning to demonstrate his new government’s clear policy break from Mr. Mubarak’s more-pro-Israeli regime. In a visit unprecedented for such a senior Egyptian official, he met with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh before visiting wounded civilians at a crowded Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
In a chaotic news conference at Shifa Hospital amid hundreds of reporters and blood-spattered doctors, Messrs. Qandil and Haniyeh blasted Israeli aggression and declared a new unified front against Israel.
“It isn’t a matter of individuals, not a matter of community. It is a matter of a nation. The Arab nation, the Islamic nation,” Mr. Qandil said. “We are all behind you, the struggling nation, the heroic that is presenting its children as heroes every day.”
It remained unclear what message Mr. Qandil relayed to Hamas. In the days leading up to Wednesday’s Israeli attack, Egypt was busily trying to broker a cease-fire between the combatants. A Western diplomat in Israel said the Israeli offensive had further angered Egypt’s government because Cairo believed that Israel had feigned interest in the Egyptian-mediated talks earlier in the week as a diversionary tactic so that Hamas would let its guard down.
The Israeli government remains confident that, despite the tough talk from Mr. Morsi’s government, there was little risk that Egypt would do anything to undermine the peace treaty with Israel. “There’s ongoing dialog and channels open between the defense establishments of Egypt and Israel,” a senior defense official said.
One of the missiles fired from Gaza during Mr. Qandil’s visit set off sirens in Tel Aviv for a second straight day, followed by a loud explosion. Israeli police officials said the rocket appeared to have fallen into the sea off Tel Aviv. Another rocket, fired on Thursday, was intercepted by Israel’s missile defense system. Later Friday, two rockets hit near Jerusalem, falling harmlessly in open areas, according to Israeli officials.
The strikes on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—the first ever for Palestinian rocket teams—underscored the significant upgrade to Hamas’s weapons arsenal in recent years, which could also increase the costs of a ground invasion.
Meanwhile, Israeli forces were preparing for a possible offensive. Of the 75,000 reservists approved late Friday for call-up, 16,000 have been called. The military posted and emailed pictures of its elite paratroopers preparing equipment near Gaza’s border.
“A ground maneuver is a political decision,” said Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman. “But we’re ready to carry out the order whenever it comes.”
If Israel halted its offensive now, even with a reciprocal cease-fire agreement from Hamas, the strikes on Israel’s two most important cities would remain the enduring memories of the conflict and could allow Hamas to claim victory, the defense official said.
Hamas officials accused Israel’s air force of targeting the home of Prime Minister Haniyeh’s home Thursday evening amid a massive overnight escalation. Mr. Haniyeh wasn’t there at the time, Hamas said, and it was unclear whether his home was in fact hit. If true, the accusation that Israel targeted a nominally elected top leadership figure in Hamas would mark a serious uptick in Israel’s controversial “targeted killing” effort against Hamas leaders.
Israeli officials denied targeting Mr. Haniyeh’s home.
By Friday evening, Israel’s military said it had carried out over 500 strikes in Gaza. In a single hour early Friday morning, the military said it hit 70 different targets, mostly earthen pits militants use as launchpads in central and northern Gaza.
Palestinian militants have fired approximately 600 rockets at Israel since hostilities began, including more than 150 on Friday. Of those 400 have struck Israel, but only 30 have hit urban areas, according to the military. Israel’s newly deployed Iron Dome missile defense system has intercepted 180 urban-bound rockets, the military says.
Israel’s strikes have killed 28 Palestinians, about half of them militants, and wounded over 270, according to Gaza health officials. Three Israelis have been killed in a single rocket strike on an apartment complex in southern Israel on Thursday.