Israeli officials were badly shaken by the success of two 18-year-old men from Jabaliya refugee camp who exited the Gaza Strip undetected and then penetrated the security of nearby Ashdod’s port.
The pair detonated their explosives at separate locations, killing 10 Israeli port workers. One of the men nearly reached his supposed target, a fuel depot, where an explosion could have resulted in far higher casualties.
The operation was jointly claimed by Hamas and Fatah’s military wing, Al- Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. It was the first time since an electrified fence surrounding Gaza was completed several years ago that a suicide attack has been directly launched from Gaza.
A Brigade leader identified only as Abu Qusayy later told the media: “This is a message to the Israelis that all their walls and fences cannot prevent us from infiltrating Israel.”
It was the last message the Israeli prime minister needed to hear. Sharon, who is trying to convince the international community that the wall being built on swaths of Palestinian land in the West Bank is the country’s only route to salvation, called a meeting of the security cabinet on Tuesday. It was agreed to launch a land invasion and revive the assassination of leading figures in the Strip’s militant factions.
A military source was quoted by the Israeli media saying the measures would be “extraordinary in [their] scope, power and duration”.
A general closure of the Gaza Strip, preventing thousands of workers from leaving for jobs in Israel, was also widened to include the West Bank.
The first official victims of the new assault were reported to be two members of Islamic Jihad, Hosni Salfiti and Nasser Yassin, killed late on Tuesday when an Israeli helicopter fired missiles into a building in Gaza City. Fourteen others were wounded, including three children.
It was unclear at the time of going to press whether the target, Islamic Jihad leader Mahmoud Haroubi, had been injured in the attack.
In the immediate wake of Sunday’s suicide bombings an Israeli helicopter gunship hit out at two metal foundries in Gaza City, injuring four Palestinians. Early Tuesday morning two Palestinian policemen were shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers blowing up a college building near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim.
On Wednesday morning helicopter gunships moved into southern Gaza, killing at least three Palestinians and wounding more than a dozen.
The fresh hostilities extinguished hopes of a meeting between Sharon and the Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei scheduled for Tuesday. It would have been their first meeting since Qurei’s appointment in October.
Sharon has been unwilling to meet his Palestinian counterpart since setting out his “unilateral solution” to the conflict in December. Last month that solution took shape as a plan to “disengage” from Gaza — evacuating all or nearly all of the 7,000 settlers from the Strip — without negotiating a handover with the Palestinian leadership.
A unilateral withdrawal is viewed by critics as an attempt to bypass the US- backed roadmap, which envisions a Palestinian state and requires a halt to all Israeli settlement activity.
Sharon hopes the minor loss of the Strip can be offset with major gains in the West Bank — including annexing big settlements and the easing of US pressure over the building of Israel’s apartheid wall.
With the PA struggling to keep control of the Strip in the face of Hamas’s increasing popularity, Sharon hopes the power vacuum left by an Israeli evacuation will provoke a Palestinian civil war. He believes this would seal his argument, in US eyes, that the Palestinians are not ready for statehood.
In recent weeks Sharon has sent a stream of officials to Washington to sell his evacuation plan to the White House. The Bush administration’s major concern is that the region remain quiet in the run-up to presidential elections.
The Palestinian leadership is hoping to impress the US too. It was revealed at the weekend that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and security chief Jibril Rajoub have been working on a proposal to re-establish PA control of Gaza.
The security plan will try to win cross-factional support for a ban on carrying weapons in public and firing mortars at Israeli targets and seeks to establish a security force to patrol the border with Egypt.
Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who met with Arafat and Sharon last week, has been closely involved in drafting the plan. Suleiman is treading a delicate path, not least because Egypt is also being courted — for the first time since Sharon’s election — by Israel.
Sharon needs Egyptian support for the Gaza evacuation plan to persuade the Americans that it is realistic.
If Israel unilaterally pulls out troops from the strip of land along the border known as the Philadelphia Corridor only the Egyptians will stand in the way of arms smuggling. But under its 1979 peace agreement with Israel Egypt is only supposed to have lightly armed police forces operating at the border.
President Hosni Mubarak reassured the Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom last week that Cairo would strengthen its forces close to the border. However, to Israel’s disappointment, he refused to pledge the stationing of troops inside Gaza.
Mubarak is fearful that Sharon may try to use Egyptian soldiers to police the occupation on Israel’s behalf, or that he will hold Cairo responsible for subsequent Palestinian attacks.