Gaza City, Oct 3 – Israeli pilots carried out a series of air strikes accompanied by artillery barrages throughout the Gaza Strip, targeting civilian infrastructure, assassinating militants and striking fear into the population with deafening noise as low-flying F-16 fighter jets shatter the sound barrier overhead day and night.
Coming only weeks after the completion of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza “disengagement,” the offensive by the Israeli Air Force is officially ongoing, though strikes have been suspended for some days following a unilateral ceasefire observed by Hamas militants.
Dubbed “Operation First Rain,” the offensive is ostensibly designed to target terrorists responsible for firing improvised rockets into the southern Israeli town of Sderot, injuring several people. A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told The NewStandard that militants fired a total of 37 rockets and three mortar shells from Gaza between Friday, September 23 and Tuesday, September 27, when the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad declared an end to the rocket attacks.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said publicly that Israel would respond to the attacks with an “iron fist,” and Israeli retaliation continued for days after Hamas’s missiles fell silent.
“If the sleep of Sderot’s children is disturbed and there’s a feeling of insecurity among some Sderot residents, the same will be true for Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad leaders,” he told reporters on the Gazaâ€“Israel border.
The insecurity in Gaza, however, is felt far beyond the Palestinian militias. In addition to political offices, metal shops and warehouses, Israeli warplanes and helicopters have fired missiles at civilian infrastructure including a roadway, school, bridge, residential homes, and two power generators that were struck early Wednesday morning, cutting off electricity to Gaza City’s 500,000 residents for hours.
The sonic booms that erupt when F-16 fighter jets break the sound barrier over the tiny coastal strip often knock pictures from the walls of Palestinian homes. Residents are compelled to keep their windows open lest the pressure blow them out. The sporadic, thunderous claps rattle the nerves of adults and children alike.
[PHOTO: The collapsed ceiling of the Al-Arqam elementary school in Gaza City. Israeli An Israeli military spokesperson told The NewStandard the school was bombed becuase "it was bringing up the next generation of Hamas members." © Jon Elmer 2005]
Sajida Srour, the director of a kindergarten and nursery school in Gaza City, said the children â€“ long accustomed to F-16s â€“ scream whenever the sonic booms rip through the air, and it is not uncommon for the children to wet themselves.
If insecurity is the goal, the air raids have been effective, added Fadi Srour, who is among the staff at his mother’s nursery. “It works. People are terrified.”
Gaza residents told TNS that deafening booms from low-flying supersonic aircraft constitute a tactic that was not used by the Israeli Air Force when Jewish settlers lived in Gaza.
Israel also resumed its policy of assassination this week, killing senior Islamic Jihad leader Mohammad Sheikh Khalil on Sunday with a targeted strike at his car on a busy Gaza City street. The Israeli military killed four others it said were suspected militants in two separate attacks in Gaza.
Mofaz threatened to widen the targeted killings. “If Hamas [leaders] Mahmoud Al-Zahar, Ismail Haniyeh and others continue to shoot Qassam [rockets], we will send them to where Yassin and Rantisi are now,” the minister said, referring to the assassinations of Hamas co-founders Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi, killed by Israeli air strikes in early 2004.
Israel has assassinated more than 150 Palestinian military and political leaders during the five-year uprising.
According to a Palestine Red Crescent Society report, the Israeli air strikes injured at least 32 civilians throughout the week, including an infant who was among the 22 wounded when Israel bombed the Dar Al-Arqam school in Gaza City on Saturday.
Abu Yassin, who lives across the street from the school, said the two missiles that struck the school sounded similar to the sonic booms, “except this time we saw a huge flash of light, followed by screaming and crying and then the sound of sirens as ambulances came to evacuate the wounded.”
Large sections of the school were destroyed as floors collapsed on top of one another. Crushed and mangled desks and chairs were left covered in a thick concrete dust. Several nearby houses were sprayed with large pieces of shrapnel, and a large chunk of the school’s floor tiling lay in Abu Yassin’s garden.
Dar Al-Arqam is an Islamic boys school in the Tufah district of Gaza City. The school is part of Hamas’s expansive social infrastructure throughout Gaza, which includes daycares, hospitals and economic welfare programs.
Al-Arqam’s more than 1,000 students are predominately in the elementary grades; enrollment is open to all Palestinians, and the school operates under a Palestinian Authority license.
Israel, however, makes no distinction between the civilian and military infrastructure of Hamas. Israeli Captain Yael Hartmann told TNS that the school was targeted because “it was bringing up the next generation of Hamas members.”
The day after the attack, hundreds of school children took to the streets in protest of the bombing.
The Palestinian rocket fire began early on the morning of Friday, September 23 in response to an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Tul Karm during which Israel killed three Islamic Jihad militants. The rockets increased following an explosion at a Hamas rally in the Gaza refugee camp of Jabalya on Friday afternoon, which killed 21 Palestinians and injured more than 60, including many children. Hamas blamed Israel, but most other sources claim the explosion was an accident involving Hamas weaponry. Hamas has since formally discontinued all armed rallies.
On Wednesday, Israel fired artillery into the Gaza Strip, hitting a field outside Beit Hanoun from where many of the rockets were fired.
The chief of Operation First Rain, Major General Yisrael Zvi, told reporters that Israel may use artillery against civilian homes in the densely populated area of northern Gaza. “We will warn residents, make sure they leave, and then fire artillery into the area,” he said without elaborating on how they would ensure the population â€“ some 100,000 people â€“ had fled.
“The Israel Defense Forces will turn this town into a demilitarized zone,” Zvi added in reference to Beit Hanoun.
Israeli forces, armor and artillery are currently amassed on the Gaza border, threatening a ground invasion.
On Sunday, Captain Hartmann characterized Operation First Rain as a “success” and told TNS that the offensive would continue despite Hamas’s public statements and adherence to a ceasefire since Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Wednesday marked the end of the fifth year of the Palestinian uprising that began on September 28, 2000. In the fifth year, the least deadly thus far, 425 Palestinians and 56 Israelis died in violence, according to data collected from the IDF, Israeli Foreign Ministry and human rights group B’Tselem, Ha’aretz reported.