Current Gaza fighting reflects new battleground

By The Associated Press

JERUSALEM— With pinpoint airstrikes on militant targets in the Gaza Strip and Iranian-made rockets flying deep into Israel, the current conflagration between Israel and Hamas reflects the vast changes that have taken place on the battlefield in just four years.

Israel, armed with precise intelligence and newly developed munitions, has carried out hundreds of surgical airstrikes in a campaign meant to hit militants hard while avoiding the civilian casualties that have marred previous offensives.

Hamas, meanwhile, has not been stopped from firing its new longer-range rockets that shocked Israelis by reaching the areas around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time, and has revealed a variety of new weapons.

This battle zone is the result of meticulous efforts by both sides to beef up their abilities since a three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009.

At that time, Israel inflicted heavy damage on Hamas. But the operation caused widespread damage to the civilian infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians. The heavy toll drew heavy international criticism and war crimes accusations, despite Israeli protestations that the Islamic militant group was responsible by using schools and residential areas for cover. Thirteen Israelis also were killed in the fighting.

In four days of fighting, Israel has sought to hit clear militant targets — relying on painstaking intelligence gathered through a network of informers, aerial surveillance and other high-tech measures.

Israeli military officials say greater coordination between military intelligence and the Shin Bet security service has allowed deeper infiltration into Hamas ranks and quick decision-making on airstrikes.

An arsenal of high-flying drones constantly hovering above Gaza provides a live picture of movements on the ground.

Other technological means used to avoid collateral damage include specially designed munitions with smaller blowback, a system of sending text messages and automated phone calls to warn residents to vacate areas ahead of strikes and stun explosives that are deployed to create large explosive sounds — to scare off civilians before the real payload is deployed against militants. The officials described the tactics on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

However, the room for error is small. Of the 46 Palestinians killed in the current offensive, 15 have been civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials. In addition, more than 400 civilians have been wounded, the officials say. Israel knows that a single misfire resulting in high numbers of civilian deaths could quickly turn international opinion against it.

The results of the new Israeli tactics were illustrated at the outset of the offensive, when Israel assassinated Hamas’ military chief, Ahmed Jabari, in an airstrike in Gaza City.

In a black and white video released by the military, a car carrying Jabari moves slowly along a narrow road before exploding into flames, sending a large chunk of the vehicle flying skyward without injuring bystanders.

Since then, the Israelis have carried out hundreds of surgical airstrikes against weapon depots, launching pads and other targets. On Saturday morning, for instance, a massive airstrike flattened the headquarters of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh but caused little damage to buildings directly adjacent to it. Curious children quickly arrived to inspect the aftermath.

“Many of the targets that we targeted from the air were in very densely populated areas, sometimes they were even near U.N. facilities or schools or recreation centers,” said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman. “This leads us to develop and use very precise ammunitions in order to minimize casualties … they know Israel has a soft spot for civilian casualties. We have improved significantly in the area.”

Uzi Dayan, a former general and national security adviser, said Israeli intelligence has been tracking Hamas individuals and locations for years, waiting patiently for the opportune moment to attack.

“When you discover a place, you don’t strike it immediately. You track it, observe it and wait,” he said. “Over time, these targets add up.”

Another tool is recruiting informers. The task has become harder since Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and lost the immediate interaction with its assets. But the Shin Bet is still prolific in recruiting Palestinians imprisoned in Israel or those who travel to Israel for medical procedures.

Palestinians claim the Shin Bet often blackmails Palestinians into cooperating by threatening to expose details that would shame them or even get them killed at home.

Hamas’ military wing killed two Palestinians this week for allegedly providing Israel with sensitive information. One man was shot twice in the head. Another body was found tossed into a garbage bin with a gunshot wound to the head.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said thanks to its intelligence Israel immediately destroyed most of the long-range missile threat against it. Still, Israel has been hit by more than 400 rockets in four days of fighting, including attacks against the Tel Aviv heartland and Jerusalem, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.

In several attacks, Hamas said it had unleashed for the first time the most powerful weapons in their arsenal — Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets.

Israel’s inability to halt the rocket attacks, after days of intense aerial bombardments, reflects its limitations. Just as Israel has raced to improve its military tactics, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza have built up their arsenals with large numbers of powerful weapons.

Once limited to crude projectiles manufactured in Gaza, Hamas has used smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt to bring in sophisticated, longer-range rockets from Iran and Libya, which has been flush with weapons since Moammar Gadhafi was ousted last year.

Israel appeared stunned by the attack on Jerusalem, though a day later officials insisted they were aware of the weapon. Hamas said the M-75 missile was made in Gaza, with Iranian assistance.

Hamas officials rejected the Israeli intelligence bravado as propaganda, calling it psychological warfare.

The militants have also done a better job of evading the Israeli military by refraining from using mobile phones or two-way radios and moving frequently from one underground location to another.

In turn, Israel’s “Iron Dome” rocket-defense system has provided the country a defensive boost. The military says the system has intercepted nearly 250 rockets, including one heading toward Tel Aviv on Saturday.

The only Israeli deaths in the fighting so far were three civilians who officials said had ignored well publicized security precautions.

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Israel strike kills 11 civilians in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — An Israeli missile flattened a two-story house in a residential neighborhood of Gaza City on Sunday, killing at least 11 civilians, mostly women and children, Palestinian medical officials said, as Israel expanded a military offensive to target homes of wanted militants.

The attack, which Israel said targeted a militant, was the single deadliest incident of the five-day-old Israeli operation and hiked a toll Sunday that was already the highest number of civilians killed in one day, according to Gaza medics. The bloodshed is likely to raise international pressure for a cease-fire, with Egypt taking the leading role in mediating between Israel and Hamas.

President Barack Obama said he had been in touch with the leaders of Israel, Egypt, and Turkey in an effort to halt the fighting. “We’re going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours,” he said.

Obama cautioned against a potential Israeli ground invasion into Gaza, warning it could only deepen its death toll. At the same time, he blamed Palestinian militants for starting the round of fighting by raining rockets onto Israel, and he defended Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Obama said in Thailand at the start of a three-nation tour in Asia.

An Israeli envoy arrived in Cairo on Sunday and held talks with Egyptian officials on a ceasefire, according to Egyptian security officials and Nabil Shaath, a top aide of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who was in the Egyptian capital.

But Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers remain far apart on any terms for a halt in the bloodshed, which has killed 70 Palestinians – including 36 civilians, according to Gaza health officials – and three Israeli civilians.

Hamas is linking a truce deal to a complete lifting of the border blockade on Gaza imposed since Islamists seized the territory by force. Hamas also seeks Israeli guarantees to halt targeted killings of its leaders and military commanders. Israeli officials reject such demands. They say they are not interested in a “timeout,” and want firm guarantees that militant rocket fire into Israel will finally end. Past ceasefires have been short lived.

As the offensive moved forward, Israel found itself at a crossroads – on the cusp of launching a ground offensive into Gaza to strike an even tougher blow against Hamas, or pursuing Egyptian-led truce efforts.

“The Israeli military is prepared to significantly expand the operation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

At the same time, Gaza militants continued their barrage of rocket fire at Israel, firing more than 100, including two at Tel Aviv. More than 10 Israelis were injured by shrapnel, two moderately, according to police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld. Israel’s “Iron Dome” rocket-defense system shot down at least 30 rockets, including the ones aimed at Tel Aviv.

Israel’s announcement Sunday that it was widening its campaign to target homes of militants appeared to mark a new and risky phase of the operation, given the likelihood of civilian casualties in the densely populated territory of 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel launched the offensive Wednesday in a bid to end months of intensifying rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The day’s deadliest strike hit the home of the Daloo family in Gaza City, reducing the structure to rubble.

Frantic rescuers pulled the bodies of several children from the ruins of the house, including a toddler and a 5-year-old, as survivors and bystanders screamed in grief. Later, the bodies of the children were laid out in the morgue of Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.

Among the 11 dead were four small children and five women, including an 80-year-old, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.

Israeli military spokesman Brig Gen. Yoav Mordechai told Channel 2 TV that the Israeli navy had targeted the building and killed a “global jihad” militant.

“The targets are exact,” Mordechai said. “Every (Israeli) missile has an address.”

He said the army would continue its operation “as if there were no (cease-fire) talks in Egypt.”

The presence of a militant in the house could not be verified. Al-Kidra said the two adult men killed in the strike were civilians.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said that “the Israeli people will pay the price” for the killing of civilians. One of the rocket attacks targeting Tel Aviv came soon after the strike on the Daloo home.

More than a dozen homes of Hamas commanders or families linked to Hamas were struck on Sunday. Though most were empty – their inhabitants having fled to shelter – at least three still had families in them. Al-Kidra said 19 of the 24 people killed Sunday were civilians, mostly women and children.

Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon said civilian casualties are inevitable.

“You can’t avoid collateral damage if they position the rockets in densely populated areas, in mosques, school yards. We shouldn’t be blamed for the outcome,” he said.

Israel also struck two high-rise buildings housing media outlets, damaging the top floor offices of the Hamas TV station, Al Aqsa, and a Lebanese-based broadcaster, Al Quds TV, seen as sympathetic to the Islamists. Six Palestinian journalists were wounded, including one who lost a leg, a Gaza press association said.

Foreign broadcasters, including British, German and Italian TV outlets, also had offices in the high-rises.

Two missiles made a direct hit on Al Aqsa TV’s 15th floor offices, said Bassem Madhoun, an employee of Dubai TV, which has offices in the same building.

Building windows were blown out and glass shards and debris were scattered on the street below. Some of the journalists who had been inside the building at the time took cover in the entrance hallway.

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the strikes targeted Hamas communications equipment on the buildings’ rooftops. She accused the group of using journalists as “human shields,” and urged journalists to stay clear of Hamas bases and facilities.

The repeated militant rocket fire on Tel Aviv and a volley fired Friday toward Jerusalem have significantly escalated the hostilities by widening the militants’ rocket range and putting 3.5 million Israelis, or half the country’s population, within reach. The attempt to strike Jerusalem also has symbolic resonance because both Israel and the Palestinians claim the holy city for a capital.

Israeli radio stations repeatedly interrupted their broadcasts to air “Code Red” alerts warning of impending rocket strikes. In the southern city of Ashkelon, rocket fire damaged a residential building, punching a hole in the ceiling and riddling the facade with shrapnel.

With fighting showing no signs of slowing, international attempts to broker a ceasefire continued.

Nabil Shaath, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who was in Cairo, confirmed that the Israeli envoy had arrived in Egypt for talks, saying there are “serious attempts to reach a ceasefire.” There was no immediate Israeli confirmation.

Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, spoke to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. He told the Egyptian leader he supports such efforts, provided Hamas receives “guarantees that will prevent any future aggression” by Israel, his office said in a statement.

Morsi over the weekend hosted talks with Hamas’ supreme leader, as well as leaders from Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar. He also held contacts with Western leaders.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Israel on Sunday to offer his country’s help toward forging an “immediate ceasefire,” the French government said.

Meeting with Fabius, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman thanked him for “France’s efforts to prevent casualties” but said “the moment that all the terror organizations announce a ceasefire, we can consider all the ideas that French foreign minister and other friends are raising.”