Sunday

22nd Jan 2017

EU sees likelihood of Israeli ground attack on Gaza

  • Gaza after the Israeli ground attack in 2009 (Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

EU diplomats believe Israel will launch a ground invasion of Gaza if a Hamas rocket causes serious Israeli casualties.

The concerns come amid rapid escalation in fighting over the past four days.

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Hamas, the Palestinian militant group which rules Gaza, says Israeli strikes have killed more than 100 people, including “at least” 35 children.

Israel says Hamas is responsible for 490 rocket attacks. None of them have claimed Israeli casualties so far, in part due to Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

But Israel has made preparations for a ground assault and has designated three objectives if it goes ahead: to destroy Hamas’ stockpile of some 12,000 rockets, to demolish its undergound tunnels to Israel, and to force ceasefire terms that will prevent future attacks.

An EU diplomatic source told EUobserver on Friday (11 July): “If they [Hamas] … hit a kindergarten or a school and there are serious [Israeli] casualties, then that will spark all sorts of consequences, including a ground assault”.

The contact noted it is “difficult to predict” how EU countries would react.

He added: “We are, obviously, against a ground incursion - it will lead to more destruction and more deaths. But at the same time this massive barrage of rocket attacks out of Gaza has to stop … you can’t have a whole country [Israel] under rocket attacks every day”.

For his part, the Israeli ambassador to the EU, David Walzer, told press in Brussels the same day that EU governments sympathise with Israel’s actions so far.

“Until now, the EU and most member states, but not all, have expressed a fairly receptive understanding of the need to put an end to that [Hamas rocket fire], that Hamas is responsible for what we are seeing, and that Israel has a right to defend itself. But everybody is worried about possible escalation”, he said.

He said Israeli forces are doing all they can to minimise civilian deaths.

He added, on a personal note, that he feels “disturbed” by the number of civilian casualties. “I am more disturbed by civilian deaths [in Gaza] than I am about what you [the media] write about us [Israel]”, the diplomat said.

But Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister, accused Walzer of crocodile tears.

He told EUobserver by phone from Gaza City on Friday that Israel is “killing civilians on purpose” in what constitutes a “crime against humanity”.

When asked if Hamas is targeting Israeli civilians, he said: “In general, our policy is to avoid targeting civilians. But when Israel starts to do this, sometimes we find ourselves also obliged to do that”.

He added: “We expect the EU to be more active and to try to influence the situation. It doesn’t help to sit and be calm and quiet. We don’t hear of any EU activity to stop the Israeli aggression. But when we try to defend ourselves, they publish statements condemning our actions”.

The two sides have diametrically opposed narratives on the conflict.

Israel says Hamas started it on 12 June by increasing rocket fire because it is facing a crisis in popular support inside Gaza.

Hamas says Israel started it by arresting hundreds of Hamas members in the West Bank in late June in its search for three kidnapped, later found murdered, Israeli teenagers.

“Hamas believes this is the right time for a show of force against Israel”, Walzer said.

“Israel started the aggression … the situation was quiet and clam, but then Israel started targeting our people in the West Bank,” Hamad noted.

The EU diplomatic source said it is “very difficult” to verify the “claims and counter-claims”.

He added it is “depressing” that “nothing has changed in the situation since 2009”.

Israel’s last ground assault on Gaza five years ago killed some 1,500 Palestinians and saw 13 Israeli soldiers die. EU states at the time froze plans to upgrade Israeli diplomatic relations in response.

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