Israel warns of ‘long war’

Palestinian rocket hits vacant Israeli school as troops kill activist

GAZA CITY — It has been hot and humid in Gaza in the past days. In itself, the weather is uncomfortable, but with electricity often out at night and no recourse to fans or air conditioning, people have hardly been sleeping.

“We stay up until one or two,” said Um Motaz, a resident of the Jabaliya neighbourhood of Gaza City. “Earlier its too hot, and no one can sleep. We stay outside, because we have to use gas lights to see, and inside it’s too hot,” the 52-year-old grandmother added.

Um Motaz, like most Gazans, has had to do without electricity for most of the night ever since Israeli planes destroyed Gaza’s only electricity generator and with it 50 per cent of the strip’s electricity supply.

At Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, the lack of electricity has put lives at risk. Functioning mainly on three emergency generators, doctors live in constant fear that one of those will break down.

Dr. Thabet Al Masri, head of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, cannot stress the danger enough. Shifa has seen a spike in premature births in the last ten days, something doctors attribute to Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier over Gaza’s airspace and the resulting fear and stress brought on by the sonic booms.

Every incubator in the neonatal unit is occupied.

“A few minutes without electricity,” Masri said repeatedly, “and we’d have two rooms full of dead babies.”

But there is little likelihood of lives improving soon in Gaza. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Israeli military’s escalated activities in and over the Gaza Strip were meant to make Gazans’ lives “uncomfortable”. Yesterday, he warned that the area was in for a “long war”.

“It requires lots of patience, sometimes endless restraint. We have to know when to clench our teeth and to deal a decisive blow,” Olmert told a press conference in southern Israel.

The Israeli premier once again reiterated that Israel would not negotiate to secure the freedom of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, despite the passing of a deadline by the soldier’s captors early Tuesday morning.

“We won’t negotiate with terror elements and we won’t let anyone believe that kidnapping is a tool to bring Israel to its knees,” he said.

He also said he had ordered the army to push forward with efforts “to strike terrorists and those who sent them and those who sponsor them,” a possible reference to Syria. “None of them will be immune.”

Palestinian sources said Israeli tanks had moved further into the strip in parts of northern Gaza. The Karni crossing where humanitarian goods and other staples can pass into the strip was opened briefly yesterday, but the Erez crossing was closed after a reported Qassam rocket attack in the area.

The three groups holding the soldier had set a 6:00am deadline for Israel to begin releasing some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, including the some 400 female and underage prisoners. In all, Israel holds around 9,000 Palestinians. There are still no details on Shalit’s condition, although Israeli officials believe he suffered light wounds and is still alive.

After the deadline passed, a spokesman for the Army of Islam, one of the groups holding the soldier, said Shalit’s captors “have decided to freeze all contacts and close the files of this soldier.”

“We will not give any information that will give the occupation good news or reassurance,” said the spokesman, Abu Muthana. But, he added, it would be against Islam to harm the soldier, and, “we will not kill the soldier, if he is still alive.”

Israeli Cabinet Minister Roni Bar-On, who is close to Olmert, threatened harsh action if the soldier was harmed.

“It’s safe to say… the sky will fall on them if Gilad Shalit is harmed,” he added. “If he is killed, we will react in ways the Palestinians haven’t seen before.”

Despite the tough public line, Israeli officials have privately said they would consider other options to get Shalit back. The Israeli chief-of-staff on Monday pointedly refused to rule out negotiations. Israel has released prisoners before in lopsided exchanges for captured citizens or the bodies of soldiers killed in battle. But Olmert’s rhetoric would seem to have left him little room to back down.

On Tuesday, Hamas’ armed wing claimed responsibility for a homemade rocket attack on a vacant high school in southern Israel, and Olmert called it “a major escalation in the war of terror”.

The missile, fired from the Gaza Strip, caused extensive damage to the school but no injuries in the city of Asqalan, the army said. The armed wing of Hamas sent a fax to the Associated Press office in Gaza City saying it had carried out the attack.

In a speech at the home of US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones, marking the American Fourth of July holiday, Olmert said the attack was an “attempt meant to harm Israeli civilians that live within the sovereign borders of Israel, and it will have far-reaching consequences. The Hamas organisation will be the first to feel this.”

In Gaza City, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, meanwhile, called on Shalit’s captors to protect the soldier and expressed hope for a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

“The government is exerting efforts with Palestinian, Arab and regional parties to end this case in the appropriate manner,” Haniyeh said at the opening of a Cabinet meeting, the first held since Israel arrested eight Palestinian ministers last week.

He said the government reiterates the need “to continue the political, diplomatic and negotiation efforts and not to close the door and use the language of wisdom and logic to end this.”

But Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil earlier said the group had cut off talks with the Egyptians because of the lack of an Israeli response. “It’s unreasonable to keep negotiating when there are no offers,” he said.

“If there was a feeling there was an Israeli offer… I think we could reopen the door,” he added.

In Jenin, Fidaa Abu Qandil, 20, from Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, local medical and security sources told Agence France-Presse.

The latest death brought to 5,130 the number of people killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence since the start of the Intifada in September 2000, most of them Palestinians, according to an AFP toll.

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