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Israel appears sure that increasing aggression against the Palestinians will lead them to internal collapse whereas it is more certain to lead to a new national uprising, reports Khaled Amayreh

While Western and even some Arab media continue referring to the daily killing by Israel of Palestinian civilians, activists and militants as "clashes", the Israeli occupation army has intensified its brutal onslaught against Palestinian population centres both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In less than five days, the occupation forces killed as many as 29 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom innocent civilians, including eight teenagers, five members of the same family, and a mother of five children. Dozens of other civilians were badly injured, many by new and lethal secret Israeli weapons that cut through flesh right to the bone.

Palestinian and international medical authorities have now proven beyond doubt that Israel is using new deadly weapons, including in densely populated areas, resulting in the killing and maiming of scores of peoples. Medical sources in Gaza have been speaking of more than 35 amputations in less than two months. By the time of Al-Ahram Weekly going to press, a large Israeli force, backed up by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, was rampaging in the small Palestinian town of Kabatya, just south of northernmost West Bank town of Jenin. So far, four Palestinians have been reported killed, including three teenagers the Israeli army claimed were hurling stones towards Israeli troops.

As always, Israeli troops share an implicit understanding that they are free to shoot and kill Palestinians, including children, seen throwing stones on army jeeps. In the course of the Al-Aqsa Intifada hundreds of Palestinian children and teenagers were extra- judicially executed for throwing stones, and not necessarily at, or on, but even towards Israeli tanks or jeeps.

In Gaza, the Israeli army has been carrying out daily and nightly incursions across the Strip, bombing and bombarding civilian neighbourhoods, destroying homes and killing inhabitants indiscriminately. Palestinian medical sources reported that at least 23 Palestinians, mostly innocent civilians, were killed in Gaza within 48 hours (an average of one Palestinian every two hours). Most of the killings occurred as a result of air strikes by F-16 fighter jets that bomb unprotected and undefended targets, particularly residential homes where innocent civilians are asleep.

This week the Israeli air force bombed with air-to-ground missiles several residential homes in Gaza, including the home of Um Nidal Farhat, a Gaza lawmaker, who lost three sons during the last Intifada. The Israeli army gave no convincing justification for the bombing of the Farhat's home beyond alluding to the fact that she was a supporter of Hamas. The Israeli air force recently bombed and destroyed several family homes on no other grounds than the owners being supporters of Hamas.

This manifestly criminal policy -- destroying civilian homes is a war crime under international law -- is an extension of erstwhile Israeli practices against Palestinians when the homes and businesses of people linked to the armed resistance were bombed.

What explains this increase in Israeli savagery? First, Israeli officials say they want to apply the "lessons from the Lebanon war" in Gaza by making sure that Palestinians are not allowed to build up significant military defences that could harm the Israeli army during recurrent murderous incursions into Palestinian towns and villages. In other words, Israel wants to ensure that the wanton killing of Palestinians remains as cost- free as it has hitherto been. Figures from the last three months of Israeli violence in Gaza betray the policy: 270 persons killed and many more maimed and mutilated on the Palestinian side, with only one soldier killed on the Israeli side.

Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz, eager to compensate for the "shortcoming" in Lebanon by getting tough on the Palestinians was quoted this week by Haaretz newspaper as acknowledging that the Israeli government had already approved an intensification of "the war on terror", including the use of ground and air forces. "We will not approve the transformation of the Gaza Strip into South Lebanon. We will strike at everyone, and it doesn't matter what organisation they belong to," said Peretz, flaunting the principle that collective punishment and extra- judicial assassination are illegal under international law and the laws of occupation.

The second reason for increasing Israeli savagery, parroted unceasingly by Israeli spokespersons and media, is to halt the firing of homemade projectiles from Gaza into Israel. This rationale, while having some semblance of reasonability, is misleading. These mostly innocuous projectiles rarely cause death or damage and shouldn't be viewed as anything more than a desperate Palestinian response to unrelenting Israeli aggression. How many Israelis have been killing by these "missiles" during the past three years? No more than three, whereas over 1000 Palestinians were killed in the same period in "retaliatory" Israeli aggression.

A third ostensible reason for the present escalation is to try to locate the whereabouts of an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian resistance fighters nearly four months ago. Israel has been refusing to strike a prisoner swap deal with the Palestinians in the hope that the Israeli army would succeed in finding and freeing the soldier, which would also give a moral boost to the government of Ehud Olmert, significantly weakened by the recent war with Hizbullah. However, the equally determined refusal of the Palestinian resistance factions to release the soldier unconditionally, as Israel has been demanding, has given Israel a comfortable pretext to ramp up its killing.

Indeed, since the soldier was taken prisoner 25 June, the Israeli army has killed more than 250 Palestinians, the vast bulk innocent civilians. This is in addition to the wanton bombing and destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza, including bridges, schools, streets, government buildings, residential homes and Gaza's sole power station. The captured soldier notwithstanding, it is clear that the main driving force behind the escalating Israeli aggression is to destroy or at least seriously weaken the Hamas-led government that refuses to surrender to Israel.

By repeatedly bombing the Palestinian prime minister's headquarters, the Interior Ministry, and also by detaining en masse Palestinian government ministers and lawmakers in the West Bank, Israel has demonstrated that destroying or paralysing the Palestinian government is a top priority.

Now, there are reports that Israel is planning to assassinate government officials, including Interior Minister Said Siyam. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is defiant: "they used every conceivable act of inhumanity and cruelty, including starving our people and sowing divisiveness in our ranks, but have failed to bring this government down. Now they are stepping up their criminal aggression in order to topple this government and install another one that would bow to their political agenda."

Israel appears hopeful that in the case of failing to topple the Hamas- led government its policies would at least trigger civil war between Fatah and Hamas. It is a miscalculation. Indeed, it is ever more clear that escalated inter-Palestinian conflict would soon evolve into a new Intifada against Israel. Both Hamas and Fatah realise that they can retain their support bases only through fighting Israeli occupiers, the root cause of Palestinian misery and suffering.

Any intensification, henceforth, of Israeli aggression in Gaza and the West Bank might well lead to a renewal of the Al-Aqsa Intifada or even to the outbreak of a new type of Intifada characterised, at least in part, by Al-Qaeda-like violence. Even organisations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad would look moderate compared to what might then appear.

C a p t i o n : A Palestinian woman sits on the rubble of her demolished house in Rafah after it was hit by an Israeli air strike

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