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What’s Behind Deadly Attacks in Southern Israel?

August 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Squads of gunman killed at least eight people and wounded 20 others Thursday in southern Israel in a series of strikes that drew swift retaliation from the Israeli military. Ray Suarez discusses what's behind the new violence with Calev Ben-David of Bloomberg News.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Late today, Egypt said two of its security officers were killed along the border, as Israeli forces chased the gunmen.

Before that development, I spoke with Calev Ben-David, Israel bureau chief of Bloomberg News in Jerusalem.

Calev, has it been some time since there’s been an attack on Israeli soil against civilians with this kind of loss of life?

CALEV BEN-DAVID, Bloomberg News: Absolutely. I mean, this is the — with this kind of loss of life, it’s been three years, a little more than three years since there was an attack at a religious school here in Jerusalem.

So, this is the most severe attack in that time. And really, even then, it was a lone terrorist. We haven’t had this kind — I can’t recall the last time we have had this scope of a terrorist attack.

RAY SUAREZ: Eilat is in Israel’s far south, very close to the Egyptian frontier and the Jordanian frontier. Has it been vulnerable to attacks of this kind before?

CALEV BEN-DAVID: Yes, there have been in recent years primarily rocket attacks. Last — a year ago, there were rocket attacks fired from Egypt, from the Sinai that hit both Eilat and also into — fell into Jordan.

I mean, we have — Israel has a real security problem now with the with the — with Sinai. The Israeli military feels that the Egyptian security forces have basically lost control of areas of Sinai and have really made it a territory from which terrorists can launch attacks into the south of Israel.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the defense minister, Ehud Barak, said the Egyptian grip over Sinai is weakening as the — as a result, a direct result, of the current events in Egypt.

Has that brought a different kind of response from Israel itself? Has it had to watch its own western border more carefully?

CALEV BEN-DAVID: Yes.

This is the southern border. And it’s definitely had to increase its vigilance on this border. It’s also on occasion had to give Egypt permission to bring in some more security forces to deal, for example, with at least four attacks on a gas pipeline in Sinai that brings natural gas into Israel from Egypt.

Under the Camp David accords, the Egyptians are limited to the number of troops and security forces they can bring into Egypt. So Israel has had to give it special permission in times. It doesn’t yet want to give them permission to more permanently increase their forces there.

RAY SUAREZ: Hamas went out of its way to deny that it had anything to do with this attack, but Israel insisted Hamas was involved, and retaliated immediately.  

Do we know why and how they were so sure?

CALEV BEN-DAVID: No.

What Israel — Israel’s retaliation was against a group called the Palestinian Resistance Committees, which is a militant group in Gaza that does not — actually is not under direct control of Hamas.

But the Israeli policy is that Hamas is responsible for all terrorist attacks emanating from the territory. Hamas is in control of the Gaza Strip. It’s shown that, when it wants to crack down on these groups when they threaten Hamas’ own control, Hamas does take action.

So it’s more a case of Israel holding them responsible, rather seeing Hamas being directly involved in this attack.

RAY SUAREZ: So Israel is saying, in effect, you could stop this if you wanted to, Hamas?

CALEV BEN-DAVID: Yes. That’s — that’s the stance they’re taking. And they have said repeatedly and warned Hamas that, even if Hamas is not directly involved in the attacks, the retaliation could come against Hamas or Hamas-linked groups.

This evening, in fact, that wasn’t the case. It was this group. Six members of this group, the Palestinian Resistance Committees, or at least five groups and, the Palestinians are claiming, one child were killed in the attack.

RAY SUAREZ: As we discussed earlier, there is instability in Egypt. There’s also on Israel’s northern border instability in Syria. Has there been a rising feeling of threat in Israel because of all the tumult on its borders?

CALEV BEN-DAVID: Yes, there has. And a lot of that is linked to next month’s possible declaration of Palestinian statehood by the Palestinians at the United Nations. The Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank today and headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, says it’s going to go to the United Nations and declare a Palestinian state.

Israel is warning that could jeopardize the peace process. There is concern in Israel that could lead to widespread demonstrations, both in the West Bank, also at Gaza, and also at some of the borders, for example, what we saw in Syria earlier — a few — a couple of months ago, when Palestinian refugees living in Syria and Lebanon stormed the border.

So there is a lot of concern heading to September.

RAY SUAREZ: Calev Ben-David from Bloomberg News joined us from Jerusalem.

Thanks a lot.

CALEV BEN-DAVID: Thank you.