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Longstanding Tensions Between Israel and Palestinians See Major Escalation

November 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
With more than 20 Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and at least 10 Palestinians dead -- including a Hamas military official who topped Israel's wanted list -- the latest violence has inflamed longstanding tensions between Israel and Palestinians. Ray Suarez talks to Times of London's Sheera Frenkel from Jerusalem.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, I’m joined by phone by Sheera Frenkel, Middle East correspondent for The Times of London who is in Jerusalem.

Sheera, we have reported on the rising tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza. But was there a sparking event? Was there something in particular that set this off?

SHEERA FRENKEL, The Times of London: In the last 24 hours, there had actually been a real slowdown in hostilities between Israel and the Gaza Strip. In fact, today, earlier in the day, there had been no exchanges of violence across the border.

But when I spoke to IDF officials about why they decided to start these targeted assassinations and launch this operation in Gaza, their answer was actually intelligence data that they had received that militants in Gaza had been smuggling in more high-tech weapons and weapons that would really be able to create damage to the IDF’s military arsenal, and that their decision to hit Gaza and to assassinate senior leader Ahmed Jabari came on the basis of that intelligence information.

RAY SUAREZ: Tell us more about Ahmed al-Jabari. Who was he? Was he important to the military structure in Gaza?

SHEERA FRENKEL: You know, there’s a lot of disagreement about how important he was and who his successor will be.

What seems certain is that he played a very central role between the Hamas officials in Gaza and their counterparts in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. He also seemed to have had quite a bit of ties to Iran and was known to make regular trips out to Iran to bolster support for the Hamas regime.

Israel, of course, only saw him only saw him as the mastermind of what they called terror attacks. He was said to be the person behind the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. And in the photographs of Shalit’s release, you actually see Jabari standing next to him, clearly in the Palestinian media, as well as the Israeli media, being associated with that.

RAY SUAREZ: What do we know about what’s going on inside Gaza, whether they’re preparing for war, whether they’re standing by for a possible land incursion?

SHEERA FRENKEL: The people I spoke to in Gaza today are completely terrified. They describe scenes of confusion and chaos in the streets.

I spoke to one gentleman who lives in the northern part of Gaza who has four children who told me that he is right now moving towards the center, and as he was moving towards the center, two buildings in front of him got shelled, so he turned around and went back home.

The problem is that no one in Gaza knows where it’s safe right now. The airstrikes that started earlier this afternoon are really hitting scattered areas across the Gaza Strip. And so people there are scared that they’re in the midst of another war and one that they’re not prepared for.

RAY SUAREZ: Just in the past few hours, the Israeli cabinet has authorized a call-up of reservists. Is that a big step? Is it an important step in this conflict?

SHEERA FRENKEL: You know, what I have heard from the Israelis is actually that call for reservists is still being limited. It’s only several hundred people. It’s not a widespread call-up yet.

Now, they have left the option open. They have said they might call up more people. They have made it very clear that a ground operation could be on the horizon and that they’re preparing for that eventuality, as they prepare for any eventuality.

But what I understood in the short run is that they’re limiting the operation in Gaza to the navy ships that are off the coast of Gaza right now who are shelling from the ocean and to those ongoing airstrikes that we’re seeing. And the Israeli air force is using both drones and planes to hit targets off Gaza.

RAY SUAREZ: In the back-and-forth attacks between Israel and Gaza, there’s been a lot of concentration on means, but not a lot of discussion of ends. And now with the speculation about a ground assault, what’s the endgame for Israel? What would it hope to achieve with that kind of action?

SHEERA FRENKEL: So, when I spoke to a senior Israeli military official down south, and what’s interesting about him is, he was actually involved four years ago in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

And now he does not stay involved in this current operation. And I asked him, what would be the difference? Why was Israel launching this operation now and what did they hope to achieve that they didn’t achieve four years ago in that very punishing offensive?

And he said that their goal in the last offensive was to cripple Hamas, and this time it was absolutely to demolish them. Israel’s leaders are very keen to show their community, especially now that it’s election season, that they can take on Hamas, that they can stop the rocket fire into Southern Israel.

So, as far as I understand, as far as the Israeli military is concerned, they want to see sort of a knockout punch to Hamas. Now, whether or not they actually achieve this, whether or not it’s within their capability is something that quite a few people are questioning right now.

RAY SUAREZ: And what’s the mood in Israel proper? People must be looking on and wondering, what’s next?

SHEERA FRENKEL: Very much so.

Most of the communities in Israel’s south, certainly the communities within 40 miles of the Gaza border, are currently being ordered to keep within 10 feet of their bomb shelter. The schools have been shut. And the communities are very much aware that they’re under the — in the line of rocket fire right now, as it were.

But that’s — that’s just in the south. Communities across Israel are worrying right now that this is going to be the start of something bigger. At the start of this week, Israel saw an exchange of violence across (AUDIO GAP) with Syria. This morning, missiles landed in Southern Israel. And officials here said that they may have come from Egypt.

So people in Israel are wondering whether they might not be opening up a war on several fronts and whether instability in the region right now will lead to them having confrontations with more of the enemies than just those in the Gaza Strip.

RAY SUAREZ: Sheera Frenkel of The Times of London, thanks for joining us.