On Monday, Israeli advanced F-16 fighters and Apache helicopter gunships fired more than 10 air-to-ground missiles at the main public security directorate in Gaza, reducing the large compound to rubble.
The massive bombing of the police headquarters, located in a densely populated area in downtown Gaza, also caused substantial damage to neighbouring diplomatic missions, UN offices, an EU office, a mosque and a kindergarten. At least 40 Palestinians, mostly policemen who were sleeping in their dormitory, and two high-ranking UN personnel, one of them an aide to UN Special Envoy to the Middle East Terji Larsen, were lightly to moderately injured.
Local sources said it was pure luck that a real massacre did not take place.
Larsen denounced the intensive bombing as “exaggerated [as it] goes far beyond Israel’s legitimate security needs. Israeli security needs are not achieved by bombing civilian targets or police infrastructure. This only cripples the police and undermines their ability to maintain law and order,” he said.
However, the Israeli government was undeterred by such criticisms. A few hours after the bombing, Israeli F-16 fighters hit the same bombed-out site with four more missiles, causing more serious injuries.
Hospital sources in Gaza said more than 24 people, including several journalists who were filming and inspecting the destruction, were injured. Four of the injured were reported in critical condition.
The latest Israeli bombardment in Gaza received a mild but unexpected rebuke from the US State Department, which has all along backed Israel’s rampage of violence against the Palestinians.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher voiced “concern” over targeting facilities in populated areas.
“Though we understand the need for Israel to take steps to ensure its self-defence, we are seriously concerned about Israeli attacks over the past several days on Palestinian Authority facilities, particularly in areas that are heavily populated by civilians,” he said.
The statement is unlikely to make the Sharon government reconsider the use of its air power against facilities that have absolutely no military significance. Indeed, Sharon and a number of his ministers made clear that Israel was not going to listen to the Americans “when it comes to our security.”
Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer this week went as far as threatening to attack Palestinian civilians if, as he put it, Palestinian provocations continued.
“If we need to surround Nablus, we’ll do it to the end, and if we need to close Tulkarm, we’ll close off the city until the end.”
Ben-Eliezer claimed that the test-firing by Hamas of a primitive projectile, dubbed Qassam-II, was changing the rules of the game between Israel and the Palestinians. He added that Israel would respond with massive force if and when the weapon was fired on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories or population centres in Israel proper.
The threats, coupled with the increasing frequency of air strikes on Palestinian public and government facilities, are clearly meant to exert pressure on PA chairman Yasser Arafat who has been under virtual house arrest in Ramallah for the past three months.
It is not clear, however, how Sharon and Ben-Eliezer think that the destruction of police facilities and other PA infrastructures will enable Arafat to act against “the terrorist infrastructure.”
The stark reality is that the strikes diminish his ability and maybe his inclination as well to act against his own tormented people.
On 7 February, Israeli warplanes attacked Palestinian police facilities in downtown Nablus, injuring 10 people, among them some activists Israel had insisted be placed behind bars.
The targeting of prisons and lockups where suspected resistance fighters are detained has prompted their families to warn the PA that it will be held responsible for their sons’ safety. Some families were not ready to take any chances.
On 11 February, shortly after nightfall, hundreds of men, women and children stormed the Mukata’a prison in Hebron, freeing some 60 detainees.
Initially, the police sought to prevent the angry multitude from storming the compound by setting up a human chain at the entrance.
However, the small police force was soon overpowered by the angry and determined citizens, who accused the PA of indifference to their sons’ safety.
“We can’t wait until a massacre takes place here if and when Israeli planes attack the prison,” one man said.
A high-ranking PA officer, who was looking on impassively, said he identified with the families of the detainees.
“We simply can’t guarantee that Israeli warplanes wouldn’t attack the prison here. If I had a son detained here, I would worry about his safety. We are facing a sinister enemy that stops at nothing,” the officer said.
On 10 February, two young Palestinians from the village of Dahirriya, 20 kilometres south-west of Hebron, attacked the Israeli army’s southern command headquarters in the centre of the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, killing two soldiers and injuring five others before they themselves were killed.
Hamas’ military wing, the Izzedin Al-Qassam Brigades, took responsibility for the attack, saying, “We can’t remain silent while Zionist terrorists are slaughtering our children.”
Hamas, which had declared a unilateral cease-fire to give calm a chance, decided to resume its resistance operations against Israeli military targets after Israeli death squads assassinated four of the movement’s cadres during a raid on the northern West Bank town of Nablus a few weeks ago.