Israeli Shelling Takes a Toll in Gaza
LIANE HANSEN, host:
At least 15 Palestinians, most of them gunmen, have been killed by Israeli fire over the past 48-hours. Israeli officials say the attacks to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel will continue. And the Islamist Hamas movement has threatened revenge.
The Israeli barrage comes as newly elected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is tying to put together a government, and as new Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya faces a financial crisis.
NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Jerusalem.
Linda, first tell us a little bit more about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Specifically, why is it happening now?
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
Israel launched both an air strike and an artillery barrage since Friday that has killed mostly gunmen, although today a Palestinian taxi driver who was transporting Palestinian security officers to their positions was killed from an Israeli shell. One of the dead is also a five-year-old boy, the son of a man Israel says is one of the chief bomb-makers for a group called the Palestinian Resistance Committees.
I think there are two reasons it's happening now. One, Israeli security officials say that the Kasam rocket fire from Gaza into Israel has been stepped up recently, that the rockets have been landing closer to the Jewish town of Ashkelon. And I think it's also a sign from the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he wants to step up the pressure on Hamas.
Now, there is a report coming that a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad, which is actually been firing most of the Kasam rockets, says that Islamic Jihad will stop the rocket fire for one week. If that report is true, it seems that Hamas has probably pressured Islamic Jihad to do that.
Elaborate a little bit more on the Hamas response.
GRADSTEIN: The Hamas military wing threatened to avenge the deaths of the Palestinians. But Hamas is actually in a very difficult position because Hamas is now the government. It seems unlikely that the political leadership will allow the gunmen, Hamas does tend to be very disciplined, and will allow them to launch any kind of major attack, because there now is a Hamas government that's trying to get away from its image of terrorism.
At the same time, Israeli security officials say they have 74 active warnings of planned terrorist attacks. Israel went on high alert today. On Wednesday, the week-long Passover holiday starts and there'll be thousands of police deployed.
HANSEN: Explain the conflicting signals that are coming out from Hamas about the recognition of Israel.
GRADSTEIN: Well, the Hamas charter says that there will be no recognition of Israel. And that was the platform that Hamas ran on. There have been some feelers, conflicting signals, there was a letter that's written by the Hamas foreign minister that mentioned a two-state solution. Some Hamas officials have said that the cease fire that the Hamas has basically kept for more than a year could continue. But there hasn't been any real recognition of Israel, and Palestinian analysts say they don't expect there to be.
HANSEN: When will the new government in Israel take over? The Kadima party won the elections late last month.
GRADSTEIN: Well, Kadima leader, Ehud Olmert, has to put together a coalition. He'll probably put together the government in the next few weeks. At the same time, the Justice Ministry today announced that on Tuesday former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had a massive stroke in January, will be declared permanently incapacitated. That means that doctors believe there really isn't any chance of Sharon waking up from his coma, which he's been in.
HANSEN: NPR's Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem. Linda, thank you.
GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Liane.