Israeli troops abruptly withdraw from Gaza. Seven-story Ashkelon building hit by Katyusha Monday
March 3, 2008, 4:13 PM (GMT+02:00)
Shortly after Israel's withdrawal, Monday, March 3, the Palestinians stepped up their missile and rocket attacks. One of three Katyusha rockets fired from Gaza at Ashkelon hit a seven-story building, sending a dozen people into shock and sowing wide panic in the city of 120,000. Eight missiles exploded in Sderot, 2 in Shear Hanegev and 4 in the Eshkol farmland area south of Sderot.
DEBKAfile reports: Prime minister Ehud Olmert suddenly decided on the pullback of Israeli ground and armored units from northern Gaza before dawn Monday without completing their mission of halting Palestinian fire. Stage one of Operation Hot Winter was announced at an end. He was later attacked by members of the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee for aborting the operation in contradiction of the pledges he and the defense minister made Sunday. Both had vowed that military ground action would press on until the Hamas missile-rocket offensive against Israeli civilians was stamped out.
Up until late Sunday night, Qassam rockets continued to explode in Sderot and surrounding villages and Katyusha rockets in Ashkelon at the average rate of 50 per day since Wednesday. The three-day Israeli infantry, tank and air incursion left more than 100 Palestinians dead, most Hamas combatants, some civilians and children. Two Israeli soldiers were killed.
DEBKAfile's military sources report: Aborting this action in mid-stream leaves Israel with the options of air, surface missile and artillery raids - or short, shallow forays – all of which have long proved ineffectual.
Olmert's order to the Israeli ground force to turn around and withdraw in mid-offensive was astonishing and unprecedented. Senior officers fully expected the Palestinian Hamas terrorist leaders to rush into declarations of victory and claims that they had beaten the Israeli army into a retreat. And indeed, Hamas staged a victory march in Gaza City later Monday.
Our political sources disclose that Olmert, during his absence in Tokyo last week, was far from happy with the way acting PM Tzipi Livni and Barak handled the sharp spike in Palestinian missile attacks. He felt they had caused an unnecessary escalation of the crisis to the point that a major military operation became unavoidable.
Olmert insisted that short, sharp military strikes would have defused the crisis and obviated the need for a broad military offensive in Gaza, which he had consistently prevented.
By aborting the operation Monday night, he rapped them both and also moved to put down the incipient revolt in his government and Kadima party, spearheaded by two senior ministers – Avi Dichter, internal security and former Shin Bet chief, and Shaul Mofaz, transport, ex-defense minister and chief of staff. Both publicly urged a stepped-up ground offensive to crush Hamas rule of Gaza, arguing that all other tactics - military, sanctions and siege - had failed.
DEBKAfile's political sources report that Hamas won useful points in the propaganda war by getting images and footage of Palestinian women and children casualties of Israeli strikes onto TV screens and front pages way ahead of the suffering of Israeli civilians from the gratuitous Hamas blitz.
This eased the way for Washington to lean hard on the prime minister to break off the operation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threatened to call off her visit on Tuesday, March 4, and laid the blame on Israel for the breakdown of peace talks with the Palestinians, although it was Mahmoud Abbas who formally suspended all contacts with Israel. She accused Israel of undermining the Bush administration's entire Middle East strategy. Olmert found it politic to bow to this pressure.
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