“I didn’t see anything and all of a sudden there was an explosion,” he said. “I suppose the explosion came from the middle or back section of the bus; I couldn’t see anything because of all the smoke. I wasn’t wounded, and I helped a soldier who was injured get off the bus.”
Five people suffered serious injuries.
“Three of the wounded had orthopedic and plastic surgery; none of them was in a life-threatening condition,” said the head of Ichilov Hospital’s emergency ward. “The wounded are suffering from shrapnel and shock-wave injuries. In recent years, we have treated the wounded from 25 terrorist attacks. The size of the shrapnel is a little smaller than what we are used to, which explains the low number of people with critical wounds.”
Israelis were angry.
“The IDF must launch a ground operation in the Gaza Strip in order to bring peace and quiet to the home front,” insisted shock victim Amira Castro. “I have four sons in combat units, and as much as I worry about them, and I know we’ll pay a price in an invasion, we have no security for our citizens and the government must do something to make our suffering stop.”
By now, Hamas’s fire power had dropped considerably. After a relatively quiet night, terrorists fired fewer missiles on Wednesday as the IDF struck throughout Gaza, eradicating underground rocket launchers and weapons manufacturing sites, targeting Hamas personnel, and destroying the Ministry of Internal Security in Gaza, one of Hamas’s main command and control centers. After destroying over 130 targets on this last day, there were few worthwhile objectives left for Israel to attack. So far, the bloodthirsty Hamas terrorists had not succeeded in perpetrating the mass killings they yearned for. For them, the bus explosion was a consolation prize.
Gaza residents gathered in mosques to praise the terrorist who perpetrated the bus attack as people handed out candies in the streets. As Israel reacted to the bus attack with stepped up air strikes, tens-of-thousands of other Gazans fled their homes in fear of Israeli retaliation, many seeking shelter in United Nations schools and institutions.
Hearing the news of the bus blast, parents of bochurim learning in Eretz Yisroel begged their children to avoid public transport.
“My father phoned and begged me repeatedly to promise to not use busses until the situation in Israel improved,” said a London bochur learning in Mir. “He wouldn’t put the phone down until I promised.”
In Tel Aviv, police blocked major roads leading from Tel Aviv and blocked a main route to Yerushalayim for over an hour, in an attempt to catch the perpetrators. By Wednesday night they reported the arrest of an Israeli-Arab from Taybeh ten miles north-east of Yerushalayim and several other Palestinians, mostly from the West Bank village of Beit Lakiya. All confessed to belonging to a terrorist cell linked to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
Apparently, the Israeli-Arab planted the bomb in the bus, then left and contacted his handlers in Beit Lakiya who detonated the bomb via cell-phone.
Originally from Beit Lakiya, the terrorist had gained Israeli citizenship and the ability to travel undisturbed throughout Eretz Yisroel thanks to Israel’s compassionate Family Reunification Law. He was granted citizenship by virtue of his having married an Israeli Arab.
In 2002, at the height of the second Intifada, Israel annulled this law that enabled many West Bank and Gaza Palestinians to live in Israel with their wives and children because Arabs could use the law as a means of slipping terrorists into Eretz Yisroel to carry out terror attacks.
Hamas praised the bus attack while avoiding direct responsibility for it.
“Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. “Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression.”
Hamas said the explosion was revenge for an Israeli bombing that had killed 11 Gazans on Sunday. Initially, Israel’s Army radio reported that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had claimed responsibility and that they had smuggled the bomber into Israel three days earlier, but Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was quick to deny direct involvement,
The bus attack threatened to derail the peace talks. A meeting of Netanyahu’s Forum of Nine that was to discuss a truce at 2:30 p.m. was cancelled and it seemed Israel might make a ground invasion after all. Pressure from Hillary Clinton and a personal phone call from Obama to Netanyahu put the talks back on track.
By the time the ceasefire took effect, there was a huge disparity between Israeli and Palestinian casualties. A total of 1,506 rockets were fired from Gaza; most of them exploding in open areas. Only 58 rockets, 3.8% of the total, exploded in urban areas thanks to 421 interceptions by the Iron Dome system.
As heartbreaking as it was for Israel to suffer six fatalities and 240 injuries, it was an open miracle that it wasn’t worse. This was obvious to anyone viewing shattered homes, shrapnel riddled and fire gutted vehicles, and cratered roads and parking lots. Of the 177 Palestinians killed, 120 of them engaged in terrorist activities. More than 900 Palestinians were wounded.
Altogether, the IDF announced, 1,500 Israeli airstrikes had struck “19 senior command centers, operational control centers and Hamas’s senior-rank headquarters, 30 senior operatives including seven very senior personnel, damaging Hamas’s command and control, hundreds of underground rocket launchers, 140 smuggling tunnels, 66 terror tunnels, dozens of Hamas operation rooms and bases, 26 weapon manufacturing and storage facilities and dozens of long-range rocket launchers and launch sites.”
According to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Hamas “only succeeded in hitting Israeli targets with a single ton of explosives, while targets in Gaza were hit with a thousand tons.”
Despite Israel’s superior performance, the truce was a paper ladder that allowed Hamas to climb from its perch with honor and pretend it had gained at least something from its sacrifices.
A STICKING POINT OF THE NEGOTIATIONS
By the time the bus was blown up, Israel had hit so many Hamas buildings, weapons and personnel that the IDF was running out of targets to hit. To help its fundamentalist brothers, Egypt was fiercely negotiating for an end to the struggle. There were fringe benefits too. The negotiations helped Egypt resuscitate its status as an influential power in the region while Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi strengthened his links with the U.S., personally speaking to Obama on the phone six times during the conflict.
At the top of the pyramid, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indefatigably shuttled between Yerushalayim, Ramallah and Cairo, putting pressure onto Morsi who, in turn, put heavy pressure on Hamas. Morsi was bound to do Obama’s bidding for U.S. support is vital to help cash strapped Egypt secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. As the old Arab adage states: If you cannot overcome a hand, kiss it and pray that it will break.
Israel also could not ignore demands for peace from the U.S. and European Union. Tamir Pard, head of the Mossad, relayed Israel’s messages to Hamas via Egypt; there was no direct contact between the two mortal enemies.
As usual, the Arabs spoke with a forked tongue. At the very time Morsi was negotiating for peace, Mohammed Badei, top leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to which Morsi’s government belongs, sent a message describing what Morsi and his cohorts would really want were it not for international pressure — to obliterate Israel by force.
“The enemy knows nothing but the language of force,” he stated. “Be aware of the game of grand deception with which they depict peace accords.”
Badei called on Muslims to “back your brothers in Palestine. Supply them with what they need, seek victory for them in all international arenas.”
A sticking point of the negotiations was Hamas’s demand that Israel removes its naval blockade and fully opens the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Giving Hamas the green light to bring in whatever it pleases would result in a huge rearmament of missiles and anti-aircraft missiles from Iran. In fact, on Wednesday, Iran announced it had given Gaza the ability to produce longer-range missiles on its own as was evidenced in Hamas’s homemade M-75 missile that reached all the way to Yerushalayim on Tuesday. This makes it even more critical for Israel to screen the raw materials crossing the border to Hamas.
ARABS CELEBRATE A VICTORY
Hours before Wednesday’s ceasefire came into effect, Egypt provided concrete evidence of its willingness to end the war by announcing the confiscation of a number of trucks carrying 108 Grad missile warheads, 19,000 bullets and other arms smuggled from Libya. This happened 270 miles northwest of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., Netanyahu informed Obama that Israel’s nine-man security cabinet had agreed to a ceasefire. The public learned of this for the first time at about 7:00 p.m. when a senior Hamas negotiator in Cairo announced that a ceasefire would take effect at 9:00 p.m. Wednesday night.
A written copy of the ceasefire published by the BBC seemed scarily similar to the terms following Operation Cast Lead of 2009.
Titled, “Understanding regarding ceasefire in Gaza Strip,” the document laid down the following terms:
“1. A) Israel shall stop all hostilities on the Gaza Strip land, sea, and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals. B) All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities against Israel, including rocket attacks, and attacks along the border. C) Opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movement, and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire. E) Other matters as may be requested shall be addressed.
“2. Implementation Mechanism: A) Setting up of the zero hour for the ceasefire understanding to enter into effect. B) Egypt shall receive assurances from each party that the party commits to what was agreed upon. C) Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would breach this understanding. In case of any observations, Egypt – as the sponsor of this understanding – shall be informed to follow up.”
To sweeten the deal for Israel, the U.S. had promised an increase in American military aid to target arms smuggling and to build more Iron Dome anti-missile batteries.
After the ceasefire took effect on Wednesday night, Gaza’s Arabs behaved as if the battered Hamas had achieved a huge victory. Mosque loudspeakers broadcast news of the great victory with the ubiquitous call — A-llahu Akbar. Activists drove through the streets yelling through loudspeakers, “Jaabari won, alive and dead,” “Oh people of Gaza, you have won.”
TV stations hailed “victory for the resistance,” car horns honked, women ululated, guns fired wildly into the air killing one person and injuring three others. People made the victory sign with their fingers and danced with Hamas and Islamic Jihad flags. Palestinians in the West Bank celebrated with fireworks.
“We feel like we’ve gotten our freedom back, our lives back,” said one cavorting Gazan. “Thank G-d for Hamas, and thank G-d for the patience and strength of the Palestinian people in humbling Israel.”
“Imagine, the rockets of our resistance hitting Tel Aviv, hitting them and making them afraid everywhere they were,” said another. “Nobody thought we could strike at them like this. It doesn’t matter if they break the truce, we’re ready to fight them again tomorrow. But we hope they learned a lesson this time.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the celebration was pure delusion.
“They are deceiving their own people. They are celebrating the downing of an F-16 and rockets that supposedly exploded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They know fully well what has befallen them: The prime minister’s official residence is gone, their manufacturing infrastructure is gone, no heavy machinery, they now have less than 40 percent of the medium range rockets they once possessed, and a buried military chief.”
Hamas declared Thursday November 22 a national day of celebration.
Hamas supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, falsely boasted that Israel had completely succumbed to his organization’s demands.
“The enemy’s leaders failed in their adventure,” he said. “The border crossings will be opened to people and goods. We were adamant about going ahead with a package deal and despite Israel’s refusal, we got our wish.”
But on a more realistic level, for the first time Mashaal spoke of accepting a Palestinian state that only encompassed part of Eretz Yisroel.
“I accept a Palestinian state according [to] the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital, with the right to return,” he told the CNN in Cairo, with the caveat that until that happened, Israel would not be recognized.
“After this state is established,” he said, “it decides its standing toward Israel.”
Despite Mashaal’s bluster, Hamas suffered a diplomatic as well as a military defeat. The Security Council, normally quick to condemn Israel, remained silent the entire week, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei chided Muslim nations for not rallying behind Gaza in its latest struggle with Israel.
“Some of them sufficed with words, and some others did not condemn Israel”, he complained.
WILL THERE BE PEACE?
As the cease fire took effect, Netanyahu told a press conference that following his “discussions tonight with President Obama” he was taking the opportunity to bring calm to the region.
“Now, I know that there are citizens who expect an even more intense military action – and we may very well need one, but at this time the correct thing for the State of Israel is to take advantage of this opportunity for a long lasting truce,” he continued. “As prime minister, the responsibility rests upon me – and it is my foremost responsibility – to take the correct steps to safeguard our security. That is how I have acted and that is how I shall continue to act. Terrorist organizations assumed that [Israel] wouldn’t attack. They were wrong.”
Netanyahu emphasized that the operation had drastically reduced Hamas’s offensive capabilities and that its goal, stated at the start of the operation, of achieving long term peace for residents of southern Israel was realized.
The Israeli public disagreed. At the time of the ceasefire announcement, a snap poll found that 70% of Israeli opposed a ceasefire, 24% favored it, while 6% expressed no opinion. 64% thought it would last a short while, 7% a long while, and 24% thought it would not last at all. 58% said Israel’s deterrence was strengthened by the Pillar of Defense campaign, 15% felt it was weakened, and 26% thought it remained unchanged.
Mayors of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, and Beersheba expressed dissatisfaction and disillusion, saying their schools would remain closed the next day. The Home Front Command and Education Ministry kept schools within 25 miles of Gaza closed as a precaution. Later in the evening protesters in Sderot, Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi held demonstrations waving signs that declared, “Bibi go home,” and chanting, “The people demand a ground operation.”
“Unfortunately, from past experience it seems that such arrangements are only on paper and do not last long,” said the mayor of one southern town. “It is impossible to have normal civilian life under fire, so we look at the agreement with mixed feelings. Like all of Israel, we will need to see if the exact details we do not know of behind the arrangements give a real chance for long-term peace in the region. If so, we will all be happy, and if not — we will be greatly disappointed.”
Israeli politicians from right to center-left, who had stood united behind the campaign, now remembered that elections were round the corner.
Shaul Mofaz of Kadima insisted the truce was a mistake, saying, “The ceasefire was a mistake and the next round with Hamas is waiting around the corner.”
The chairman of the rightist National Unity bloc also criticized the development.
“We have seen a miserable presentation trying unsuccessfully to explain the shameful surrender of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government,” he said.
Yair Lapid, chairman of the new Yesh Atid party echoed the negative sentiment saying that “the ceasefire comes at a bad time and without achieving the goals the government itself set for the operation.”
Even coalition Knesset members Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and Eli Yishai (Shas) had opposed the premature end of the operation.
By Friday, however, a poll found the percentage of those opposing the truce had dropped to about fifty percent. Another poll found that Netanyahu’s Likud – Beiteinu party had not suffered from the Pillar of Defense operation and was still in the lead with 37 seats.
REASONS TO STOP THE OPERATION
There were many reasons for Israel to stop the war at this point. First, the U.S. and European Union are the supreme arbiters of opinion as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman commented on Thursday: “We cannot ignore requests by the U.S. president and EU heads of state who formed an international coalition that supported Israel.”
Street fighting in Gaza’s narrow streets would have exacted heavy Israeli casualties. Furthermore, Israel needs world sympathy for the coming struggle with Iran and cannot exhaust it on the Gaza struggle. Continued fighting would have caused Israel’s isolation to reach an all time extreme. In addition, U.S. pressure on Egypt to prevent Hamas from importing Iranian long range missiles and the U.S. help to get the Iron Dome systems may be as important as anything a ground battle could produce.
Indeed, while expressing Obama’s appreciation for the truce, the White House added that he would “use the opportunity offered by a cease-fire to intensify efforts to help Israel address its security needs, especially the issue of the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza. The president said that he was committed to seeking additional funding for Iron Dome and other US-Israel missile defense programs.”
Another reason for stopping the war was the need for Israel to pull out before Arab casualties reached numbers that might result in a condemnation similar to that of the Judge Richard Goldstone commission which condemned Operation Cast Lead.
Another positive factor of the truce is that it ironically transformed Egypt from Israel’s passive enemy into the country now responsible for reining in Hamas at the United State’s behest. It should also be kept in mind that the operation was costing Israel dearly. It may have cost Israel as much as $1.3 billion dollars including military costs, and damage to buildings, business, and the loss of tourism. In the past, tourist cruise ships avoided Hamas missiles by anchoring in Haifa instead of Ashdod. This time, with rockets making it dangerous to visit Yerushalayim, 6,000 tourists on the Queen Elizabeth 2 and two other ships skipped Israel and continued to other destinations.
THE LAST CASUALTIES
At 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, hundreds participated in the funeral of the war’s 5th victim, Yosef Partuk, an 18-year-old soldier killed during a rocket attack on a kibbutz in the Eshkol region a day earlier. The kibbutz was too near the border to receive advance warning of missiles and a missile caught him outside. Until recently, Partuk learned in a yeshiva in Yerushalayim. At the request of his chareidi family in Emanuel, there was no military ceremony and no reporters at the levaya at the Givat Shaul cemetery in Yerushalayim.
“Since I heard the sad news it is difficult for me to concentrate; I cannot absorb it,” a friend of his from yeshiva said. “I last spoke to him four months ago. He was a bochur who never stopped smiling. He was always happy. He always wanted to contribute.”
On Thursday, the war claimed its sixth victim when 28-year-old Capt. Boris Yarmulnik of Netanya passed away in the company of his parents holding vigil at his bedside. He and four other soldiers had been wounded in a mortar attack on Wednesday.
“The soldier arrived at 6:00 in the evening on Wednesday,” said Dr. Michael Sharf, head of the Soroka Medical Center where Yarmulnik succumbed to his injuries said. “He was transported by helicopter in critical condition, with a severe head injury caused by shrapnel. He was taken to the trauma unit where doctors tried to stabilize his condition. The best doctors cared for him, but despite their efforts he passed away.”
Yarmulnik, who immigrated to Israel 20 years ago when he was 8, was interred in a military cemetery in Netanya on Friday. Thos ekilled during the eight day war were Mirah Scharf HY”D, Aharon Smadja HY”D and Itzik Amsalem HY”D of Kiryat Malachi, Yosef Partuk HY”D, Alian Salem Alanbari a Bedouin killed on Wednesday, and Boris Yarmulnik HY”D.
As the truce was set to begin on Wednesday night, Hamas fired a last salvo of rockets all over the south and a few more rockets were fired after the truce until midnight. Military personnel had warned the early stages of the cease fire might be disturbed by rogue terror cells. In general, however, residents of the south had their first night’s sleep without disturbance from sirens, explosions, and red alerts. On Thursday morning twelve more rockets were fired but caused no injuries or damage.
On Wednesday night, the IDF and Shin Bet arrested 55 Hamas parliament members, senior activists of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and rioters in the West Bank which had seen a rise in shootings, rock throwing, and riots over the previous days. Thursday night they arrested 28 more. Besides the bus explosion in Tel Aviv, West Bank Arabs seriously wounded a 60-year-old woman driving near Beitar Illit south of Yerushalayim, attacked the Yerushalayim light rail as it was passing through the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina, hurled stones at a bus near the Old City, and stoned numerous cars throughout Yehuda and Shomron. The West Bank is still a nest of Arab unrest.
Gaza violence resumed on Thursday when about 300 Palestinians in several locations surged towards the security fence between Israel and Gaza where Israel maintains a no-man’s land due to constant border attacks. Some intruders claimed to be farmers inspecting their land in the buffer zone. Israeli forces shot 21-year-old Anwar Abdulhadi Qudaih who ignored three shots warning him to go back. Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour complained that Israel broke the ceasefire truce by shooting him and through wounding 19 others. According to Arutz Sheva, 200 rioters approached a breach in the security fence, and four succeeded in crossing the border and waved a PLO flag.
The IDF spokesman’s unit issued a statement saying, “IDF forces in the area acted to distance the perpetrators. When they did not distance themselves from the fence, a warning shot was fired into the air and, following [this], a shot at their legs.”
In some instances, Hamas personnel were seen keeping people back from the border.
In other places, there were reports of farmers tending their land at the border without any issues and by Shabbos Israel doubled the fishing range of Gaza fishermen from three to six miles from shore for the first time in three years.
Sunday, Hamas number 2 man, Mahmoud al-Zahar, stated that Hamas would continue receiving arms through Iran.
“It is not true what some people are saying that the ceasefire agreement included the approval of Egypt to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Gaza in conjunction with US special units … These leaks are an Israeli attempt to mitigate the impact of defeat,” he stated.
The military arm of the Islamic Jihad also insisted it would continue to rearm. Indeed, an Israeli satellite has already detected a ship in southern Iran being loaded with missiles and weaponry probably destined for Gaza via the Red Sea, Sudan, and Egypt. Israel said it would not allow this shipment to continue.
“Regardless of the cease-fire agreement, we will attack and destroy any shipment of arms to Gaza once we have spotted it,” an Israeli defense source said.
Netanyahu insisted on the night of the truce that “Israel obviously cannot sit idly while our enemy reinforces itself with weapons of terror.” He added that in a phone conversation that night with the US president, “we decided, President Obama and myself, that the United States and Israel would work together to fight the smuggling of weapons to the terror organizations – weapons, virtually all of which come from Iran.”
Israel will doubtless link the easing of security at Gaza’s borders to the degree of Hamas commitment to stop importing arms. To what extent Egypt will cooperate remains to be seen.
THE RESULTS WILL PROVE THEMSELVES
Will the cease fire hold? After the three week Operation Cast Lead in 2009 Israel announced, “First a cease fire is declared. If Hamas stops firing rockets, then Israel pulls its forces out of the Gaza Strip. If rocket fire resumes then the IDF goes back in.” Yet by the beginning of the Pillar of Defense operation Hamas had attacked Israel with over 1,000 missiles and rockets. Furthermore, two groups in Hamas may upset the truce even if Hamas is interested in upholding it, the Islamic Jihad that has about 1,000 terrorists in Gaza, and Salafist groups that are religiously stricter and more aggressive than Hamas. No doubt, the fatwa issued by an Islamic cleric in Gaza, Iman Suleiman al-Daya declaring that “violating the [truce] agreement shall constitute a sin” can be annulled lehavdil through the Muslim version of hatoras nedorim.
Hopefully, this operation may have results similar to the 2006 war against the Hezbollah in Lebanon which stopped the firing of rockets at Israel ever since.
Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen Benny Gantz claimed while touring the south after the operation, “All the aims of the operation were achieved. The IDF dealt a strong, even fatal blow to the strategic capabilities of terrorist groups in Gaza.” But asked how long he thought the cease-fire would hold he admitted, “I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but the results will prove themselves when the dust clears.”