Gaza assault will be bloodier than Jenin

Middle East: Ariel Sharon's experience of invading the Strip 20 years ago will inform Israel's attack - and the Palestinian resistance
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Israel delayed its offensive against the Gaza Strip yesterday, but Palestinians living in the enclave of slums and refugee camps were still buying up supplies of food while guerrillas threw up fresh ramparts of earth and sandbags in the vain hope that they could forestall an Israeli tank attack.

The Palestinians believe there are two reasons an attack on Gaza is certain: because the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has convinced himself that he is fighting a "war on terror"; and because Mr Sharon prides himself on his assault on the Gaza Strip 20 years ago, when he was an army general.

Officially, the Israeli offensive has been postponed because the element of surprise – thrown away by extensive reporting on the plans on Israeli television – has been lost. This, according to Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli defence minister, would have cost his army more lives. Pressure, of the usual modest kind, has also come from Washington. The Israelis know that civilian casualties in Gaza would far outnumber those in Jenin last month. And lastly, there is a growing suspicion that the Hamas suicide bomber who killed 16 Israelis in an explosion at a gaming hall at Rishon Lezion last Tuesday may not, as was thought, have come from Gaza. He has still to be identified.

But Israeli tanks can still be seen around the Gaza Strip. If Mr Sharon has to wait for another excuse to assault the enclave, the Palestinians are sure to provide one: an attack on a settlement in Gaza, for example. But he knows that the Palestinian groups there are infinitely better trained than the gunmen of Jenin and Nablus. It was in the Gaza Strip that Palestinians destroyed two Merkava-3 battle tanks this year, in a serious blow to the technical efficiency and the morale of the Israeli army.

Thus the bakery queues in Gaza yesterday and the mounds of rubble thrown up around the Jabalya refugee camp were proof that both sides regard the impending assault as inevitable. This was despite the fact that yesterday, after the end of the 39-day siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Israeli military said it had no troops in Palestinian-run territories for the first time in six weeks.

Palestinian leaders have been re-reading Mr Sharon's long and self-serving autobiography, Warrior, in which he recounts his attacks into Gaza two decades ago. He estimated at the time that he would have to "eliminate seven or eight hundred terrorists" there and describes in vivid detail how he marched through the refugee camps with his intelligence officers to discover the houses with false walls and orchards concealing underground bunkers in which the Palestine Liberation Organisation – forerunners of today's Palestinian Authority – hid.

In one chapter, Mr Sharon recalls his advice to his intelligence officers. "You have to know how these people will think ... they are moving. They need rendezvous points. They need drops where they can get messages and instructions. They need places where food can be brought to them. They have to use something to mark these places. So what are they going to use? They are going to use something different, something that stands out just a little. That's why if you see two lemon trees in an orchard, check out the lemon trees. If you see a dead tree among live trees, check that."

In initial battles in the camps, Mr Sharon used bulldozers – shades of the Jenin battle last month – and then forced Palestinian guerrillas to fight in the open. He used undercover gunmen and sent Israeli troops dressed as guerrillas into the Gaza Strip, pretending that they were on the run from real Israelis. These soldiers, still "guerrillas", would build their own bunkers. Then Mr Sharon's bulldozers would start smashing down the hideouts of Palestinian forces.

A key paragraph gives am idea of the brutality of the campaign. "Over time, families had grown, and as they did they added rooms and sheds until the camps had become choked with buildings and mazes of twisting alleyways no more than three or four feet wide. These crowded alleys provided ideal ground for the terrorists, and now I widened some of them so that we could patrol more efficiently. In doing so we had to demolish numbers of houses and build or find new living quarters for the inhabitants." Palestinians today say that the homeless of the 1970s were never found new "quarters" by the Israelis. Their homes were simply bulldozed away.

But 20 years ago, Mr Sharon was Israel's southern army commander. He is unused to the infinitely more skilful and experienced Palestinian fighters of today's Gaza Strip. Learning about lemon trees and bunkers will not give the Israelis an easy time in modern Gaza. There can be no meanderings through the camps by Israeli commanders; they would be killed within seconds.

Both Israelis and Palestinians know this all too well. Which is why an Israeli assault, when – not if – it comes, is going to be a bloody affair.