Monday, May 24, 2004

Israel's Rafah Operation and Turkish-Israeli Relations

Last week, after 13 Israeli troops were killed, Israel launched a large-scale operation against the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. As a result of the operation named "Operation Rainbow" scores of Palestinians die, hundreds were injured and thousands were left homeless. Though the operation came in the wake of the killing of Israeli troops it was no secret that Israel had been planning such an operation for some time because the Rafah refugee camp is very important for Israeli security.

There are several factors behind the Israeli decision to stage a large-scale operation against the Rafah refugee camp. For a better understanding of these factors one has to look at the location of the camp in question. The camp is in the southern part of the Gaza Strip exactly on the Egyptian border. This border area has been placed under Israeli control under the Peace Agreement signed between Egypt and Israel and the 1993 Oslo Accords. Aid -in the form of arms and equipment-reach the Palestinians via the underground passages that have been built to link the border region of Egypt to the Rafah camp. The aid carried across the border through these tunnels is brought first to the Gaza Strip and, from there, to the West Bank. These tunnels are being used especially to transport the aid Iran provides through Hezbollah. In other words these tunnels constitute a threat to Israel's security. Furthermore, Israel claims that Arafat is obtaining big financial resources thanks to the supplies sent through these tunnels.

In a report they presented to the Israeli Cabinet towards mid-May 2004, that is, just before the Rafah operation, Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yalon and Defense Minister Mofaz said that "intense illicit trafficking" was taking place along the border tunnels and that Egypt was not doing anything to prevent the infiltration. Stressing that the weapons brought in via these tunnels were being used against Israel they said that a large-scale operation was needed in the region. We can say that in a way the report in question heralded such an operation -- though the Israeli officials had not been expected to make that move so soon.

Israel has staged the "Operation Rainbow" with the following goals in mind:

1. In the past nearly 90 tunnels had been spotted and destroyed by the Israeli officials. However, new tunnels were built in their place. Israel wanted to destroy these passages and halt the arms shipments.

2. Israel aimed to move the Palestinians living in the border region to other areas so that the region would become more easily defendable and controllable. This is why the Israeli forces have destroyed many houses in the region.

3. Israel wanted to eliminate the armed Palestinian groups that controlled the tunnels and operated in the region. In the region the Fatah movement and the Al-Aqsa Brigades affiliated with it are effective in the region rather than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. One of Israel's key targets was reportedly Mousa Arafat, head of the Palestinian military intelligence in the region.

4. Israel wanted to break down the "fighting power" of the Palestinians in the Rafah camp once and for all, preventing the reopening of the tunnels and thus rendering the Egyptian border more secure for Israel.

In the wake of the initial operation Israeli Defense Minister Mofaz announced that there is no time limit for them and that the operations would continue until the entire network of tunnels in the region would be destroyed. Reports coming from the region indicate that Israel has not attained all these goals yet. So, we can expect the operation -that has been halted for the time being-to continue in the coming days until the region is totally rid of the network of tunnels.
As in many earlier cases the operation has triggered a legitimacy crisis for Israel in the international arena. Many countries and international organizations have denounced Israel because of the operation. Even the USA that had unconditionally supported Israel's previous operations announced its disapproval this time. One of the strongest adverse reactions came from Turkey. In fact, this incident has brought up to the surface the tension that has existed between Turkey and Israel for some time. In recent months the killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and the top Hamas official in Gaza Abdelaziz Rantissi in the course of operations staged by Israel had drawn adverse reactions from Turkey. With the latest operation Turkey's reaction became all the more strong and reached a peak when Turkey threatened that the Turkish ambassador might be summoned to Ankara from Israel. Though it was stated that the ambassador might be summoned "in order to obtain his views", that was a significant development because it showed that bilateral relations have reached such a "spot". Though the tension between the two countries came up to the surface due to the aforementioned incidents the problem stems basically from the fact that the two countries' Northern Iraq policies are quite different from one another. The Northern Iraq policy Israel has pursued especially in the aftermath of the Iraq War has upset Turkey. News reports about Israeli land purchases in Northern Iraq via "Kurdish Jews" make Turkey uneasy. The support Israel gives Kurds in Northern Iraq poses a serious problem in Turkey-Israel relations. The assassination of Hamas leaders and the Rafah operation have intensified this tension and brought it to the surface. Although bilateral relations see some serious tension these days we hope that the need the two countries feel for one another in different fields will prevent a further deepening of this tension.


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