Reporter's Notebook: Chance of Israel Military Incursion in Gaza Could Halt Bush Peace Process

E-mail Mike Tobin

My hands are cold. Typing is cumbersome. The stone buildings in the Arab world are always drafty in the wintertime. They’re very cold now that the people of Gaza can’t run the heat. This one is cold enough that I can see my breath in my hotel room. Gaza is blacked out. Israel blockaded the crossings, fuel stopped coming through. The tanks and the power plant in Gaza ran empty and Gaza went dark.

Israel says Hamas is just playing politics; they get enough electricity piped in from Egypt and Israel to run most of the power grid. The U.N. says the grid is too antiquated to allow load sharing. Therefore the places that were powered by the Gaza power plant can only be powered by the Gaza power plant. Whatever is going on, the 1.5 million people who live in the Gaza strip and I are cold tonight.

There is a generator running downstairs. As a result, I have a little light flickering in my room. The battery in my laptop is charged and if I make a phone call an hour before I take a shower tomorrow morning, a guy will turn on the hot water heater for me. I can’t complain. I’m doing better than the average Gazan tonight.

The whole blockade is due to the Qassam rockets, which are shot out of the Gaza strip at Israeli towns and Israel’s response to them. Last week, Israel conducted a particularly deadly military incursion into Gaza to stop the rockets. Among those killed was the son of the prominent Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. Palestinians responded with more rockets. Israel responded by bombing the interior ministry building in Gaza. Then Israel locked down the crossing. Defense Minister Ehud Barak had threatened to take this action for a long time. Now he did it and said he was just exhausting all options before Israel conducted a broad military offensive into Gaza.

There are three problems that keep Israel from making the broad military push into Gaza:

1) It will be bloody. No military commander wants to be part of urban combat on tight densely populated streets like the ones in the Gaza strip. Civilians will get killed. It’s unavoidable when the combatants use demography for cover. Palestinians have home field advantage. Hamas in particular has acquired improved weapons since taking over the Gaza strip. They put the bombs in the ground and wait for the armor to come rolling in. They can’t beat the Israeli army, but they can claim victory if they kill a few soldiers.

2) A big bloody incursion will likely mean the quick death of the Annapolis peace process President Bush is spearheading.

3) It might not work. It doesn’t take much for the rocket teams to set up their tripods load a rocket and fire. I’ve watched them do it in the middle of pitched battles with Israeli attack helicopters overhead. Israel will be out of options if they conduct the big push into Gaza and a day later Sderot gets hit by another rocket.

So, the crossings get shut and everybody suffers. Palestinians cry out “Collective Punishment” and this fits the definition. Article 33 of the Geneva Convention says: No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Since only a small portion of the population fires rockets or is part of the Hamas government, which condones (many argue, supports and orders) the rocket fire, the blockade is, by definition, prohibited collective punishment. Then again, indiscriminant rocket fire and bus bombings also fit the definition of collective punishment.

Israel’s Prime Minister didn’t make any effort to detract from the accusations today when he said, “As far as I’m concerned the residents of Gaza can all go on foot and have no fuel for cars because they have a murderous terrorist regime that doesn’t allow the people in the South of Israel to live in peace.” You can read the message he’s trying to send there loud and clear: Life was better when Hamas was not in charge.

The rocket fire stopped for 24 hours and Israel announced that the blockade would be eased. Fuel for the power plant and diesel for trucks would come back through. Gasoline for cars isn’t going to make it, so Gazans will probably have to go on foot like the prime minister said. But Israel is sending another message: stop the rockets and life will improve.

Now we have to see what message the Palestinians militants want to send. If they don’t shoot rockets it means: we get the point. But safe bet is that they’ll shoot a message saying: We’re still defiant.

This is the first time a FOX News staffer has overnighted in Gaza since Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were released by their kidnappers. It’s the first time a FOX reporter has stayed long enough to do a live shot, but I’m not worried for my safety. There are many criticisms one can voice about Hamas but they do seem to have restored a bit of order to the streets and put the lid on the kidnappings. I’ve been back to Gaza several times since the kidnapping. My colleague Reena Ninan has also been back. There are other foreign journalists visiting and staying in Gaza without any trouble. Besides, few people know that I’m in Gaza. Fewer know where I’m staying. Granted, I did live reports today. But the Arabic speaking locals don’t watch much FOX. I usually zip in and out of Gaza without any trouble. I’ll zip out again when the story is over.

The generator just stopped running. I lost my little nightlight. I’m going to climb in bed and try to get warm.

E-mail Mike Tobin

Mike Tobin is a Jerusalem-based reporter for FOX News Channel. Click over to read more of his bio.

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.