There were two interesting indications Saturday of how future relations between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza will play out, particularly vis-a-vis the prospects for Israeli military intervention. First were the gradually escalating Israel military incursions in the north and south. Then came the Hamas response, a statement by one its spokespeople that Hamas would extend its ceasefire with Israel if Israel ended such incursions and eased restrictions on the movement of goods in and out of Gaza.
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza the future of relations between Gaza and Israel has been the subject of all kinds of debates at both the political and military levels in Israel. For some Israelis, having the Palestinian territories divided under different leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza makes the mission of Israel easier, since it weakens the Palestinian side politically and militarily and thus diminishes the prospects of any independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories emerging. This school of thought is willing to deal separately with the Fateh leadership in the West Bank and the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Others, however, are worried about Hamas' control over Gaza and see it as not being in the interest of Israel because it could sooner or later create a base to be used, including on the military level, against Israel.
Hamas' commitment to the ceasefire since its victory in elections and its ability to ensure the kind of discipline among most of the resistance factions that Fateh was unable to influence, encouraged those Israelis who thought they could live with the current situation. The main worries in Israel relate to the smuggling of arms and trained fighters through the Egypt-Gaza border as well as the continuing rocket fire from Gaza. Indeed, it was an incident of the latter, when a rocket hit a military base and injured some 70 soldiers, which sparked the current debate in Israel about whether to enter into a major military operation in Gaza.
This debate includes several considerations. One of these is a political consideration: whether having Hamas control Gaza is useful for Israel. This has to do with the internal Palestinian situation in which continued Hamas control over Gaza contributes to the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the government led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. The dilemma here is that continued Hamas control over Gaza undermines the ability of Abbas to deliver any kind of negotiated agreement, but weakening Hamas through Israeli military force will also not play into the hands of Abbas. On the contrary, it will further discredit the West Bank leadership and empower Hamas politically. Yet at the same time, the option of ending Hamas-control by resuming an inter-Palestinian dialogue of a kind that will bring back a unity government is a non-starter from an Israeli and American point of view.
The military considerations also seem to indicate that any military intervention is not an easy mission and will cause casualties on both sides, especially on the Palestinian side. This is going to reflect negatively on the image of Israel and positively on the credibility and popularity of Hamas.
For these reasons, it is most likely that Hamas and Israel will remain on the brink of military confrontation without actually going over the top; the current low-intensity conflict will most likely remain that way at least until the end of the year. This means there will be a continuation of small Israeli incursions and limited air attacks.
Meanwhile, the prospects for the US-sponsored peace meeting between Abbas and Olmert will directly reflect on the prospects for a large-scale military confrontation in Gaza. If the current signs of hesitation vis-a-vis this conference continue, this will increase the chances of violence in Gaza. As it is now, there appear to be serious regional obstacles to that conference. The American exclusion of Syria, for reasons to do with Iraq and Lebanon, is causing Saudi Arabia, which needs Arab consensus to take part in an official meeting with Israel, to take a step back.
If, however, these problems are solved and the meeting takes place, that should reduce chances of a major military operation in Gaza.- Published 17/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
The current Israeli military approach to dealing with the steady stream of Qassam rocket fire and mortar rounds from the Gaza Strip is a kind of multiple military-political trade-off. It is not working. Hence the search for alternatives.
Currently, the IDF limits its response to pin-point attacks directed solely against perpetrators. It thereby maintains a relative balance of peace and quiet, though not in Sderot, which is effectively sacrificed to steady, low level attrition. This "tolerable" level of violence enables the government of Israel, in turn, to proceed with its negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Those negotiations, if successful, are intended to weaken Hamas politically.
Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in an attempt to build up Fateh's military capabilities while Quartet envoy Tony Blair is charged with enhancing Palestinian Authority civilian institutions and Israel is asked to make security concessions on the West Bank, all with the objective of giving Abbas additional tools with which to strengthen his rule and weaken Hamas.
Thus far, there are three major problems with this strategy. For one, no one is particularly impressed with the effort being made by Abbas and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert to advance toward a genuine peace process. Then too, Hamas appears to be getting stronger, not weaker, in the Gaza Strip. And finally, Israeli casualties from the Qassams--a statistical inevitability even in this instance of an inaccurate terror weapon--are threatening the integrity of the entire complex process. This was evident last week in the heavy casualties at the Zikim military base; it is also reflected in the growing perception that successive governments of Israel, faced with the slow but steady decimation of an Israeli town, Sderot, whose only sin was to be built near the Gaza Strip, are incapable of fulfilling their basic obligation of protecting Israeli citizens.
This explains the growing pressures inside Israel to look at alternative military approaches to dealing with Gaza. At the same time, the generally acknowledged requirement that Qassam rocket fire be stopped at an acceptable price in terms of human lives and living conditions on both sides of the Gaza green line seriously constrains the options.
In the interest of clarity, we note that Hamas is a terrorist organization that preaches Israel's destruction. Attacks against Israeli civilians from Hamas-governed Gaza are terrorism, pure and simple, and Hamas is responsible. Israel has the right to stop those attacks by any means. But those means should be proportional.
Cutting supplies of water, electricity and fuel to Gaza is extremely problematic from the humanitarian standpoint and in any case is unlikely to persuade Gazans to revolt against the Hamas leadership. By the same token, massive military retaliation in the form of heavy bombings and/or reoccupation would be extremely costly in human lives; reoccupation would be a giant step backward after the August 2005 withdrawal and would once again raise heavy moral issues, internationally and domestically, for Israelis.
This leaves Israel with one escalatory option that has proven successful in the past in radically reducing the motivation and capabilities of Gaza-based terrorist groups to attack Israeli civilians: decapitating the Hamas leadership, both military and "civilian". When Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abd al-Aziz Rantisi were assassinated in the spring of 2004, attacks stopped for about half a year.
Does this justify again considering the assassination option? On the downside, Israel would again undoubtedly pay a price in terms of international condemnation, particularly if innocent civilians were killed and injured in its attacks against Hamas leaders. There would at least temporarily be heightened levels of violence, including threats on the lives of Israeli leaders, as Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups in Gaza retaliated. Then too, this time Israel would presumably be targeting legally elected Hamas officials who won a fair election in January 2006; even during the previous round the moral legitimacy of assassinating non-elected Palestinian leaders was heavily debated. Finally, even past successes had no more than a temporary effect in terms of reducing Hamas' ardor for attacking Israeli civilians.
On the other hand, this is a mode of retaliation and deterrence whose effectiveness has been proven: six months of peace and quiet should not be taken lightly. Compared to other tactics, it is relatively just and cost-free in terms of both Palestinian and Israeli lives and the basic Palestinian standard of living inside Gaza. International and Arab reaction is likely to be tempered by the perception that Hamas has since 2004 moved into the Iranian and Islamist radical orbit and that Israel is honoring its obligations toward the alternative and equally legitimate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. In Israel, this approach would improve morale and stiffen the resistance of Sderot.
All in all, and given the limited and problematic alternatives, this is an option worth reconsidering, particularly if it were accompanied by an Israeli readiness to reopen the Gaza crossings and improve living conditions in the Strip, alongside substantive progress in Israel's negotiations with Abbas.- Published 17/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Gaza expects an onslaught
an interview with Abu Mohammad
bitterlemons: Hamas has announced that it intends to continue its truce with Israel but is also preparing for a large-scale Israeli military operation. How likely is such an operation?
Abu Mohammad: Israel is already carrying out limited incursions into some border areas in Beit Hanoun and Rafah. There are a lot of Israeli tanks and troops stationed on the border with Gaza. These two factors indicate that we may expect a large Israeli operation soon. The Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades together with other resistance factions are preparing for such an eventuality. Hence you can see sand barricades being erected across the northern Gaza Strip.
bitterlemons: Israel says continued rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip are a cause for any military response. Is this something Hamas intends to address, even if rockets are fired by other groups?
Abu Mohammad: The reason for the rockets is the Israeli occupation. The Israelis don't need any justification for their aggression and their violence. They enter the Gaza Strip every day, with or without rockets. And there are no rockets from the West Bank, yet they still invade towns and cities there on a daily basis. Israel says what it says because it wants to portray itself as the victim and not the aggressor that it really is.
Firing rockets is one of the means Palestinians employ to show their frustration and anger. It is to send a message to the world that there is a nation in Gaza that is suffering under an illegal and oppressive occupation and that the world must move to help us by exerting pressure on Israel to stop this occupation and give Palestinians their rights. As we have said many times, we are ready to have calm if the Israelis end their aggression.
bitterlemons: Does Hamas suspect other motives behind any possible Israeli attack?
Abu Mohammad: I believe that there are a number of purely political reasons behind this situation. First, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is becoming weaker and weaker and to improve his domestic image Palestinians are about to suffer. The more Palestinians he manages to kill the more his society will see him as a strong leader. This is the Zionist mentality. There are no calls for peaceful solutions in Israel, only calls for bloody solutions.
Second, the autumn peace meeting is about to start, and Israel doesn't want any other power on the ground than the one it supports, i.e., President Mahmoud Abbas and his illegitimate government. In other words, Israel only wants to empower those that are ready to renounce their rights and go to a summit to sign whatever Israel wants them to sign and come back, yet again, empty-handed. Hamas will not accept to do this, so accordingly Israel aims to destroy Hamas in Gaza.
Finally, I also expect that Israel is preparing a military strike against Syria. Before that the Israelis want to secure their borders with Gaza because they are worried about the possible Palestinian reaction in sympathy with Syria.
bitterlemons: In case of a large-scale Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, what will happen? With Gaza's difficult economic situation, is there a danger of complete breakdown?
Abu Mohammad: What economic situation? Since the beginning of the intifada, Israel has systematically targeted the economy by blocking all crossings in and out of Gaza. And since the Hamas takeover of Gaza the borders have been completely closed except for absolutely basic humanitarian aid. Factories are shutting down and unemployment is spiraling due to this siege and the international community is watching silently as Gazans starve.
bitterlemons: How effective will any resistance to an Israeli operation be? And is Hamas worried that other groups in Gaza might take advantage of such a situation and weaken Hamas?
Abu Mohammad: Hamas has always led the Palestinian resistance and we are not afraid. Any competition in resisting the occupation is a good thing that we will welcome. We seek liberation, not political support.- Published 17/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Abu Mohammad is a leader of Hamas' military wing, the Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades, northern forces.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The logic behind an IDF reoccupation
by Yaakov Amidror
In truth, Israel's response to rocket fire from Gaza will have little influence on its relations with the Palestinians. President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), currently Israel's only interlocutor, can neither make concessions in anyone else's name nor coerce anyone. Indeed, the day the IDF loosens its grip on the West Bank, we will witness the countdown toward a takeover there by Hamas.
These are the basic and important facts of life that will determine the nature of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians. Israel's reaction to the rocket fire from Gaza will have but a short-lived and insignificant effect on that relationship.
Israel currently has four potential ways of responding to the continued Qassam fire.
First, it can submit. It can agree to a ceasefire attained through direct or indirect negotiations with Hamas. Those negotiations would provide Hamas with the attributes of legitimacy as an interlocutor, while the ceasefire would give it time to complete its takeover of Gaza and build up its military capacity until it feels strong enough. The temporary quiet generated by the ceasefire, however illusory, would provide a convenient backdrop for ongoing negotiations with Abu Mazen. This would be convenient for both Abu Mazen and the government of Israel, to the extent that through negotiations held against such a backdrop Abu Mazen could register genuine achievements. The Israeli government would rationalize its concessions based on its desire to maintain peace and quiet and bolster Abu Mazen's leadership.
A second possibility is maintaining the status quo with occasional deeper and even audacious penetrations into the Gaza Strip, while ensuring that IDF troops do not remain for long inside the Strip in order to control the territory. Under these circumstances, quiet would not be maintained for long and Qassams would continue to fall on Israeli towns around Gaza. But this situation would be described as a reasonable price to pay for strengthening Abu Mazen and the moderate line he represents.
Third, Israel could exact a price for every Qassam by exploiting its capacity to stop the flow of electricity, fuel, flour and even water to the Strip. The assumption here is that, if deprived of the most basic commodities, Palestinians would revolt and apply pressure to Hamas. This approach would not seek to influence Abu Mazen politically, although he would be hard pressed to proceed with negotiations with an Israeli partner portrayed as cruel and exploiting unfortunate civilians as hostages.
In my modest opinion, this approach would stand little chance of success, for two reasons. For one, Hamas is more brutal than it might seem; there is no reason to believe that it would now be more considerate of its civilians. Then too, the approach would fail because of international opinion, which would refuse to legitimize such Israeli action even though nearly all nations have at one time or another used it. Moreover, I believe that for moral reasons Israel as a Jewish state should avoid following this path. But this moves us into a discussion of the dos and don'ts of fighting terrorists who exploit a friendly civilian population--a discussion that can be pursued at another time and place.
Fourth and last, Israel has the option of responding to the Qassams by entering the territory from which they were fired, cleansing it of terrorist elements and remaining there for years, along the pattern of the West Bank since the spring of 2002. If the range of the rockets were to increase, so too would the extent of IDF occupation, with the objective of preventing terrorist activity.
This approach has several major constraints. It would involve the death of Israeli soldiers and not a few Palestinians. The process of eliminating terrorist capabilities in occupied territory is not a short one (about half a year, based on the West Bank experience), and it produces a heavy increase in hostile contact with Palestinians. Abu Mazen would clearly be hard put to maintain the pretense of a political track and would be forced to postpone it. Both he and the government of Israel would be placed in a difficult situation.
These are the relevant circumstances under which, for an extended time now, the Israeli government has delayed making a decision to reoccupy the north-eastern sector of the Strip in order to prevent attacks on Sderot--even though there is no other way, save surrender, to prevent the Qassam fire. Clearly, as long as the government of Israel prefers to negotiate with Abu Mazen it will seek to postpone a military move deemed necessary for the protection of its citizens.
Thus does Abu Mazen indirectly rescue Hamas, his primary enemy, from a massive Israeli blow.- Published 17/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror was head of the Assessment and Production Division of IDF Intelligence, military secretary to the minister of defense, and head of the National Defense College. He recently headed the team that reviewed the performance of IDF Intelligence in the Second Lebanon War.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.