Israel has opted to launch a major attack on Hamas in Gaza. The idea appears to be to use heavy military force, primarily from the air, but with a limited objective: to weaken Hamas to a point where it returns to a ceasefire on conditions congenial to Israel.
The opening conditions are favorable from Israel's standpoint: it achieved tactical surprise in launching a Sabbath attack while much of the world is busy with Christmas and New Year celebrations. The United States is supportive and is in any case between administrations; PM Ehud Olmert's recent visit to Turkey gave Syria an incentive not to meddle; Egypt shares Israel's frustration with Hamas and seemingly--through the vehicle of FM Tzipi Livni's meeting with President Hosni Mubarak on the eve of the attack--gave its blessing. The Israeli political scene, both (Zionist) left and right, is supportive, to the extent of setting aside the current election campaign.
Militarily, Israel ended up with little alternative but to respond to Hamas rocket attacks. Even the Egyptian mediators between Israel and Hamas agreed that the latter had unilaterally broken a ceasefire. Hamas seemed to believe it could fire rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, while arming and fortifying Gaza and flouting Egypt's invitation to negotiate a unity government with the West Bank-based PLO.
Yet the difficult part for Israel is to attack, achieve something, then get out. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi are clearly not anxious to get drawn into ambiguous ground warfare that could multiply Israeli losses and lead to reoccupation of Gazan territory. Nor is the Israeli public or body politic interested in renewed, open-ended occupation of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza or even a portion thereof. On the other hand, the ghost of Israel's failed war against Hizballah in 2006 hovers over this operation: it must end by strengthening Israel's deterrent profile against the militant Islamists.
At the end of the day, however, the operation confirms the contention I have voiced in these virtual pages repeatedly over recent weeks and months: neither Israel nor anyone else has a long-term workable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. This is a militant terrorist organization that has taken over a piece of Palestinian territory but refuses to behave like a sovereign power and, ultimately, glories in the victimhood or martyrdom of its people. Terms like victory, defeat and peace negotiations are irrelevant here. At its best, operation "Cast Lead" (the Hebrew term relates to the current Hanukah holiday, besides sounding appropriate in military terms) will deliver a few more months of ceasefire and tenuous coexistence between Islamist Gaza and its surroundings. Indeed, the operation apparently doesn't aspire to achieve more than that.
And at its worst? The attack on Gaza could, particularly if prolonged over weeks as Minister of Defense Barak threatens, inflame anti-Israeli and anti-western sentiments throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Rioting could spread across the West Bank and among Palestinian citizens of Israel. Hizballah could open a second front in the north, and terrorists could attack anywhere. Hamas rockets will almost certainly continue to rain down in an expanding circle around Gaza (Israeli military planners, learning from the Second Lebanon War, have been careful to caution that this operation cannot stamp out the rocket fire militarily). Finally, Hamas could refuse to renew the ceasefire, despite its losses. The war in Gaza could become a major election issue in Israel. And it could end up as Barack Obama's first presidential crisis.
In the fog of war, alternative strategies look more distant than ever. Yet they are worth recalling.
One is to open up the Gaza passages and cease inflicting ineffective collective punishment on 1.5 million Gazans, making clear that Israel's quarrel is only with the Hamas military and political leadership in Gaza and beyond. Once this operation is over, and assuming Israel emerges from it in a position of strength, that would be the time to take this step.
Another is to seek direct talks with Hamas, on the assumption that the movement is here to stay and cannot be ignored forever. This is not simple: most (but not all) Hamas leaders don't want to talk to us; those who do have a limited and problematic agenda that does not include recognition of Israel or peace. Then too, we have to be careful not to undercut the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who does recognize Israel and does wants peace. Still, this option must find a place on our strategic agenda, if only in the form of informal, unofficial contacts.
Finally, if nothing else works and Israeli vulnerability to Hamas rockets expands in an increasingly broad radius around the Strip, we may indeed end up with the option we fear the most: reoccupying all or part of the Strip with the goal of militarily eliminating Hamas. The price would be heavy losses on both sides and an open-ended occupation without an exit strategy. Everyone would condemn us; nobody would volunteer to take Gaza off our hands. Hamas, for its part, is counting on our reticence to invoke this option, which would set us and the Middle East back by 40 years.
I wish this operation quick success with minimal civilian losses all round. If Hamas does not show concern for Gazans and ask for a renewed ceasefire, Israel should try ceasing all operations for a day as a gesture to allow Hamas to end the conflict with a measure of dignity, through Egyptian or Qatari mediation. Yet under the best of circumstances, none of this will really solve our Hamas problem.- Published 29/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The devastating Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the past few days did not come as a surprise to anybody. Its scale and magnitude, however, were unexpected by almost everybody except its perpetrators.
The attack, which Israel called "Operation Cast Lead", began around 11:30 A.M last Saturday when 64 aircraft delivered over 100 tons of explosives on 50 to 100 targets in the Gaza Strip. It was described by officials as the largest Israeli operation in Gaza since 1967. In that first attack, over 130 were killed and about 800 injured. The number of casualties on that day and the following few days has continued to rise and those slain come from a seemingly random sample of society: they include Hamas security forces and civilian men, women and children, among them seven UNRWA students and their instructor.
Israel's disproportionate and indiscriminate bombing of Gaza should invite experts of humanitarian and international law to seriously investigate the Palestinian claim that the attack is a war crime.
On the second day of the Israeli attack, the objectives of both Israel and Hamas were clear. Israel wanted to teach Hamas the same lesson that it meant to give Hizballah in the summer of 2006: that there is a heavy price all Gazans will pay when Hamas launches any attack against Israelis. In addition, Israel wanted to destroy the smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza without any promise of easing its siege on Gaza. In other words, Israel wanted to renew the truce while maintaining, and consolidating, the closure.
Hamas is even clearer in what it is striving to achieve from this confrontation. In the first official statement on the first day of the attack it declared that the "practical response to the Israeli attack is the opening of the Rafah crossing and the cutting of diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states."
It is notable that following that declaration, which was echoed by all Hamas spokespeople, the call to open the Rafah crossing and criticism of Egypt for failing to do so became the main rallying call in almost all solidarity demonstrations across the Arab world. That is a strong indicator that there are well-organized groups taking advantage of Arab sympathy with the Palestinians of Gaza to make political gains on a regional level. The harmony between Hamas and Islamic political parties in the region is significant.
In spite of the heavy material and human losses, the Israeli attack on Gaza is strengthening Hamas politically and increasing public support and sympathy for the movement. Hamas is using this momentum to achieve an end to the closure of Gaza, not by Israel opening the crossings it controls but by Egypt opening Rafah. The irony here is that if Rafah is opened on Hamas' terms, is will also secure a significant Israeli strategic objective, namely handing over effective responsibility for Gaza to Egypt.
In the meantime, the war in Gaza is also affecting the balance of power between the two main rival factions in Palestine, Fateh and Hamas. The Israeli attack has increased public sympathy and support for Hamas because it is the target of these attacks and because it is trying to fight back. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, meanwhile, finds itself in an awkward and difficult position.
For one thing, it has been marginalized and has been the target of criticism while being compared unfavorably with the role and position of Hamas in Gaza. This has led Fateh spokespeople and leaders to change their tone from trying to hint at Hamas responsibility for the suffering of Gazans to a more reasonable and rational tone, exemplified by President Mahmoud Abbas, who, during a meeting of the PLO's Executive Committee, suggested that the time is right for coordination between the different factions and invited all factions, including Hamas, to address this issue.
This change in tone could result in some positive momentum in the dialogue among the Palestinian factions that are under growing pressure from the public to reconcile.- Published 29/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Replaying the 2006 Lebanon War
by Yisrael Harel
After nearly three days and nights of bombing the Gaza Strip, we can with considerable certainty specify the strategic objective that Israel wants to achieve from this expansive bombing campaign. In the language of many spokespersons, it is to "create a new security reality".
But can waves of bombing, however accurate, achieve such a goal? In Lebanon, Israel learned the hard way that a modus operandi consisting mainly of aerial bombing does not defeat the enemy. It was Hizballah and not Israel that was seen across the Middle East and beyond as the winner in that war. The reasoning is simple: due to the danger to enemy civilian lives Israel is not free, nor does it seek, to exploit its advantage in the air to score a decisive victory.
As in Lebanon, the psychological momentum needed for creating a new reality is dissipating with every additional hour of bombing that is not accompanied by a ground operation. I fear that Israel's civilian and military leaders are plagued by a mental block that is not even influenced by the lessons of Lebanon. The air operation this time is better than then, but the strategy--which does not pursue the objective of decisive victory--and the modus operandi are distressingly similar.
Air strikes can indeed generate a "new security reality"; they did, for example, in World War II. But even if Israel has the technical capability, it will not pursue such an objective at a cost of heavy Palestinian civilian losses. True, the Gaza bombings are accurate and cause relatively few civilian losses. And the destruction of rocket storage depots along the philadelphi strip was undoubtedly an intelligence and operational triumph. Yet an air strategy alone cannot create a new security reality in Gaza. When Israel is compelled to end the bombings--and we are not far from the moment when external pressures from Europe and America bend the will of the Israeli leadership, which is always too accommodating toward such pressures--most of Hamas' war-fighting infrastructure will be destroyed but its grip on the Strip will remain strong and perhaps even be stronger.
The situation could look different had Israel dared to introduce ground forces into the Strip in conjunction with the air offensive. While this might have placed some soldiers in harm's way, this is the only way Israel could deal with Hamas and its combat echelon and generate far-reaching political change. Such an operation, like "Defensive Shield" in Judea and Samaria in 2002, would enable Israel not only to destroy Hamas' human and technical infrastructure but also to set up its own intelligence infrastructure in the Strip, just as it did in 2002 in Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin and the other cities of Judea and Samaria. After Defensive Shield, Israel left those cities, but ever since then, when it receives intelligence concerning plans to launch suicide bombings and other operations against its civilians, Israel's forces return to any city almost unimpeded and apprehend the terrorists.
This is the minimal outcome to which Israel should aspire in Operation Cast Lead as well. Yet because it is avoiding a ground campaign, it cannot establish in Gaza the kind of network it set up in Judea and Samaria. Hence, following a ceasefire modeled on UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, peace and quiet may be maintained in Israel's southern communities for a bit longer than usual. But in the end, the rockets will fall once again when Hamas, after rearming, chooses to launch them.
Israel's reticence to deploy ground forces will generate an additional and very negative outcome from Israel's standpoint: it will prove to the enemy that Israel's painful Achilles' heel is the fear of loss of life among its troops. This fear, which led Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah to liken Israel to a cobweb, is causing Israel heavy damage. The disdainful declarations from Tehran regarding the "Zionist entity's" capacity to survive--and Iran's preparations to make good on its mocking predictions--are one of the results.
It stands to reason that an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip would end up the same way its entry into Palestinian cities did in 2002: nearly without casualties (with the exception of an unnecessary complication in Jenin) and with maximum results in terms of damage inflicted on the terrorists. But the convoy of Israeli tanks moving south for all to see two days ago and the call-up of reserves that was also ballyhooed to the public do not necessarily mean a ground operation is near. With every passing hour, this becomes a less likely option because of outside interference that has already begun. Had the government of Israel really sought to create a new security reality it would have introduced ground forces immediately following the "shock and awe" bombing of the enemy that so upset its equilibrium on Saturday. When this did not happen, the forces sent south found themselves engaged in psychological warfare--not real war.- Published 29/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He is former head of the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and former editor of its monthly Nekuda.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
An Israeli trap for Hamas
by Mkhaimar Abusada
The truce between Hamas and Israel ended in the early hours of December 19, but the accusations over why it ended have followed the missiles and rockets across the border.
Hamas accuses Israel of not complying with the terms of the six-month Egyptian-mediated truce under which Israel was expected to end its siege and blockade of the Gaza Strip, re-open the commercial border crossing between Gaza and Israel and halt its military activities against Gazans.
Israel holds Hamas and other Palestinian groups responsible for not respecting their part of the truce. Israel claims that the firing of Qassam missiles and mortar shells did not stop and accuses Hamas of exploiting the truce by conducting more training and building better fortifications along the border between Gaza and Israel. Israel has also said straight out that the border crossings would not be fully re-opened without the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006.
In the knowledge that Israel had sent its envoy Amos Gilad to Egypt to renew the truce a week before it expired, Hamas felt it could hold out for better conditions. The Islamist movement seemed convinced that the political leadership in Israel was not interested in war in Gaza. Hamas also felt that Israel wanted to exploit the political divide between the West Bank and Gaza as long as possible and therefore was not in a hurry to start a war with Hamas.
But, to the contrary, the Israeli security establishment was busy with the long-term preparation of a major military operation and was carefully gathering intelligence, engaged in secret discussions, operational deception and spreading disinformation to mislead the public. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, reportedly instructed the Israeli army to prepare for the operation over six months ago, even as Israel was beginning to negotiate the just-expired truce agreement with Hamas.
Hamas fell into the trap. Israel is in the middle of an election campaign and the governing coalition is looking for excuses to justify a military attack on Hamas and its infrastructure in Gaza. Some of the right wing parties in Israel, mainly the Likud headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, were accusing the government of not doing enough to stop the firing of missiles from Gaza and even called on Barak to resign from his position.
According to Israeli public opinion polls, the Labor party headed by Barak will be the main loser in the coming elections while the Likud stands to become the biggest party in parliament. In other words, this was Barak's golden opportunity to launch a military strike against Hamas and improve his standing with the Israeli electorate. As a result, Israel launched the largest Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip since it captured the territory in 1967, leaving more than 300 people dead and hundreds more wounded at the time of writing.
What comes next is extremely important. Whether Israel halts its air strikes against Gaza or continues the war and launches a ground invasion will depend on Israeli goals and interests. Israel has learned some lessons from the 2006 Lebanon War and has limited its immediate goal to ending the firing of missiles from Gaza. But military operations are like snowballs: the more momentum they gather the bigger they become. Soon Israel might find itself launching a full and comprehensive invasion if it calculates that the cost will be minimal.
But Israeli calculations will also depend on Hamas' behavior. If Hamas launches a large number of long-range missiles at major Israeli cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod, it will provide Israel another golden opportunity to go all the way. But if Hamas restrains itself, Israel might reconsider its position. Israel expects Hamas to retaliate and launch a barrage of missiles on Israeli towns and cities, but Hamas has so far been careful. The movement knows that any irrational behavior will cost it its government and potentially its existence in the Gaza Strip.
Nevertheless, Israel is hedging its bets. The army announced its intention to call up 6,700 reservists and Israeli officials said some reservists had already been mobilized to help protect Israeli towns and villages on the Gaza border from retaliatory Palestinian rocket attacks. Hundreds of Israeli infantry and armored corps troops are headed for the Gaza Strip border in preparation for a possible ground invasion.
Was the war on Gaza inevitable? One can argue that Israel's genuine interest with its air strikes is strikingly similar to Hamas' interest in firing scores of rockets into Israeli population centers: to force a ceasefire on better terms than the one just ended. For Hamas, this largely means securing an easing of Israeli economic sanctions against Gazans. For Israel, this centers on ending the rocket fire. For both sides, it means a prisoner exchange involving Gilad Shalit and hundreds of jailed Hamas members.- Published 29/12/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
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