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(photo credit: AP)
If the intimations of senior government officials are to be believed, the IDF is poised to embark on an assault against Hamas the like of which has not been seen since the Muslim extremists captured Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah in June 2007.
This week saw a relentless barrage of rockets and mortars slamming into homes and fields in southern Israel. More and more Israeli cities are now in range of enemy gunners. Even backbiting Israeli politicians who would rather concentrate on the February 10 Knesset elections find themselves obliged to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to the citizenry. The security cabinet appears to have determined - belatedly - that Israel can no longer tolerate the continued attacks.
We ask: What took so long?
HAMAS is the lord of Gaza and widely popular to boot. Fully expecting to supplant Abbas's PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," it wishes to be treated accordingly.
So what if it has rejected out of hand the international community's demand that the Palestinian leadership be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations including the road map? The Islamists expect that their violent behavior - and exploitation of Palestinian "suffering" - will in due course compel the Quartet to modify its shaky principles.
Hamas is even ready to throw Egyptian mediators a bone: It will agree to another temporary cease-fire with the hated Zionists in return for an uninterrupted flow of goods and supplies through Israeli and Egyptian crossing points. Of course, its industrial-scale smuggling of weapons via tunnels beneath the Philadelphi Corridor must proceed unmolested. Access to the sea must also be assured.
Most crucially, Hamas reserves the unfettered right to use every centimeter of its territory - especially areas adjacent to Israel's border - to lay the groundwork for the next phase of its unyielding confrontation with "the Zionist enemy."
Hamas is galled when the IDF interdicts tunnels being dug for future operations against Israel, or when our air force kills gunmen just as they are planting improvised explosive devices along the border fence. Over the horizon, Hamas looks to the day when it can compel Israel to allow it to operate with impunity against Fatah in the West Bank.
IN THE face of this Palestinian obduracy and the likelihood it will be met by international appeasement, Jerusalem must decide on a single, unwavering public diplomacy message. In the face of outlandish demands to "lift the siege" and "end collective punishment," Israel's mantra needs to be: "Hamas must be stopped. Gilad Schalit must be freed."
As a matter of grand strategy, Israel must not tolerate a hostile entity anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Hamas cannot be allowed to metastasize into a second Hizbullah.
Israel's immediate objective must be to make it impossible for Hamas to govern in Gaza. Yet the choice is not between a massive land invasion and paralysis. The proper method of fighting Hamas is a methodical elimination of its political and military command and control. Concurrently, IDF artillery need to shoot back at the sources of enemy fire.
Gaza has a border with Egypt and Cairo has lately invited those who want to send supplies to Gaza to use its Rafah crossing. But the crossing points from Israel into Gaza must be kept closed for the duration of the battle.
Though the political campaign here is in full swing, we expect worthy politicians to put country first. Absent a strong home front, Ehud Olmert's lame-duck government and fragmented coalition will be unable to withstand the predictable international pressure to halt operations prematurely.
Once begun, Israel's battle against Hamas must be terminated only when the Islamists lose their governing capacity. This may set the stage for Western-trained Fatah forces to reenter the Strip.
Any resort to force by the IDF raises the possibility of unintended consequences. Israel's home front could be hit hard. Hizbullah could launch diversionary attacks. The Arab street in non-belligerent countries could roil. If enemy non-combatants are killed, nasty media coverage is certain.
We may express regret; but we must not apologize. Whatever happens, we must be resolute: Hamas must be stopped.