tanks lined up 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was a rare terror summit and one that defense officials recalled was the opportunity of a lifetime. The "who's who" of Hamas were scheduled to be there - spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, arch-terrorist and bombmaker Muhammad Dief, political leader Ismail Haniyeh and Kassam inventor Adnan al-Ghoul.
The meeting was to take place at the apartment of Dr. Marwan Abu Ras, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza City. The date was September 6, 2003, a time when, like today, Israel had declared war on Hamas.
That day, unmanned aerial vehicles broadcast live images from outside Abu Ras's apartment building as Yassin, Haniyeh, Deif, Ghoul and others showed up for the meeting. Following quick consultations between prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz, the decision to bomb the building was made.
"It was a rare opportunity to deal Hamas a fatal blow in one shot," a senior defense official who was involved in the planning recalled this week. "It was just a question of getting it done right."
But then the deliberations began. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon feared civilian casualties - or a repeat of the strike on Hamas leader Salah Shehada in 2002, in which 14 civilians, including children, were killed. Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter recognized the opportunity and pushed for a strike.
The compromise: A medium-sized bomb was picked for the strike and was fired at only the top floor of the building where intelligence believed the leaders were convening. The end result: All of the Hamas leaders, who were actually meeting on the ground floor, walked away with only minor injuries.
In the four years that have passed, Israel has succeeded in getting its hands on some of the meeting's participants: Yassin and Ghoul were killed in separate air strikes in 2004. But the conflict has remained much the same. Deif, while believed to have been seriously wounded in an attempt on his life last summer, is still orchestrating attacks, and Haniyeh is prime minister of the Palestinian Authority unity government.
The strategy against Hamas has also not changed much in four years, as demonstrated by the security cabinet's decision this week to renew targeted killings of its leaders in Gaza and the West Bank. The government, defense officials complained, was in fact regressing, not progressing.
At the moment, it appears that Hamas is winning. Air strikes over the past week may have dented the terror group, but it is still succeeding in firing off more than a dozen Kassam rockets a day. Fatah is being overrun by Hamas in Gaza, which has led some Israeli cabinet ministers to begin speculating whether there is a viable alternative to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who has failed to rally his forces to challenge Hamas.
While the IDF has drafted a number of operational plans for dealing with Hamas - from invading Gaza to creating buffer zones - Kassam rockets are still pounding the South. Targeted killings do not constitute a strategy for dealing with the Hamas threat, but are rather tactical solutions that could, according to the likes of Mofaz, now transportation minister, instill fear within Hamas leaders to the point that they halt the fire.
BUT ONCE the fire stops, what will the government do? Will Prime Minister Ehud Olmert allow the IDF to continue striking at Hamas or will it cease military operations and allow Hamas to build up militarily again? And then what will the response be the next time Kassams fly over the border?
The strategy for dealing with Hamas was initially formulated after the movement won the PA elections in January 2005. Three conditions were set that, if met, would legitimate Hamas - a cessation of terror, recognition of previous peace agreements and an acknowledgement that Israel has the right to exist. These conditions were never met and Hamas has only grown stronger.
While February's Mecca Agreement paved the way for the national unity government and the blurring of the international boycott of the PA government, Israeli strategy vis -vis Hamas has remained the same. While Hamas fires Kassams, PA Finance Minister Salaam Fayad traverses the globe collecting funds for the new government.
The West Bank is where success in the war on terror can really be felt. In Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin, the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have succeeded in curbing terror by launching arrest raids on a daily basis, like the sweep overnight Wednesday during which the PA education minister and 32 other Hamas officials were arrested.
This is where the arrest raid in Khan Yunis overnight Tuesday came into play. According to government officials, the operation was meant to send a message that the tactics employed in the West Bank are also going to be used in Gaza. Daily arrest raids, while operationally difficult, together with targeted killings, could restore some lost deterrence and even weaken Hamas.
These, however, are still tactics- not a real strategy. Part of that strategy will be set, whether Olmert is ready or not, in the coming days when, according to predictions within the defense establishment, Hamas reduces the number of rocket attacks in an effort to stop the IDF operations.
When that happens, the government will need to decide whether to take advantage of the momentum and allow the IDF to continue operations or cease its fire. According to defense officials, if Hamas stops the rocket fire, there would be room to consider a cease-fire. But if it utilizes the quiet to smuggle even more weapons into Gaza, the IDF would be inclined to continue its operations.
However you look at it, Israel will once again be following Hamas's lead.