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The national morale is quite high. Most Israelis are thinking: How good it feels to see our side winning a war. The attack on Gaza is supported by an overwhelming majority of Israelis who are fed up with seven years of rocket attacks from Gaza. This viewpoint is quite easy to understand: We left Gaza up to the international border, we removed settlements, the army left, the occupation ended - if they continue to attack us, it is not because of the occupation, it is because they don't want us to live.
The Palestinian position is obviously quite different. First, with hundreds of casualties, there is the outrage at what they call the disproportionate use of force. For them each casualty is a fellow Palestinian, regardless of which movement he belonged to or supported. Our reaction as Jews would be the same, if the circumstances were reversed.
Palestinians claim that the occupation never ended because Israel continued to control all of the entry and exit points of Gaza, as well as the airspace and the territorial waters. They also claim that because Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza while humiliating President Mahmoud Abbas by describing him as a "chick with no feathers and a non-partner" that Hamas was able to own the narrative of victory. Hamas claimed in the elections that it had succeeded in pushing Israel out of Gaza through its constant acts of "resistance," and the Palestinian public bought it.
ONE OF Israel's problems in dealing with Hamas is that it was elected democratically in fair, clean and safe elections. After the election, Hamas rejected the conditions set by the Quartet to be engaged: recognizing Israel's right to exist, denouncing and renouncing terrorism and adhering to the Oslo agreements. Despite Hamas's ideology, it has demonstrated elements of rationality and pragmatism. One example of this was its decision to participate in the elections which were based entirely on the Oslo agreements that it rejects. The second example was in implementing a cease-fire without recognition.
Along with the general boycott of the Hamas governments, the Gilad Schalit kidnapping led to a complete siege on Gaza, a closing of all of the border crossings and an aggressive military policy that led to the killing of more than 1,000 Palestinians before the current war. The logic behind these policies was to create public pressure on the Hamas government to release Schalit and on the public to revolt against the Hamas government. This policy exploded with the Hamas military coup of June 2007.
SINCE THEN, Hamas grew in strength, both militarily and in terms of public support. The policy of boycott and siege was not successful. Hamas's decision not to renew the cease-fire was based on two elements - its claim that Israel did not honor its part of the agreement, which it says was the opening of the Rafah crossing, and an inflated and exaggerated sense of military strength that led it to believe that it was invincible in front of the IDF which lost the war, in its view, against Hizbullah.
The government declared that the goal of this war is to put an end to the firing of missiles and mortars from Gaza. There was no declaration of a goal to bring about a regime change in Gaza. There are certainly those who believe that the current military operation should not be limited to stopping the rocket fire. There are significant Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians and others who think that the military invasion should be used to bring about a regime change. At least one news report in The Jerusalem Post "PA 'ready' to take Gaza if Hamas ousted" (December 28) suggests that Palestinian Authority officials are even encouraging Israel in this direction, saying that they will be ready to take over Gaza after the task is completed.
Regime change in Gaza is no easy task. Gaza is not Iraq and the Hamas regime is not Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, once the leader was removed, the entire house of cards came tumbling down. The Hamas regime is much more rooted within the population. It was also elected democratically and worked very hard to base its hold over the population. There were at least 20,000 armed fighters under Hamas military command before this war. There is also probably an underground city beneath the Gaza Strip where the leadership and fighters can hide and deploy against the advancing IDF.
I have friends in Gaza and in the West Bank who would be very pleased if Israel completes the job and brings about a regime change. They belong mostly to what was once the middle class of Gazan society - the small factory owners and the leaders of what was once the private sector. They want Gaza to return to the control of the PA. Hamas decimated and systematically disarmed the Fatah leadership in Gaza. Some 250 Fatah leaders were in Hamas prisons at the time of the first air raid. There were reports that 35 Fatah prisoners were killed in that attack. It is not known if the others escaped from the other Hamas prisons before they were bombed.
The thought of Palestinian Authority troops from the West Bank riding into Gaza following the Israeli tanks is surrealistic. Regardless if you are a supporter of Hamas or its foe, the Palestinian street is boiling with anger at Israel for this attack. Palestinian see the attack as barbaric and criminal in its disproportionate use of force. Talking about the numbers of casualties is unavoidable - one Israeli dead against hundreds of Palestinians. It seems that even the IDF was taken by surprise by the high number of casualties in the first strike. Naturally, 90 percent of them were described as being Hamas policemen or fighters. That may be true; what is not understood in those numbers is the fact that many of those wearing police uniforms were not members of Hamas, they simply needed a job to bring food home to their families.
THERE WAS a real possibility to return to a cease-fire, but Israel rejected Hamas's terms of ending the economic siege. Israel was no longer willing to accept the growing empowerment of Hamas and its continued accumulation of more sophisticated weapons and missiles. The question is now whether Israel will be able to accept the consequences of the war.
If the war ends without a regime change, but a return to a cease-fire on Israel's terms, with hundreds of Palestinians killed and thousands wounded, with Gaza destroyed, Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank will not be able to forgive and will never forget. A future peace process may become impossible and unthinkable, perhaps for people on both sides.
If the end of this war results in a regime change in Gaza, there may be a possibility to rebuild Gaza and heal some of the wounds of this battle - if Gaza truly becomes free from Israeli occupation and control and if there is a return to sincere negotiations for a permanent status agreement, without excuses and without delays. Israel would have to demonstrate its intentions of engaging a reunited Palestinian Authority of the West Bank and Gaza by freezing all settlements, removing outposts, removing checkpoints and allowing Palestinians to see a real horizon of freedom.
Those are a lot of ifs. A lot of uncertainties are before us. As every military expert asserts, we know how it begins, we never know how it ends.
The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org
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