Analysis: Easy to go in, hard to leave

Reconquering northern Gaza is simpler than stopping Kassams.

N.Gaza tank 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
N.Gaza tank 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF returned to the northern Gaza Strip settlements of Nisanit, Elei Sinai and Dugit on Thursday, almost as if Israel had never left them under last year's disengagement. But the return to the evacuated settlements was not as smooth as commanders had probably planned, and after only a few hours on the ground a soldier from the Golani Brigade was shot and killed. In contrast to the IDF presence in the southern Gaza Strip, where troops mainly keep an eye out for kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the troops that moved into the north on Thursday had the primary goal of stopping Kassam rocket fire. To do that, a massive force consisting of several Givati and Golani battalions backed up by Merkava tanks from the 7th Brigade swept into northern Gaza, took over the remains of the three settlements there and began taking up positions inside Palestinian villages and homes. The troops are not just sitting inside tanks and APCs but are fighting on rooftops and in alleys, the type of urban warfare that goes on mainly in the West Bank. That is how St.-Sgt. Yehuda Basel got killed; he was in a Palestinian home when he was spotted by a sniper and shot in the head. The idea, senior officers explained, was to draw out the terrorists from their hiding places, to spot them and then to kill them. But despite the massive IDF presence in northern Gaza on Thursday, Kassam rockets continued to fly towards Israel, demonstrating the complexity of the operation. The troops entered 10 kilometers into Gaza on Thursday and, as the continued Kassam rockets demonstrate, they may need to grab more land to create the buffer zone that would take Sderot and Ashkelon out of range. So while the creation of such a buffer zone might be the only way to keep population centers safe, such a tactic brings back bitter memories from Lebanon, where the IDF held onto a security zone for 18 years in an attempt to prevent the Hizbullah from firing rockets at Israel. Despite the security zone, Hizbullah still succeeded in firing the rockets and the zone quickly became a deadly battlefield for both sides. So with Defense Minister Amir Peretz declaring from the outset of Operation Summer Rains that Israel was not interested in getting stuck in the "Gaza mud" and did not plan to reoccupy the Palestinian territory, the question remained how the IDF would eventually pull out while achieving a complete stop to the Kassam attacks. The IDF knows that military action, as fierce as it might be, will not be enough to stop the Kassam. A parallel back-channel diplomatic process, like the ongoing Qatari and Egyptian attempts at mediation, is what will in the end lead to a resolution and bring the bloodshed to an end, some officers predicted. While the operation in northern Gaza was primarily designed to stop the Kassams, it was ultimately connected to Israel's efforts to retrieve Shalit. Pressure on the Palestinians in the form of dozens of dead gunmen and the reoccupation of parts of Gaza in the north might be the key to getting the diplomatic talks going on in the background into a higher gear. The diplomatic efforts, one officer put forward, were the key to Israel's exit strategy. Some sort of cease-fire agreement under which Israel would pull out its troops and the Palestinians would promise to stop Kassam attacks could also bring about the release of Shalit in return for the release of Palestinian security detainees being held by Israel.