Analysis: Out of luck in Gaza

Hamas's rocket attacks, which have killed 18 since 2007, force Israel's hand.

Amnon Rozenberg 224 (photo credit: AP)
Amnon Rozenberg 224
(photo credit: AP)
In a briefing with military correspondents at the Kirya military headquarters in the spring of 2006, when the possibility of war in Lebanon was far from the IDF's mind, then-chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz was asked to explain the army's strategy for dealing with the Hamas threat in the Gaza Strip. These were the days before Hamas kidnapped Gilad Schalit (in June 2006) and before it violently took over Gaza (in June 2007). Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah forces still patrolled the streets in a show of absent force before they were run out by the outnumbered Hamas men. "There is no doubt that luck is a key factor in our strategy," Halutz said when pressed why Israel did not respond more fiercely to the incessant Kassam rocket fire. Last month that luck began to run out. The Hamas-fired mortar shell that killed 51-year-old Amnon Rozenberg at Kibbutz Nir Oz on Thursday raised the death toll of Israelis in the battle of attrition with Hamas to eight since the beginning of the year. In all of 2007, 10 Israelis were killed by rocket fire from Gaza. Rozenberg was the third Israeli killed by projectiles from Gaza in just three weeks. Before him, Shuli Katz was killed in Moshav Yesha and Jimmy Kedoshim in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. During his meeting with regional council and community heads from the Gaza-belt area on Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared that a large-scale military operation in the Strip was closer than ever. From his words it was possible to understand that the operation was no longer months or weeks away, but possibly just a few days. The IDF is prepared for such an incursion. Infantry, armor, artillery and other units have been training for it intensively over the past year, and commanders are already aware of their specific orders when the green light is given, including which area of Gaza to invade and which house to take over to set up their field command-and-control centers. There are several plans. There is the Defensive Shield-level plan - named for the massive 2002 operation in the West Bank in which the IDF took up positions in almost every Palestinian city - which is basically the reoccupation of the entire Gaza Strip. There are also smaller-scale operations, such as the takeover of Kassam launch pads in northern Gaza and others. The type of operation chosen will depend on whether Israel still wants a cease-fire with Hamas. A large-scale invasion would indicate that Israel has given up on the cease-fire and is out to eradicate Hamas. The smaller-scale alternatives would represent an Israeli desire to weaken Hamas and make it pay a price before a cease-fire is accepted. Contrary to appearances, Israel has not given up on the cease-fire proposal. Most of the issues involving a truce have already been finalized with Hamas via Egyptian mediation by Barak's top aide Amos Gilad. There is no doubt that Hamas is desperate for a cease-fire. It wants quiet in Gaza so it can solidify its regime and rebuild its armed wing. If the crossings are opened under the truce - as Hamas has demanded - it will also gain major points on the Palestinian street and be able to take credit for lifting the siege of the Gaza Strip. Israeli defense officials have warned that Hamas would use the quiet period to smuggle more weapons into Gaza and build up its military wing, raising the risk to IDF soldiers in a future operation. But Israel has its own reasons for a cease-fire. First there is a desire to provide the residents of the Gaza-belt communities with a little peace and quiet after almost a decade of daily rocket attacks. But more important is to be able to allow the IDF to focus on this summer's real threat: Iran. With Israel and Syria holding peace talks, the chances that Damascus would go to war with Israel have dramatically dropped. President Bashar Assad ruled out Syrian participation in such a war in an interview he gave last week. With Syria already on the sidelines, a cease-fire in Gaza could also take Hamas out of the equation and allow the defense establishment to give its attention to Iran, which by the end of the year is expected to master nuclear technology.