Analysis: Shoot first and ask questions later

IDF busy reacting to Hamas's unprecedented Gaza buildup, but isn't ready to strike Hamas where it hurts.

IDF Troops walking 298 (photo credit: AP)
IDF Troops walking 298
(photo credit: AP)
It is difficult to understand what the Defense Ministry and particularly the man at its helm - Ehud Barak - was thinking when making the decision last week to blackout the Gaza Strip without consulting Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. While the Foreign Ministry was reported to be relieved by the attorney-general's decision to freeze implementation of the sanction on Gaza, Barak, officials said, was still looking for a way to implement the measures even though he was caught doing what Israel is often accused of, shooting first and asking questions later. After Barak decided Thursday to implement a list of sanctions against the Gaza Strip - including periodic electricity blackouts and cuts to fuel supplies - his office made a point of emphasizing to reporters that the measures were an initiative of the defense minister and that he was leading the preparations as well as their implementation. The fuel cuts began on Sunday, and while the blackouts were in the pipeline, they were put on hold until after a late-night meeting Mazuz held Monday with legal advisers from the Foreign and Defense ministries and the IDF. He said Israel had the right to sever economic ties with Gaza but that more research must be done before the electricity sanctions were implemented. The sequence of events concerning the blackouts is indicative of another problem within the Israeli political and defense echelons today, the lack of strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinians in general and anything to do with the Gaza Strip in particular. This is evident not just within the corridors of power at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem and the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, but also on the ground, in the sand dunes of Gaza. On Monday, hours after reservist Ehud Efrati was killed in a clash with Hamas, Gaza Division chief Brig.-Gen. Moshe "Chico" Tamir told reporters that IDF operations in the Strip were almost entirely of a defensive nature. In other words, the IDF is busy reacting to the unprecedented Hizbullah-like Hamas buildup in Gaza - with its daily close-border operations - but is not yet at the stage where it is striking at Hamas where it hurts, deep inside Gaza or in Rafah - home to the dozens of tunnels used to smuggle in explosives and advanced weaponry from Sinai. Tamir went as far as to draw a distinction between the two issues, claiming that at the moment the IDF had been given approval to fight Hamas near the border fence, and that a large operation inside Gaza was of a different nature and therefore required that different considerations be taken into account on the part of the political echelon. As Tamir hinted, the current operations in Gaza are only tactical in nature and there is no doubt that with Hamas now stronger than it has ever been, a real strategy needs to be formulated by the government for confronting the threat. This is also the case with the electricity. Occasional 15-minute blackouts will not stop the Kassam rocket fire and have - even before being implemented - only caused Israel damage on the international front, with immediate across-the-board condemnations. If the cuts to electricity lead to a final and complete disengagement from Gaza - including an end to all economic ties and the closure of all crossings - that is one thing. But if it is just another tactic, then Israel is once again following Hamas's lead. Part of Israel's strategy should be set in the coming days, ahead of the Annapolis peace summit, where it is still unclear how Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, fits into the peace-making of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Unfortunately, neither leader - nor the Americans nor the Europeans - seems to have an answer to that crucial question.