Analysis: Two-pronged approach to Gaza

On Sunday, for the first time since Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip two months ago, 75 Palestinians were allowed to cross into Israel and then into Egypt so they could travel abroad. Hours earlier, six unarmed Palestinians were caught trying to infiltrate into Israel and a number of Kassam rockets struck open fields in the western Negev. The IDF responded by bombing Kassam launchers in the northern Gaza Strip. Sunday's events represented Israel's current two-pronged approach to the Gaza Strip. On the one hand, the IDF is doing all it can to create safe mechanisms and circumstances that can allow Palestinians to travel abroad. This is in addition to the truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies that - despite mortar attacks - are transferred via the Sufa and Kerem Shalom crossings into Gaza daily. On the other hand, the IDF is continuing to combat terrorism and operates within Gaza daily, both on the ground and from the air. At the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, MK Effi Eitam asked Defense Minister Ehud Barak whether he planned to change the IDF's current policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians in Gaza. Like he usually does these days, Barak answered vaguely. While trying to beat around the bush, he did say the IDF would continue initiating operations in Gaza in an effort to weaken Hamas and curb the terror flow into Israel. While Barak might want to change that policy, the current diplomatic reality is holding him back. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will meet once again to discuss drafting an agreement of principles ahead of the regional conference the US is planning for November. A large-scale operation inside the Gaza Strip would ruin all of the diplomatic initiatives on the table. An invasion with many Palestinian casualties would probably force Abbas to pull out of the summit and set back the final-status talks he is holding with Olmert. Barak's stated agenda is to strengthen Abbas and weaken Hamas. But this is not always so simple. Last week, for example, Hamas demonstrated decisive leadership when the power went out inside Gaza after the European Union cut the funding for the Palestinians' gas bill to Israel. Hamas immediately warned of a humanitarian crisis and the fuel supply was quickly renewed. The gas developments, as well as reports from Gaza of quiet streets and business back to normal, prove that Hamas is in complete control of Gaza and is, like Israel, using a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, it is cementing its leadership in Gaza; at the same time, it is firing Kassams and sending terrorists into Israel. While there are senior officers, such as OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, who have been calling for a large-scale operation in Gaza, at the moment a major change in Israeli policy does not seem to be in the cards. There is always another scenario - a Kassam rocket hits a target and causes serious damage. That would certainly change Israel's policy.