Analyze This: Time for the government to get off the Gaza fence

The coalition must either negotiate, invade, or find Plan C.

ehud barak 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
ehud barak 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
If the government is to indeed decide next week to either move ahead on a cease-fire agreement with Hamas or launch a major military incursion that could at least temporarily cripple its terrorist infrastructure, this will prove small consolation to the family of Amnon Rozenberg. Killed Thursday by a mortar strike on Kibbutz Nir Oz, Rozenberg is the third Israeli slain by fire from Gaza during the past month. His death is doubly troubling for two reasons. Three fatalities from separate incidents during the past 30 days constitute an acceleration of major Israeli casualties from Gaza's deadly arsenal of mortars, Kassams and Katyushas. What's more, the fact that they were spread out among the small agricultural communities along the Gaza border, rather then within the concentrated population center of Sderot, indicates that Hamas and the other terrorist groups are more effectively dispersing their fire over a greater geographic area, perhaps trying to avoid having to launch primarily from the Beit Hanoun area in the northern tip of the Strip, where IDF aerial surveillance is at its highest. This greater sophistication in strategy is being matched on the technical side, from the modified 120-millimeter Katyusha rocket that punched through the roof of an Ashkelon mall last month, to reports this week that Hamas for the first time used a bigger, 170-millimeter Katyusha model. This by itself would provide enough of a compelling reason for the Olmert government to finally decide in the next few days whether to go with Plan A (cease-fire), Plan B (military operation) or Plan C (whatever). But even if the security situation in the Gaza border area had not begun to deteriorate in this manner, there are other factors in play that indicate the time has arrived to get off the Gaza policy fence. To be fair, the government's hesitation until now to take dramatic action one way or the other on Gaza boasted arguable justification. Both of the two alternatives before it have serious downsides. A cease-fire with Hamas would lend its terrorist regime a degree of legitimacy, and could be used by the radical Islamists to primarily tighten their hold on Gaza and upgrade their arsenal through a re-opened (and still porous) Rafah border crossing. A military operation could prove costly in IDF casualties - possibly including hostage soldier Gilad Schalit - as well as lead to international condemnation and pressure on Israel of the type it encountered during the Second Lebanon War. What's more, perhaps not enough credit has been given to the Gaza strategy that has been pursued up until now. When the international diplomatic boycott was first imposed on the new Hamas government in the wake of its electoral victory two years ago, there was considerable skepticism that it would hold firm. While this certainly may not have been the case regarding the Bush administration, the European Union was regarded as a possible weak link in this united front - and yet it is the crucial link, given the EU's leading role in providing aid to (and via) the Palestinian Authority. That the boycott has in fact held tight (if not airtight) all this time is in fact a considerable diplomatic victory for Jerusalem, especially in establishing the legitimacy of the three political benchmarks - an end to terrorism, recognition of Israel's right to exist and honoring past agreements signed by the Palestinians - that the government has demanded before Hamas be allowed any place at the negotiating table. While some credit can be given to European resolve on this point, there's no question it's also been strengthened by the violent internal clash between Hamas and PA President's Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction a year ago. That's why, along with its attacks on civilian communities designed to demoralize the Israeli population, Hamas has also invested in a public relations campaign designed to show the world how much the people of Gaza are suffering as a result of the aid restrictions that have accompanied the boycott. Along with highlighting legitimate hardships, this has included deliberately creating fuel shortages, disrupting the flow of goods through violent attacks on the border crossings, and effectively intimidating foreign media and the local Palestinian stringers on whom they now largely rely to report from Gaza. For once, Israel's oft-criticized official hasbara (public diplomacy) has not been complacent in its response: It has provided the international press with meticulous weekly reports about the regular flow of food and other goods into Gaza, worked to discredit especially spurious Hamas-generated scenarios (such as last January's staged black-out), and been pro-active in trying to focus the press's attentions on the hardships that Hamas's aerial attacks are causing to Israeli civilians. Yet there simply is no matching the photo and film images of deprived Gazans that Hamas relentlessly promotes, or the efforts by pro-Palestinian aid and human-rights groups to place primary blame for the situation on Israeli policy, or, especially, the continuous diplomatic pressure that other influential nations in the region - particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States - are maintaining to allow Hamas unconditional access to the negotiating table. The result is that even while the major Western European nations (UK, Germany, France, Italy) now boast their most pro-Israel governments in decades, there are clear indicators that the EU's resolve on the Hamas diplomatic boycott is seriously wavering. The French recently admitted to conducting talks with Hamas, and last week one of the group's leaders, Mahmoud Zahar, told The Jerusalem Post he has met with "many European officials other than the French" in the past two months, a claim subsequently confirmed by other sources in the Islamic organization to the Post and Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly. Even more crucially, Abbas Thursday told his government to prepare for a "national dialogue" with Hamas. This comes after Zahar visited Qatar last week and was reportedly entreated by officials there to hold a new round of talks in Doha, modeled on the recent negotiations there that successfully ended the Lebanese political stalemate last month. If the PA and Hamas do publicly renew dialogue with international backing, as Abbas now wants, this might provide the Europeans with the diplomatic cover they need to abandon Israel and the US on its boycott of the terrorist group. For that to happen in this manner would be a serious policy blow to the Olmert government, and the beginning of the end of its Gaza strategy in the diplomatic arena. It certainly provides a compelling reason for Jerusalem to act first on its own accord, either through its own diplomatic initiative or via a military action that has the possibility (as it did during the Second Lebanon War) of eventually generating new political or security arrangements in Gaza. The government has reached the point at which it should act, if only because there is little left of a Gaza policy worth preserving. More importantly, it must act to save the future Amnon Rozenbergs.