The Gaza Conundrum

Bringing quiet to southern Israel is the stated goal of the massive military strike on Gaza. Will it?

20tekuma224 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Cover story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. On the third day of Hanukkah, Ehud Barak finally lost his patience. For five days, since December 19, when Hamas declared an end to a six-month truce or tahadiyeh and stepped up its rocket fire on Israeli civilians, the defense minister had resisted enormous pressure to hit back hard. But after more than 70 Qassam rockets and Iranian-supplied 120 mm mortars slammed into cities, towns, villages and kibbutzim in the Gaza perimeter in a single day, Barak decided the time had come to act. Hamas, he warned, was about to pay "big-time." At his request, the cabinet convened for the second time in five days and approved a detailed operational plan, leaving its precise scope and timing to Barak and the Israel Defence Forces. As tanks and infantry brigades took up positions around the Gaza Strip and air force fighter-bombers warmed their engines, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a last minute appeal for quiet. Speaking on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite TV station, which is widely watched in Gaza, he urged Gazans to stop Hamas firing at innocent civilians or face the consequences. "I'm not here to declare war… But Hamas must be stopped, and this will happen," he warned. Two days later, on the Sabbath, air force planes and helicopters started bombing Hamas installations in Gaza. In two waves, some 80 fighter-bombers and helicopters hit over 100 targets, killing more than 200 Hamas militiamen and about 20 civilians. In the first wave, which lasted three minutes and forty seconds, nearly all of Hamas's military compounds, command and control centers and symbols of government were reduced to rubble. The timing and the intensity of the air strike took Hamas by surprise. Barak's apparent hesitancy, his opening of the border to send in a large convoy of food and medicine the day before, and statements to the effect that the government would reconvene in a few days to discuss a military operation had lulled Hamas into a false sense of security. As a result, many militiamen were caught going about their normal business in the compounds when the air force hit. In the new war in the south, Barak and the country's military planners face a two-fold military problem: how to stop the Qassams and how to restore Israeli deterrence region-wide. The devastating opening salvo they chose was based on what many military analysts see as Israel's most effective operation in the 2006 Lebanon War: the bombing of the Hizballah command and control center in Beirut's Dahya district in the first few days of the fighting. Reducing the Dahya to rubble had a profound shock effect on Hizballah and other leaders across the Middle East, and is seen as one of the main reasons for the current quiet on the Israel-Lebanon border. Now Israeli military planners hope what they call the "Dahya effect" will sink in in Gaza too and eventually deter Hamas from rocketing Israeli civilians. The air strike was only the first act in a rolling air, sea and ground operation authorized by the cabinet. After each stage, Israel's military leaders have been empowered to decide, on the basis of the Hamas response, whether or not to launch the next phase. In the cabinet, there were differences over the operation's ultimate goal: Kadima's Foreign Minister Livni and Haim Ramon spoke about toppling the Hamas regime; Barak, backed by Olmert, pressed successfully for the more modest aim of stopping the rockets by sending Hamas a clear message that continuing the barrages would cost them dearly. In a news conference on the first night of the fighting, Olmert spelled out the war's aims: To create a new security reality in the south, in which Israeli civilians can live without fear of rocket or terror attacks. But while the balance of military power is clearly in Israel's favor, the military options are not without problems. Heavy air or ground attacks that exact a large civilian toll could draw international condemnation and pressure on Israel to call off its operation long before its goals are achieved; ground operations against rocket launchers or capturing territory from which rockets are launched could put Israeli troops at risk in the heart of Palestinian territory; a large-scale ground operation might neutralize the rockets, but it would require a sophisticated exit strategy or leave Israel in Gaza, responsible for the daily needs of around 1.5 million Palestinians. There was a strong sense of déjà vu as the renewed hostilities in the south recalled the 2006 Lebanon war in more ways than one. The Dahya-like air strike, and the way Hamas, like Hizballah, responded by firing dozens of rockets at Israeli population centers, were almost carbon copies. In both cases there were also captive Israeli soldiers involved. Indeed, the current operation could put the life of Gilad Shalit, the IDF corporal held by Hamas for more than 900 days, at risk, or create conditions for a prisoner exchange to secure his release. Some Israeli leaders, including Livni, say Shalit's release should be an Israeli condition for any future ceasefire. But there were also important differences between July 2006 and December 2008, mainly as a result of the fact that the politicians and the generals have spent the past two years studying the gaping flaws in the way the Lebanon war was conducted. For example, in 2006 the IDF launched hostilities with little preparation in anticipation of a quick victory; this time the generals and the politicians say they spent months planning every detail of the rolling operation and the anticipated political aftermath. Moreover, whereas in 2006 Hizballah kept up the rocket fire on civilian population centers for 34 days, Hamas, with an estimated 2000 rockets at its disposal, some of which were hit in the first air force strikes, is not expected to be able to match that. Still, Barak, determined not to make the mistakes of under-preparation and overconfidence that characterized Israel's military leadership in 2006, warned at the outset that the fighting could go on for some time. And in announcing the relatively modest war aims, he and a chastened Olmert were careful to avoid any trace of bombast, arrogance or euphoria. On the second day of the war, Israeli planes destroyed some 40 tunnels along the Gaza-Egyptian border used by Hamas to bring in supplies and weapons. Laboratories for developing and producing more sophisticated rockets were also hit. But as Palestinian casualties mounted, so did international criticism of the ferocity of the Israeli attack. Israel's Arab and more outspoken Western critics accused it of war crimes; others, like U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, expressed concern at a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza as civilian systems collapsed. The devastating Israeli attacks sparked fierce protests and demonstrations across the Arab and Muslim world, in European capitals and among Israeli Arabs. But while Israel was widely criticized in the streets and in the international media, governments across the world did little to stop the fighting. And despite their public posture criticizing Israel's "barbarity," some moderate Arab leaders were not sorry to see Hamas taking a beating. Indeed, the Israeli-Hamas clash reflected in microcosm the regional struggle between the pro-Western moderates led by Egypt, and the radicals led by Iran. Both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA), while strongly condemning the Israeli operation, highlighted the fact that they had urged Hamas leaders to renew the tahadiyeh and warned them what would happen if they didn't. As a result, Egypt and the PA became targets of criticism, mainly from their radical Iran-affiliated Muslim foes. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah even called for an uprising in Egypt, which he accused of collaborating with Israel. Others accused the PA of collaboration, suggesting that the operation was part of a conspiracy to restore the PA to power in Gaza after the war. Indeed, the renewed fighting raises several questions. Why did Hamas, so clearly outgunned by Israel, risk a confrontation that could cost it its hold on power? Conversely, from Israel's point of view, will air strikes and limited ground operations be enough to end the rocket attacks for any length of time? There are also major strategic issues. Once a new ceasefire is achieved, what is there to stop Hamas from rearming with even longer-range and heavier rockets? To obviate the threat, Israeli hard-liners propose toppling Hamas and/or reoccupying all or part of Gaza, while pragmatists in and out of the government talk about ways of finding a new modus vivendi with the fundamentalists, based on long-term accommodation and/or deterrence. According to Yohanan Tzoreff, an expert on Palestinian society at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Hamas leaders assumed that with the approaching election in Israel, the IDF would mount only limited operations, which they would be able to weather, and then, from a position of strength, negotiate a new truce on more favorable terms. "Hamas heard Israeli leaders saying they had no intention of carrying out a major invasion and sinking into the Gaza quagmire. And they thought if Israel does something limited, they would be able to absorb it and then negotiate an improved tahadiyeh with open border-crossing points," he explains. Tzoreff says that for the Hamas government the status quo ante, without a steady supply of food and at least one open crossing point for people to go in and out of the Strip, was intolerable. "It put them in a very poor light as failing to provide basic needs and lacking genuine trappings of sovereignty. Therefore, they want a new ceasefire that will give them open border-crossing points and the same kind of international recognition and standing as their secular Fatah rivals on the West Bank," he tells The Report. But Hamas may have miscalculated. Given its unpopularity among moderate Arab and Western leaders, Israel may be allowed the leeway to hit the fundamentalists much harder than they expected. Even so, Tzoreff doubts whether Hamas can be toppled. It has wide grass-roots support in Gaza and from Muslim radicals throughout the region. In other words, after the fighting, Hamas will still be around. And, looking to the future, Tzoreff says Israel should encourage, not oppose, cooperation in the Palestinian arena between Fatah and Hamas. "Any agreement we reach with the Palestinians that ignores this group with its large following among the Palestinians and in the Arab world will be inherently unstable," he declares. The government, however, has more modest aims. It seeks to achieve a new ceasefire regime under which Hamas would have to commit to no more rocket fire, no terror, no explosive charges near the border and no more weapons' smuggling. One of the aims of the current operation is to demonstrate to Hamas the high price-tag for violation. The understandings would be achieved through third party, probably Egyptian, mediation, and kept in place through Israel's waving of a big deterrent stick. Israeli strategists on the right, however, argue that any ceasefire without significant changes on the ground will be a major strategic blunder: They say it won't stop the rockets and will allow Hamas to conduct a major military buildup for the next round. Military thinkers like Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Amidror, former head of research in the IDF's intelligence branch, have little faith in the new deterrent balance Barak is trying to create in the south. "There are only two ways to stop the Qassams: to give in to Hamas's new ceasefire demands, or to reoccupy Gaza," he argues. The model for Amidror, outgoing chairman of the public council of the new Orthodox Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party, is the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, after which the IDF reoccupied parts of the West Bank and stamped out the terror of the second intifada. "People should ask themselves, why don't the Palestinians fire rockets at Kfar Saba from Kalkilya 700 meters away? Because we reoccupied the West Bank and instituted effective IDF control on the ground. If we do the same thing in Gaza, admittedly at a heavy cost to ourselves and to the civilian population there, there will be quiet," he tells The Report. The advantages of reoccupation would be higher grade intelligence, operational freedom to act against terror on a daily basis and the capacity to keep heavy weaponry from Iran out of the Strip. The downside would be exposing Israeli soldiers to a never-ending terrorist war of attrition and absorbing a heap of international opprobrium, even from Israel's friends. Amidror, however, is unfazed. "It is soldiers' duty to fight…and people in the international community should ask themselves what they would do if their cities were targeted this way," he expostulates. Mainly because of the international constraints and the responsibility it would entail for the day-to-day lives of 1.5 million Gazans, most right-wingers stop short of calling for total reoccupation. The Likud's Yuval Steinitz, former chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, for example, advocates a partial reoccupation to create a buffer between Gaza and Egypt to prevent arms smuggling. Steinitz sees two problems in the current situation that need to be solved: the immediate rocket threat to Israeli civilians and the longer-term danger to Israel's national security that a massive military buildup in Gaza would pose. An effective ceasefire could ameliorate the first problem, but would exacerbate the second. "If we were to have a total ceasefire now for two or three years, we will soon see al-Fatah and al-Fajar rockets in Gaza capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Hamas could also bring in anti-aircraft batteries and threaten IAF flights over the Negev. And after that we could see 100 meter high Iranian intelligence antennae monitoring all Israeli military movements in the Negev. Maybe we would get peace for a year or two, but the price would be a devastating blow to Israel's national security," Steinitz maintains. His solution: after the IDF finishes dealing a crippling blow to Hamas's current military capabilities, it reoccupies the 14 kilometer-long Philadelphi route on the border between Egypt and Gaza to block the influx of weaponry and prevent Hamas from rebuilding its military power. The problem with this is that the relatively small number of soldiers needed to man the route would be isolated and vulnerable to terror attacks in hostile Palestinian territory. Steinitz, however, claims there are new methods to prevent them from being sitting ducks, which, for obvious reasons, he says he cannot divulge. Left-wing and centrist thinkers rule out any reoccupation of Gaza as counterproductive. And some, like former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy, propose reaching a long-term legally binding agreement with Hamas, which has benefits for both sides. Halevy argues that although Hamas would like to destroy Israel, and Israel would like to topple the Hamas government in Gaza, neither has the power to do so. He also detects among some more pragmatic Hamas leaders a realization that their dream of destroying Israel is unattainable at least for the foreseeable future and a readiness for the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders along the 1967 lines. "On that basis there is room to examine how it might be possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in which both Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, are partners in the final product," he says. Halevy, now head of the Hebrew University's Shasha Center for Strategic Studies, says that on the tactical level, Israel will try to limit the damage Hamas can cause it, and will be partly successful. But, despite the pounding it has taken, Hamas won't disappear and regime change is not likely. "Even Tzipi Livni and [Likud leader Benjamin] Bibi Netanyahu, who are calling for regime change, don't really believe they can pull it off. If they could, they would have done it long ago. I think we have to accept the fact that Hamas is part of the equation," he tells The Report. Halevy dismisses as absurd notions that the mainly Fatah Palestinian police in the West Bank will be able to march into Gaza on the back of the Israeli operation and take over from Hamas. And if, as seems likely, achieving a wider agreement acceptable to both Palestinian factions proves elusive for now, Israel should cut a long-term deal with Hamas that, unlike past ceasefires, clearly spells out the terms and conditions for a modus vivendi in the south. "Since Hamas is not about to disappear, we should consider reaching a legally binding document. When you don't even have a common paper and work on the basis of unwritten understandings, everyone is free to give their own interpretation, and that is not a good formula for an easing of the situation," he says. Where Halevy sees only "conflict management," left-wingers see in a weakened Hamas a chance for conflict resolution. Gadi Baltianski, director general of the Geneva Initiative, agrees that Israel should first negotiate a truce agreement with Hamas. Then it should go for a final peace deal with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, which would have to be ratified by the Palestinian people as a whole in a referendum or new elections. But there should be no attempt to overthrow Hamas by force. "Abu Mazen (Abbas) can't go into Gaza on the IDF's bayonets and rule. He would look like a collaborator. Hamas must be weakened and maybe removed from power, but by peaceful means. For example, if you present the Palestinians with an attractive peace package as the alternative to Hamas that is something that can fly, because the people of Gaza will want to be part of the new Palestinian state and not part of a Hamas rump regime," he declares. On the third day of the war Barak addressed the Knesset. The war, he said, would not be easy and there would be complications. And, hinting at an imminent ground operation, he said the fighting would be widened until all its goals were achieved. But as bombs and rockets continued to fall on both sides, and pillars of smoke billowed over the rubble in Gaza, it was far from clear how the IDF's military achievements in Gaza would translate into the government's stated goal: a normal life, free of terror, for Israeli civilians in the south. • Cover story in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.