The Gaza Dilemma

Israel is determined to prevent - whether by military force, cease-fire or a combination of both - a nightmare scenario of long-range Hamas rockets striking the heartland

25grad (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Cover story of Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Days after the Israeli army's late February raid into the Gaza Strip that left 106 Palestinians dead but failed to stop rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets, leaders met yet again to decide what to do next. Escalating attacks, that included heavier, longer-range Grad rockets crashing into the coastal city of Ashkelon, concentrated the minds. If Israel had tolerated years of light, inaccurate, makeshift Qassam rockets raining down on the town of Sderot and other communities close to Gaza, the Grads crossed an unacceptable red line: They placed hundreds of thousands of Israelis under threat and put strategic installations at risk. Worse: If the trend was allowed to continue, bigger and heavier rockets could soon threaten metropolitan Tel Aviv. In early March, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called in his top civilian and military advisers and a strategic decision was reached: One way or another, the rocketing from Gaza would have to stop. "All options are on the table," Olmert announced darkly. Defense Minister Ehud Barak conferred with legal experts on what the army could and could not do under international law. Could Israel fire artillery back at the sources of rocket fire, he asked, even if that was likely to cause civilian casualties (see box on page 13)? Top defense ministry officials and IDF generals discussed a large-scale ground operation for reoccupying Gaza and the exit strategy in its wake. Defense officials reported on possible readiness of moderate Arab countries to take part in an international peacekeeping force in Gaza after an Israeli pullback. Basically, Israel has three broad alternatives: • Complementing the almost nightly battalion strength raids into Gaza and pinpoint targeted hits at terror leaders and rocket launching squads with periodic larger-scale ground incursions, like the late February-early March Givati Brigade operation, in a bid to convince the Hamas government that continued rocket fire carries an intolerable price-tag; • launching a full-scale ground invasion to reoccupy Gaza for as long as it would take to smash the Hamas military infrastructure; • reaching a cease-fire agreement that would stop the rockets. Each alternative has its drawbacks: Army officers complain that with each limited raid that fails to stop the rockets, Israel loses deterrence. A full-scale invasion would almost certainly incur heavy Israeli losses, draw international criticism and entail a problematic exit strategy. A cease-fire without adequate safeguards would achieve quiet in the short-term, but allow a massive arms build-up in Gaza, including the acquisition of longer range rockets for future use. For now the government's strategic goal is to stop the rockets. But it could also decide to topple the Hamas regime. Olmert has already approved targeted assassinations of Hamas operatives, including the top political echelon, and is considering an aerial campaign against the organization's centers of power. Although the broad alternatives are pretty much on the table, part of the strategy is to keep Hamas guessing over what tactical choices might be made at any given moment. "Our advantage over the past several months is that we have gained the initiative. We use air, naval and ground forces; we send in commando units, we make surgical incursions at battalion and brigade level. The Givati Brigade went in, did what we wanted it to do and pulled out. And the other side doesn't know when or where we are going to go in next, or with what size force," says a senior official. Just what Israel does next could depend on the Egyptians. Egypt, through its army intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, is trying to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that would include a prisoner exchange deal involving Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in Gaza since June 2006, as well as new arrangements to prevent continued arms smuggling into Gaza through its porous border with Egypt. Indeed, the Egyptian authorities reported on March 8 that they had detected and destroyed six underground smuggling tunnels. The new arrangements could mean beefed-up Egyptian forces along the border with new state-of-the-art American tunnel detecting equipment, as well European inspectors sitting on the Egyptian rather than the Palestinian side of the border as they do today. Israel and Egypt are also discussing ideas for Egyptian participation in a multinational force that might be stationed inside Gaza to monitor a cease-fire. "The Egyptians were shocked by the way Hamas blew up the border fence in January, and they now really seem to be interested in better policing," the senior official says. "No one wants to see Gaza becoming a center for international terrorism, with long-range rockets." The Israeli dilemma over how to prevent this is reflected in major differences in strategic thinking. Right-wingers argue that the rockets and rocket build-up can only be stopped by major and sustained military action; the left counters that there is no military solution to the rocket problem in Gaza and that Israel should exploit favorable conditions in the Arab world to achieve a lasting cease-fire; centrists advocate a combination of military action and diplomacy, destroying the Hamas military infrastructure before seeking a cease-fire. On the right, the Likud's Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, advocates a major land invasion in which Israel reoccupies Gaza for at least several weeks, destroys the Hamas military infrastructure, including rocket stockpiles and manufacturing workshops, eliminates the top Hamas leadership by killing or arresting its members, and withdraws after completing a full intelligence mapping of the new situation in Gaza. According to the Steinitz plan, Israel then stops Hamas from rearming by patrolling the smugglers' "Philadelphi Route" along the Gaza-Egyptian border, and prevents Hamas from restoring its military capacity by conducting periodic follow-up raids into Gaza, based on accurate military intelligence about new weapons' stores, manufacturing facilities, military bases, terrorist hideouts and the like. In Steinitz's view, these measures, whatever the cost, are absolutely essential because, he says, the real enemy in Gaza is Iran. "We need to look beyond the barrage of rockets and understand what is happening in Gaza in historic and strategic terms. The Iranians are building a forward base in the center of the Negev. If there is a cease-fire now, or if all we do is continue these cat and mouse operations, moving in and out of Gaza, looking for rocket launch teams, for pieces of the infrastructure, not the infrastructure itself, within a year or two, Hamas will have rockets like the Iranian Fajar 3 and 5, capable of carrying 150 kilograms of explosives and with a range that covers Tel Aviv and the entire Dan Region," he declares. Moreover, he warns, given half a chance, the Iranians will also probably try to smuggle anti-aircraft systems into Gaza, which could pose a direct threat to Israel Air Force planes flying in the Negev, since most of the IAF's bases there are close to Gaza. Steinitz sees no difference between Gaza under Hamas and Hizballah in Lebanon: Both are Iranian proxies in what are tantamount to Iranian forward bases, one threatening Israel from the north, the other from the south. "In the 2006 Lebanon war, we failed to destroy the Iranian outpost in the north. That was a major strategic failure. It is now high time to put an end to the Iranian outpost in the south, which is even more dangerous, because it is much closer to the center of the country and to most of our military air bases," he asserts. Israel, he says, already has a successful model for the proposed land invasion in Gaza: "Operation Defensive Shield," in which the IDF destroyed Palestinian power in the West Bank in April 2002. "People said we would have hundreds of casualties, because in the West Bank there were 60,000 armed police and gunmen, not 5,000 like in Gaza. Secondly, people predicted that the fighting would be so fierce that we would have to destroy some of those cities and the world would condemn us. And thirdly, that we would have to take responsibility for daily life, health care, education and so on. None of this happened," says Steinitz. On the contrary, breaking Palestinian power in the West Bank made it much easier to keep a lid on Palestinian terror over time. "Since we destroyed their fighting capacity, today if you need to go into Nablus because you have information about someone developing or producing rockets, you don't need two divisions. It's enough to send in two platoons," he says. For Steinitz, the worst possible option now is a cease-fire with Hamas, and he says he would reject one, even if it included Gilad Shalit's release. "We cannot sell our future to bring temporary peace and quiet and solve the Shalit problem. A cease-fire means that heavier, longer-range rockets and efficient air defense systems will reach Gaza in the near future, and that is something we cannot tolerate," he insists. For the left, Steinitz's argu-ment is deeply flawed. Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University Middle East scholar, maintains that there is no military solution to the Gaza threat and that the only way to stop the rockets is through a cease-fire. Instead of planning big military operations, he says the government should be trying to create conditions for a cease-fire with Hamas, as well as peace with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. "If we capture the northern part of Gaza, they can fire rockets from further in, as, in fact, they did during the Givati operation. We could capture and reoccupy the whole of Gaza, but the price would be very high in terms of loss of life on both sides, international condemnation, anger in the moderate Arab state and the need to administer a hostile population of 1.3 million, who would fight a guerrilla war against the occupying force," Maoz warns. He contends that Hamas is not a slavish Iranian proxy, in the way the Shi'ite Hizballah organization is, since Hamas, unlike the Iranians, is Sunni not Shi'ite. Indeed, Maoz argues that moderate Sunni states, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have a degree of influence over Hamas. Moreover, he insists that people on both sides of the Palestinian divide, Fatah moderates and Hamas radicals, would like to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the 1967 borders. This is an interest common to Israel and moderate Arab states as well. Therefore, Maoz argues, a deal with the Palestinians is not impossible. First, however, there needs to be reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and an agreement that would empower Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to negotiate for all Palestinians. And despite all the bad blood between the two Palestinian factions, Maoz believes that they can fashion a new blueprint to work together, along the lines of the February 2007 Mecca agreement. "Hamas has gained a lot of prestige, ironically because of the beating it took from Israel in the last raid. And there are people in Fatah who are pressing for reconciliation now. They say you can't separate Gaza and the West Bank," he attests. In the run-up to the Arab League summit in Damascus slated for the end of March, the Saudis and the Egyptians have been making efforts to bring the two Palestinian factions together. And Maoz adds that they "might also press for Israel-Syria talks, as part of the Arab League peace initiative, to which we have yet to give a serious answer." Indeed, Maoz would like to see Israel accepting the Arab League proposal as the basis for peace talks with Syria. Besides Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Turkey and the United States could serve as facilitators. Of course, the major strategic gain would be prying Syria away from the Iranian-led "axis of evil," but once restored to the moderate Sunni fold, Maoz asserts that Syria could also influence Hamas to accept a deal with Israel. On the Palestinian track, Maoz envisages three stages: a hudna or cease-fire with Hamas, agreement with Egypt to stop the weapons' smuggling into Gaza, and negotiations with Abbas during the cease-fire period on a permanent peace deal, with everything, including Jerusalem, on the table. "Otherwise," he says, "we will have another vicious cycle of violence, pushing more and more Palestinians into the arms of the Islamic radicals." Maoz admits that he is not optimistic about his peace plans, at least not in the short term. To bring them to fruition would take strong leaders with vision which, he says, neither Israel nor the U.S. have. "Perhaps a new American administration, especially if it is Democratic, might be able to do more," he offers hopefully. Some centrists agree with Maoz that the only way to stop the rockets is through a cease-fire, but they argue that Hamas's military power must first be broken. Maj. Gen. (Res.) Doron Almog, former commander of the Southern Front responsible for Gaza, maintains that the current policy of short, sharp raids is largely ineffective. "Almost every night we hit terrorists or rocket launchers. It doesn't stop the firing of rockets. On the contrary, sometimes we even see it increasing the number of rockets fired," he observes. Therefore, like Steinitz, he favors a large ground operation targeting Hamas leaders, power bases, stockpiles, workshops and fighters. This, he says, should take place sooner rather than later to prevent war on more than one front. "If we carry out a large ground operation in the next few months, the chances are that Hizballah, still smarting from the 2006 war, will stay out. But the memory fades, and the chances that they would stay out in a year or two are smaller," he says. But where Almog differs from Steinitz and agrees with Maoz is in his view that a military operation alone, as successful as it might be, will not stop the rockets. "We must bear in mind that although Gaza is not very big, it is densely populated. Even if you send in masses of troops, you can't stop the rocket launching altogether, because you can't be everywhere. The Qassam is light, easy to move around and easy to fire," he notes. For Almog, the major ground operation and the assassination of Hamas leaders would have two goals: to break Hamas power and convince the organization that it needs to negotiate with Israel to save its regime. And that is when Israel should agree to a cease-fire that would stop the rockets and leave Hamas militarily vulnerable. In the longer term, Almog would like to see Israel completing its disengagement from Gaza, which would become more dependent on its natural Arab hinterland, Egypt, for sustenance and trade. "One of the paradoxes of the current situation is that we are in a state of war with Hamas, which refuses to recognize the State of Israel, but demands that we provide its basic needs," he says. "I think Israel should decide on a model in which Gaza gets its electricity and everything else from Egypt." But wouldn't opening Gaza up to Egypt increase the risk of Hamas smuggling in bigger and better rockets across the Sinai desert? Almog believes that the smuggling problem cannot be handled by Israel alone, and that it should be dealt with in concert with the Egyptians and the United States. He says the Americans could use their economic leverage on Egypt to demand more efficient policing of the Gaza border; Israel could agree to a stronger Egyptian presence along the border, and the U.S.-led multinational observer force in Sinai could also be given a smuggling prevention mission deeper inside the desert. To put all this in place, Almog proposes a three-way U.S.-Israel-Egypt summit that would focus on two issues: preventing weapons' smuggling into Gaza and warming up Israel-Egypt ties. Israel, he says, needs to act soon: "Otherwise, in a few years time, we could find ourselves fighting on two fronts, under a hail of hundreds of rockets a day, covering virtually all of Israel." And it is precisely that nightmare scenario that Olmert and Barak, and their critics across the political spectrum - whether by military force, cease-fire or a combination of both - are determined to prevent. Cover story of Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.