Crunch time for Israel and Hamas in Gaza

By Vic Rosenthal

A recent article on ZioNation titled “Israel’s strategy: Gaza and beyond“, by Ami Isseroff, is a must-read. The writer shows that Israel’s military options in dealing with the continuing rocket fire and build-up by Hamas in Gaza are quite limited:

Israeli analysts are insisting that a confrontation with Hamas in Gaza is “inevitable.” On this issue at least, Hamas agrees with Israelis. They believe an Israeli invasion is only a matter of time, and they are, for their own reasons, doing everything possible to hasten the time, as well as to prepare for it. Hamas is provoking Israel with rocket attacks and planning more kidnappings of Israelis, like the one that was foiled recently. At the same time, they are smuggling in increasing quantities of arms, preparing either for defense or for a new “Intifada,” or both…

The only military action that would eliminate the rocket threat and the threat of kidnapping and other actions is total conquest of Gaza. Militarily that is not a major operation for the IDF, though it would involve a significant number of casualties. Diplomatically it is at present out of the question…

Moreover, if Israel were to re-occupy the Gaza strip, what could it do with it and for how long could it occupy it? …The result of such an invasion would only be a forced withdrawal by Israel, allowing Hamas to proclaim another “victory” for “steadfastness” and “resistance.”

Non-military solutions are just as limited. Isseroff suggests that the best option is

…to try to promote Abbas and the moderates and get them back into power in place of the Hamas. Without Hamas competition in the “hate Israel contest,” Palestinians will, it is hoped move to a more moderate position, and Fatah/PLO, which has an increasingly vested interest in a genuine peace process, will help to lead them there.

Unfortunately, he then goes on to show that this is unlikely to work either. It requires at least a moderately non-corrupt Fatah which will care more about the Palestinian people than about feathering personal and family nests, and a modicum of international cooperation:

  • Fatah must show evidence of real reorganization and of a genuine effort to curb corruption in its ranks…
  • Public opinion and international policy must be united and steadfast in understanding the real goals of the Hamas, and in refusing to grant it legitimacy as long as it upholds genocidal, racist policies and continue to practice terror. The support given Hamas by “moderate” Arab states and by the Norwegian and Swiss governments is incompatible with this goal and is sabotaging the already slim chances for peace.

Neither of these is likely. The Fatah leadership doesn’t even control most of the organization, which is really a confederation of clans each with its own selfish interests. And regarding international policy: the pendulum is swinging toward recognition of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian unity government, and it’s unlikely to swing back. Also keep in mind that many of the world’s foreign offices already view Israel as an impediment to their relationship with their oil suppliers and with their Muslim minorities. They are not going to go out of their way to help Israel.

Isseroff himself realizes that this plan is a long shot. Abbas and Fatah are a slim reed on which to build peace. So, then what?

In that case, Israel, with allies or alone, will have to face the task of dismantling the Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, by force if necessary. But this can only be carried out if Israel has won the support of at least the United States and the EU and preferably, at least the tacit support of Arab countries. At present, we are moving in the opposite direction. Every day that Israel does nothing to fulfil its commitment to remove illegal outposts, we are moving further from our policy goals. Every abortive and needlessly bloody military operation reinforces the case for the Hamas. Every new settlement and every needless announcement of “planned” new settlements that do not ever materialize helps to stamp in the picture of Israel as an oppressive colonialist power, and of the Hamas as the defenders of the rights of the downtrodden, and undermines the position of moderate Palestinians.

Certainly Israel’s enemies will use issues of illegal outposts, etc. to paint her as oppressive; but they would find some way to do that regardless of what Israel does. Israel needs to base her strategy on the assumption that most of the world’s governments — with the possible exception of the US — would be happier (or at least not unhappy) without her. While she can make common cause with some Arab nations for particular limited purposes (as happened in 1970 with Jordan), the Arab nations overwhelmingly believe their own propaganda that the Middle East would be a better place without a Jewish state.

I’m afraid that the solution to Gaza does have to be military. However, I disagree that it would “not be a major operation for the IDF”. In my opinion it would be a difficult operation which would require superb intelligence and careful planning, and even so have no guarantee of success.

Isseroff is correct that Israel would not be able to occupy Gaza for any length of time, and that Israel would be forced to withdraw, with Hamas presenting this as another victory. And an occupation, even for a matter of weeks, would expose the IDF to the kind of attritive war the US is facing in Iraq. Therefore, the operation would need to be a swift incursion, followed by a pullout before the international community could marshal its forces. Perhaps four or five days, maximum. Even so, it would require US cooperation.

The operation would require exceptionally accurate intelligence regarding its targets, which would be the Hamas fortifications, weapons factories and storehouses, rocket launchers, tunnels (both in the Philadelphi area and near the border with Israel), and, importantly, Hamas personnel and their leadership. The availability of adequate intelligence would determine the likelihood of success. A massive amount of force would be needed, because of Hamas’ extensive buildup until now, and a way to coordinate the operations of such a force. It would also be necessary to take steps to deter, or prepare to respond to, attacks on the northern border.

The goal of the operation would be to destroy Hamas as an effective fighting force, and to kill its leaders. In the best case, civilian casualties would be light and captured enemy personnel would reveal the place that Gilad Shalit is being held, permitting him to be rescued. Also, it would be possible to deter attacks from Hezbollah and others. But in the worst case, these things would not be true.

If such an operation were to succeed, there would be several results: first, the pressure from Hamas on this front would be removed, so that the IDF can concentrate on the northern threats. Second, the IDF would recover much of its perceived power of deterrence, which was lost as a result of the second Lebanon war. And finally, the perception in the Arab world — and particularly among the Palestinians — that Israel can be beaten militarily, would be weakened.

War involves truly horrible things. There would be casualties from the IDF and among Palestinian civilians. This would not be a ‘little’ operation, even though it would have to be a short one. The people responsible for planning and ordering such an operation would have to have the political will to be able to follow through and resist pressures to abort it before its goals have been achieved. It’s important to understand that the Hamas threat is not just an irritation, but is part of an overall strategy which also involves Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran and which is an existential threat to Israel.

I don’t pretend to be a general. Maybe what I’m suggesting is impossible. But as Isseroff suggests, there aren’t many good alternatives. And I think we agree that the problem needs to be solved.

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