March 4, 2008
Number 03/08 #01
With Israel having concluded an incursion into northern Gaza after a bloody few days (a good summary of what happened over the past few days is here), and with rocket attacks now affecting the larger city of Ashkelon as well as Sderot, the question in Israel is what will happen next with respect to Gaza.
First up is a good backgrounder on Israel’s dilemmas from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre( BICOM). It sets out the two options Israel is basically looking at: pressure until Hamas agrees to a ceasefire, or a large-scale, temporary re-occupation of the Gaza strip, and looks at the pluses and minuses of each option. It also has some interesting points to make about the role of Iranian money in keeping Hamas afloat. Read it all HERE. More good background on Israel’s Gaza dilemmas comes from Uriel Heilman of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Israel’s former UN Ambassador and strategic analyst Dore Gold.
Next, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of Haaretz look at Hamas’ options at the moment and argue that they are not as good as many think. They argue that, by constantly escalating, Hams is laying the groundwork for a large-scale Israeli invasion, and moreover, losing the loyalty of most Gazans. For their full discussion, CLICK HERE.
Finally, top Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi looks at how Israelis are now viewing the conflict on a larger scale, and says that Israeli “guilt” over occupying Palestinian towns, once common and a major driver of Oslo, is all but dead in the wake of the outcome of disengagement. He says that Israelis are now recognising that the genuine misery of Palestinians is the result of their own leadership preferring to fight Israel over building better lives for average Palestinians. He also focuses on the UN role in perpetuating Palestinian misery by keeping generations in refugee camps to leave open the possibility that they can one day return to the homes of their ancestors in Israel. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. More comment on Israel’s options and the possibility of a full Gaza invasion comes from Israeli columnists Yoel Marcus, Eitan Haber and Amir Oren, plus a Jerusalem Post editorial.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Rockets continue to hit Sderot and Ashkelon after Israel’s withdrawal of forces from northern Gaza.
- Israeli sources say the new longer range rockets hitting Ashkelon were supplied by Iran. Hamas is also reportedly employing American weapons it captured from Fatah.
- Hamas reportedly fired rockets from civilian homes, with the residents still in them.
- A reporter who lives in Ashkelon describes the terror of the rockets falling on this Israeli city of more than 100,000 people.
- Veteran author and commentator Con Coughlin discusses the situation of PA President Abbas in the current Hamas-Israel confrontation, as does Jerusalem Post Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh.
- Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilna’i was falsely reported as threatening a”Holocaust” against Palestinians due to a translation error. More on this error from former Middle East correspondent Tom Gross (scroll down).
- The UN Security Council has approved a new round of sanctions against Iran for refusing to comply with legally binding resolutions demanding a halt to uranium enrichment. Israel’s government says the sanctions are still not strong enough.
- More on the recent IAEA report into the Iranian nuclear program from top Israeli proliferation expert Ephraim Asculai, and the Economist magazine.
- For those who haven’t seen it, Greg Sheridan of the Australian had some thoughtful advice for the new Rudd government with regard to Australia – Israel ties.
The ongoing situation of conflict in Gaza underwent a sharp escalation over the weekend, when 50 Qassam and Katyusha rockets were fired at Israel.[i] In response to the ongoing launching of Qassam rockets on Israeli civilian targets, and the commencement of Grad/Katyusha attacks on Ashkelon, IDF forces seized the initiative in the last days. IDF infantry and armoured forces subsequently undertook ground operations in the northern Gaza Strip town of Sajaiya. Two soldiers of the Givati Infantry Brigade were killed in the operation, and seven more Israeli troops were wounded. Around 100 Palestinians, the large majority of them operatives of Hamas or other organisations, have also been killed.[ii] In a further significant development, IAF aircraft struck at the offices of Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority in Gaza, completely leveling them.[iii]
There are clearly no easy options or miraculous solutions available to Israel vis-à-vis Gaza. The city of Ashkelon has a population of 110,000. Comparative to Israel’s overall population, it contains a proportion of Israel’s citizens comparable to the number of British citizens resident in the city of Birmingham. This article will explore Israeli options in the unfolding situation, and will seek to place the latest events within their broader context.
Option 1: Pressure on Hamas to declare ceasefire, or Israel-Hamas ceasefire agreement
Regarding Israeli options, the operation undertaken in northern Gaza over the weekend is not the beginning of the ‘major IDF operation’ into Gaza which has been the subject of much debate and speculation in Israel and internationally in the last weeks.[iv] Rather, Operation ‘Hot Winter’, as the operation was called, was intended to achieve the limited objective of striking a blow at the infrastructure of Hamas terrorism in Sajaiya and the Jabalya refugee camp. The second phase of the operation – namely, a search and destroy mission intended to root out weapons in the area – has now been completed. At a military briefing on Saturday, senior Israeli defence officials agreed that the purpose of the raid was to raise the cost for Hamas of continuing to launch rockets at Israel, while avoiding the large-scale ground incursion for which Hamas has been preparing.[v] The hope underlying this is that the price of the blows being inflicted on Hamas can be raised to a point where the organisation – perhaps via the Egyptians – seeks a new ceasefire, offering the cessation of rocket attacks.[vi]
There are a number of immediate problems, however, which make the realisation of this hope less than certain. Firstly, such a ceasefire (which would presumably include Hamas also moving to prevent by force other organisations from carrying out such attacks) in the face of Israeli operations would represent a major climb-down by the movement. There is little evidence to suggest that the operation of the last days represents a blow of sufficient magnitude to Hamas to induce it to consider such an option. Indeed, all reports from the ground indicate that the current mood among the residents of Gaza is one of rallying around the Hamas government. Hamas missile attacks on Ashkelon have continued today. Hamas’s history shows that it is not averse to sacrificing the lives of both its own members and of Palestinian civilians. There is thus little reason to suppose that pin-point operations will be sufficient to tip the balance in the direction desired by Israel.
A second problem is that in the past, ceasefires reached with Hamas have not held. Rather, the movement has used them to stockpile equipment in order to re-launch attacks at a moment of its own convenience. For example, Hamas declared a ceasefire with Israel on 23 November 2006. The movement then unilaterally abandoned the ceasefire in April 2007, in response to IDF activity against militants in the West Bank.[vii] There is a strong likelihood that a ceasefire at the present time would be used in a similar way.
If Israel were to agree to a ceasefire which would also involve Israeli commitments – an option in which Hamas is understood to have expressed an interest – many of the same cautions would apply. Such a ceasefire would be likely to include an Israeli cessation of targeted killings of Hamas members in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, in return for ending rocket fire on western Negev towns, Hamas would be permitted to continue its rule of Gaza. Past evidence suggests that Hamas would use such a ceasefire in order to build up its missile capabilities, selecting the moment when to re-commence hostilities – perhaps this time with a rocket capability capable of reaching Ashdod or further north. A ceasefire of this kind would also represent a de facto recognition by Israel of Hamas rule in Gaza, and would probably lead to a wider international normalisation vis-à-vis the movement.
Option 2: Israeli re-conquest of all or part of Gaza
An alternative option open to Israel would be a large-scale military offensive into Gaza. This would include the re-occupation of the Strip, or of large parts of it. Such an operation would exact a considerable toll in lives from both sides. It could certainly be achieved by the IDF. The question, however, would be what would follow.[viii] The West Bank Palestinian Authority has already made clear that it would support Hamas against Israel in such a conflict, which indicates that there is little or no prospect of Fatah re-assuming the administration of Gaza in the period following an Israeli toppling of the Hamas-led Gaza government. However, Israeli military and diplomatic sources confirm that there is evidence indicating international readiness to create an international force which would replace the IDF following the toppling of Hamas in Gaza. Sources confirm that a full-scale offensive would last for an extended period – up to six or seven months, after which control would be handed over to the international force. A potential drawback of this would be the issue of whether such a force would prove able to prevent the resumption of Hamas attacks on Israel from Gaza.
IDF re-occupation of the entire Strip would mean the re-opening of a protracted war between Israel and Hamas. This would exact a considerable cost both in Israeli lives and in international criticism of Israel. Some analysts have therefore suggested a partial re-occupation of northern Gaza.[ix] This would avoid pulling the IDF back into Gaza’s urban centres, but would be unable to provide a comprehensive answer to the rocket attacks, since the Grad-Katyusha system would still be able to reach Israeli civilian targets. Such an operation could, however, put a significant proportion of Israeli communities out of the range of the shorter-range rockets.
Hamas-run Gaza is ultimately one of a number of centres of active conflict in the emerging Middle East strategic contest between Iran and its allies (including Hamas), and an alliance of pro-western states including Israel. It is Iranian money and aid which has enabled Hamas to build up the formidable rocket arsenal that it has at its disposal. It is Iranian aid which enabled Hamas to build the militia force which drove out Fatah in June 2007, and which would engage the IDF in the event of a large-scale incursion into the Strip. Thus, the final aspect with which Israeli decision-makers will be contending as they decide on which option to pursue will be the possibility of further escalation. Hamas is part of a system of de facto alliances which includes Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and which centres ultimately on Iran. The beginnings of a large-scale conflict in Gaza contains within it the possibility of escalation into a wider clash, with the prospect of one or another of these Hamas allies being drawn in.[x]
The dynamics of the Gaza situation – and the absence of easy options – can only be understood against the backdrop of the emergence of a regional alliance opposed to any peace process with Israel. This alliance is engaged in a long war strategy, intended to one way or another maintain conflict with Israel, with the strategic goal of its destruction. Such a foe is by its very nature immensely hard to deter. Yet the price of striking a real blow against it would be high. Ultimately, the clear unacceptability of leaving Israeli civilians vulnerable to ongoing, unprovoked and lethal attacks on them is likely to determine Israel’s course.
[i] The Grad-Katyusha rockets fired at Ashkelon contained a payload of 20 kilograms of explosive material. By comparison, the explosive charges used to commit the 7 July 2005 bombings in London each contained 5-7 kilograms of explosives.
[ii] “IDF exits Gaza, Grad attacks continue,” Jerusalem Post, 3 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1204473064427&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
[iii] Ali Waked, “IAF strikes Haniyeh office,” Ynetnews, 2 March 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3513481,00.html
[iv] Barak Ravid, “Barak to Justice Min: Can we hit civilian areas used to fire rockets?” Haaretz, 2 March 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/959840.html
[v] Hanan Greenberg, “IDF gears up for Gaza op,” Ynetnews, 2 March 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3513450,00.html
[vi] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “IDF pulls troops out of Gaza, Hamas declares victory,” Haaretz, 3 March 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/959984.html
[vii] Isabel Kershner, “Hamas military wing fires rockets at Israel,” New York Times, 24 April 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/24/world/middleeast/24cnd-mideast.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin
[viii] Nahum Barnea, “2 Dreadful options,” Ynetnews, 2 March 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3513529,00.html
[ix] Moshe Arens, “Northern Gaza must be recaptured,” Israel National News, 25 April 2006. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/102518
[x] Michael Oren, “It’s the Middle east, stupid,” Washington Post, 2 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/25/AR2008022502224.html
By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents
Haaretz, March 1, 2008
In another few months, when Hamas leaders find time to retrace the steps that led to a large-scale Israel Defense Forces operation in the Gaza Strip, it may be that they will focus on the events of this past week.
The decision to put Ashkelon, and its 120,000 residents, within permanent range of their rockets from Gaza may turn out to have been a mistake on their part. As if it were not enough that the Israeli government is being asked to solve the continuing hardships of Sderot residents, it is now being faced with a much bigger problem in Ashkelon. Its conclusion, even if action is only taken in a month or two, is likely to be that a major military operation is needed in Gaza. Defense Minister Ehud Barak hinted as much Thursday.
A round of increased violence between Israel and Hamas takes place every two or three weeks. And each time, the latest round is more severe than the one preceding it. Last night, it seemed that the escalation was getting out of control. More than 30 rockets were fired at Israel Thursday (and close to 90 in the last two days), among them a Katyusha that scored a direct hit on a home in Ashkelon. Two Israeli civilians were injured in Thursday’s barrage. The casualties on the Palestinian side were significantly worse: The air force struck 21 targets in 24 hours. The Palestinians suffered 15 dead, among them three children and a baby.
In talks at the Defense Ministry Thursday, Ehud Barak said that the likelihood of alarge-scale ground offensive “is real and tangible.” However, he added, there are “complex considerations” regarding the right time for embarking on such an operation. On Wednesday night, during a tense meeting at Sapir College with leaders of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip, Barak said that a large-scale military response is “closer than you might think.”
But before the IDF launches an offensive whose chances of success are being hotly disputed in both the government and the General Staff, there are immediate steps that Israel must take. Thursday night, after putting it off for months, Barak decided to activate the Color Red rocket warning system in Ashkelon. He also held a series of phone calls with the U.S. secretary of state, the foreign ministers of Russia and Britain, Quartet envoy Tony Blair and the head of Egyptian Intelligence, General Omar Suleiman. These calls are meant to lay the international groundwork for a possible Israeli ground offensive.
Hamas, for its part, has adopted an extreme, uncompromising stance. Conversations with its leaders sometimes give rise to the suspicion that they are out of touch with the military reality on the ground, in which their forces are suffering more and more casualties. One Hamas operative went so far as to refer to the prophet Mohammed in order to stress Gaza residents? ability to withstand the pressure. “The Prophet Mohammed managed to survive for three years under siege by the infidels, while eating moldy food, or none at all,” he pointed out.
But notwithstanding such bold statements, Hamas is in trouble. This stems not only from the losses it is suffering, but also from a decline in its level of support among the Gazan public. The organization has been criticized in the Strip, inter alia, for the way it distributes humanitarian aid from Arab states, providing food only to its supporters. When four out of every five Gazans live below the poverty line, this is not the kind of behavior that makes Hamas popular, even if residents do not dare express their anger in public or in the media.
A., who lives in Gaza, blames Hamas for ruining ties with every country in the world, except two: Syria and Iran. “They led us to disaster, and the price is being paid by the ordinary citizens. We have no dreams of a Palestinian state, Jerusalem or the right of return. All we want is a few hours without the electricity being cut and gasoline for our car.”
M., a father of three in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, also blames Hamas for the situation, but admits that he dare not say so in public. “Everyone here is afraid to speak out against them, including those who are not connected with Fatah,” he said. “Who knows what they will do to you? Several days ago, a Qassam rocket accidentally hit the home of a large, well-known clan in Beit Hanun. Even they did not come out in protest.”
But M. added a caveat: “You need to understand that however angry people are with Hamas, their anger at Israel is greater.”
Thursday, M. decided to take his children out of school soon after it opened. “I want them near me. Who knows what will happen? In the morning, I heard on Israeli radio about someone injured at Sapir College and we already had five dead, and I understood that this would be another day of fighting.”
Empathy has become a victim of the Palestinian attacks from Gaza.
By Yossi Klein Halevi
Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2008
JERUSALEM — Within the coming weeks, the Israeli army may re-invade the Gaza Strip in an attempt to stop the rocket attacks on Israeli towns and, perhaps, topple its Islamist Hamas government. If it happens, it will have come after long hesitation and anguished debate. Even we Israelis who once wanted nothing more than to leave Gaza forever now realize that we may have no choice but to return, at least until relative quiet is restored to our border.
In the early 1990s, while serving as a reservist soldier in Gaza, I became a guilty Israeli. By day, my unit patrolled the refugee camps where sewage flowed in rivulets and old men stared with hatred and children with despair. By night, we entered bedrooms and retrieved suspects whose offenses ranged from membership in terror organizations to failure to pay a water bill. More policemen than soldiers, we found ourselves enforcing an occupation whose threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic values had become unbearable.
Those were the years of the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising, and its great victory was the creation of a substantial bloc of guilt-ridden Israelis ready to take almost any risk for peace. As the Oslo peace process came into being under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the guilty Israeli became the most potent source of Palestinian empowerment. Many Israelis tried to understand for the first time how Palestinians experienced the conflict, in effect borrowing Palestinian eyes and incorporating elements of the Palestinian narrative into our own understanding of history.
By the end of the 1990s, a majority of Israelis were considering previously unthinkable concessions such as uprooting Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and redividing the city of Jerusalem. We moved in this direction anxiously. The Palestinians were already beginning to lose the goodwill of guilty Israelis by then. Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, their media, schools and mosques inculcated a culture of denial that rejects the most basic truths of Jewish history, from our ancient roots in the land of Israel to the veracity of the Holocaust. Arafat was a fraud — a master of linguistic duplicity, speaking peace in English to foreign journalists while using the language of jihad in Arabic to his own people. Other Palestinian leaders, including those perceived as moderates in the West, adopted a similar approach.
Nevertheless, despite a growing Israeli sense that we had been deceived, in December 2000, Israel accepted President Clinton’s plan to establish a contiguous Palestinian state on almost all of the territories, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Arafat’s counteroffer was four years of suicide bombings — the second Palestinian intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2004. He and his apologists tried to pass it off as a spontaneous uprising in reaction to a controversial visit by then-Likud party leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, but Israelis understood that escalating violence had been Arafat’s fallback plan all along.
Even after that bitter experience, Israelis still felt so desperate to end the occupation that they withdrew their army and uprooted their settlements from Gaza in 2006. Had Gazans begun at this point to create a peaceful state from their new, self-governing territory, the Israeli public almost certainly would have endorsed substantive negotiations over a West Bank withdrawal. Instead, they elected a government led by Hamas, whose theology calls for the destruction of Israel and war against Jews around the world, and whose terror attacks are small pre-enactments of its genocidal ambitions. Palestinian rocket attacks that had previously been aimed at settlements were simply redirected toward towns and villages within Israel.
The result of all this is that today the guilty Israeli has become nearly extinct. Just as we came to realize during the first intifada that the occupation was untenable, so we have now come to realize that peace is impossible with Palestinian leaders for whom reconciliation is a one-way process.
So far, the rockets aimed at Israel have been primitive and mostly terrorize and wound rather than slaughter. But it is only a matter of time before Hamas’ allies in Iran and Hezbollah upgrade the rockets’ lethal effect. Meanwhile, the psychological damage has been profound: Israelis perceive their government’s failure to defend southern Israel as a collapse of national sovereignty. The political fallout has been no less intense: Gaza was a test case for Israeli withdrawal, and the experiment was a disaster. How, Israelis wonder, can we evacuate the West Bank and risk rocket attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?
The rockets, though, are only a symptom of a deeper malaise: the willingness of Palestinian leaders to encourage their own people’s suffering for political ends. Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid, successive Palestinian governments have done almost nothing to rehabilitate the nearly 60-year-old refugee camps. During a visit I paid to Gaza in the late 1990s, a U.N. official explained to me why. The fate of the refugees, he said, was being left to negotiations. When I asked whether he really believed that Israel would absorb Palestinian refugees, he replied: “All options are open.”
In fact, they are not. No Israeli government will agree to commit demographic suicide by allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to move into Israel proper. Under any two-state peace agreement, descendants of those refugees who left Israel in 1948 will have the right to return to a Palestinian state, not the Jewish state.
Gaza’s people are being held hostage to a political fantasy. And the international community is abetting the tragedy. The U.N. actually considers Palestinians to be permanent refugees, to be protected in squalid but subsidized camps even though they live in their own homeland of Gaza, under their own government.
So long as Gaza refuses to heal itself, Israelis will rightly suspect that the Palestinian goal remains Israel’s destruction. Not even a full withdrawal from the West Bank, they fear, will end the war, any more than the pullout from Gaza stopped the rockets. Israel’s crime isn’t occupying but existing.
And so we move toward the next terrible round of conflict. This time, though, for all our anguish, we will feel a lot less remorse. Because even guilty Israelis realize that, until our neighbors care more about building their state than undermining ours, the misery of Gaza will persist.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow in the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and author of “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”