[dehai-news] The Strategic Price of Israel's Gaza Assault


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From: wolda002@umn.edu
Date: Mon Dec 29 2008 - 21:47:18 EST


Monday, Dec. 29, 2008
The Strategic Price of Israel's Gaza Assault
By Tony Karon

At hot war in Gaza was not how Israel was supposed to appear on the
strategic agenda of Barack Obama when he takes office in January. Its
leaders had hoped to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back
burner of the new Administration, which Israel hopes will make Iran's
nuclear program its overriding priority in the Middle East. Instead, the
weekend bloodbath in Gaza — the deadliest since Israel occupied the
territory in 1967 — casts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an urgent
crisis demanding a response from Washington. It also highlights the failure
of the Bush Administration's and Israel's policies on Hamas in Gaza.

The air strikes that began Saturday, in which Palestinians claim at least
280 people have been killed, marked a dramatic escalation of the
high-stakes poker game between Israel and Hamas. Over the past seven weeks,
each side has calculated the odds of outbidding the other. Hamas — and
the civilian population it represents — paid a heavy price in human
casualties over the weekend, but it may nonetheless retain a strategic
advantage. The radical Palestinian movement that governs Gaza appears to
have underestimated Israel's readiness to launch a military campaign in
response to an escalation of Palestinian rocket fire onto Israel's southern
towns and cities. This is, however, an Israeli election season in which
polls show voters moving so quickly to the right that even the hawkish
front runner, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is losing support to parties
more extreme than his own. Still, the factors that restrained Israel from
launching an attack on Gaza until now remain in place, and the likelihood
of an escalation in the confrontation in the days and weeks ahead — and
the negative regional backlash it may promote — will probably mark a
diplomatic setback for Israel. (Read TIME's top 10 news stories of the
year.)

Israel launched Saturday's strike knowing that Hamas would respond with a
fusillade of rockets, possibly using some of the longer-range weapons
smuggled into Gaza over the past year to strike Israeli towns such as
Ashdod and Ashkelon. Hamas may even activate suicide-bomber cells in East
Jerusalem or the West Bank. Israel had prepared for the first possibility
by deploying additional air-raid protection in towns as far as 25 miles (40
km) from the Gaza border. And it will probably follow up the air strikes
with ground attacks aimed at neutralizing as much as it can of Hamas'
military capability. But Hamas has good reason to expect that Israel's
military campaign will be limited, and it believes it can come out ahead in
the strategic equation despite the heavy cost in blood that will be paid by
its own leaders and militants, as well as by Palestinian civilians.

The rocket barrage by Hamas that preceded Israel's air strikes began with
the unraveling of a cease-fire, brokered by Egypt, that had been in place
since June. Although Hamas said the truce expired on Dec. 19, it began
firing rockets earlier, in response to an Israeli raid on Nov. 5 aimed at
stopping Palestinians from tunneling under the boundary fence. Hamas needed
a truce, but one on more favorable terms than what had applied in the
preceding six months. During that time, Israel had largely stopped military
attacks in Gaza but kept in place a crippling economic siege as part of a
Bush Administration–backed campaign to pressure the Palestinian civilian
population to overthrow the Hamas government it had elected in 2006. (See
pictures of the Middle East crisis.)

The cease-fire proved to be untenable. "Calm for calm" — as Israelis call
the agreement to simply refrain from military strikes and rocket fire —
didn't work for Hamas, since it was unable to deliver economic relief to
the long-suffering Palestinian civilian population. Indeed, the renewed
campaign of rocket fire by Hamas was widely interpreted as a bargaining
tactic aimed at securing more favorable truce terms, particularly lifting
the economic siege. Israel, in the meantime, suffered from confusion in its
goals. On the one hand, it wanted to destroy the Hamas government; on the
other hand, it sought to coexist with the movement in order to ensure
security along Israel's southern flank — hence the combination of "calm
for calm" and the unrelenting economic siege. But even "calm for calm"
represented what Israel saw as an unacceptable humiliation, as Hamas
continued to hold the kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit as a hostage — for
more than two years now — to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel's current offensive underscores the strategic quandary it faces in
Gaza. By striking Gaza now, Israel has pushed the conflict with the
Palestinians back to the top of the priorities facing the Obama
Administration. Israel's offensive in Gaza will provoke an upsurge in
hostility on the streets toward the U.S. and Israel from Lebanon to
Pakistan, making life difficult for those inclined to cooperate with
Washington (foremost among them, the Palestinian Authority of President
Mahmoud Abbas) while offering an opportunity to U.S. foes to improve their
own standing in Arab and Muslim public opinion. President Obama will take
office with the Israeli-Palestinian issue once again clearly functioning as
a driver of regional instability, demanding action — and, perhaps, new
thinking — from the incoming Administration. (See pictures of the world
reacting to Obama's win.)

There are other strategic downsides to Israel's launching a military
offensive in Gaza at this time. Israel has acted in response to pressures
to protect its citizenry from rocket attacks, but it is probable that such
attacks will continue and possibly intensify as a result. That will draw
Israeli ground troops into Gaza, where they, too, will suffer casualties at
the hands of Palestinian gunmen. The Palestinian civilian death toll will
be far higher, which will, in turn, isolate Israel on the diplomatic front
— even those Arab regimes that would have been discreetly pleased to see
Hamas dealt a harsh blow (because they fear the Islamist movement is
becoming a model for those challenging their own governments) will be
forced to distance themselves.

The air strikes will also give President Abbas no choice but to break off
peace talks with Israel, although neither the Israelis nor most
Palestinians treated them as any kind of serious peace process. Still, the
Israeli offensive is likely to boost Palestinian political support for
Hamas and to further weaken Abbas. In the weeks preceding the strikes,
Israeli security officials warned that there is no end game, because a
limited campaign would be unlikely to eliminate Hamas in Gaza, and a
full-blown ground invasion would find Israel forced to reoccupy the
territory on a long-term basis.

Hamas knows that Israel's military intervention is unlikely to be a ground
war to the finish. It will hope that, like Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006,
simply surviving an Israeli onslaught will help it emerge politically
victorious. Israel will hope to sufficiently bloody the movement to put it
on the defensive and make its leaders prioritize their own physical
survival over pressing Israel to ease the siege. And hundreds more people
could die in the weeks ahead as the two sides look to win the battle of
wills. The renewed confrontation is likely to strengthen the far-right
forces in Israeli politics and end the largely symbolic Bush
Administration–orchestrated peace talks between Israel and President
Abbas. (See pictures of Gaza on the brink.)

So, when he sits down at his desk in the Oval Office in January, President
Barack Obama will be confronted with compelling evidence of the failure of
the Bush Administration's and Israel's policy on Hamas rule in Gaza —
with an urgency to bring fresh ideas to the table.

    * Find this article at:
    * http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1868864,00.html

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