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Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Mideast wary of Israel's Gaza attack strategy

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - Following the bloodiest attack on the Gaza Strip since it was captured by Israel from Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967, people across the Middle East are waiting warily to learn just how far Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will press his campaign against Hamas.

Is he trying to destroy the militant group and topple its leadership, or is he trying to neutralize Hamas by obliterating its weapons, infrastructure and supply routes?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said today the campaign was intended to strike "a hard enough blow to change the rules of the game so there won't be any action from within the Gaza Strip against Israeli citizens or soldiers."

That suggests the Israelis are pursuing the more modest goal of neutralizing Hamas. But both Arab and Israeli observers say the ferocity of the bombing risks inciting widespread and protracted reprisals against Israel from across the Palestinian territories.

"The attack on Gaza could, particularly if prolonged over weeks, as Minister of Defense Barak threatens, inflame anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds," said Yossi Alpher, a former officer in the spy agency Mossad. "Rioting could spread across the West Bank and among Palestinian citizens of Israel."

Olmert said Israel simply had no choice but to target the source of missile attacks on its people.

"We were compelled to take action in order to halt the aggression against our citizens," Olmert told reporters Saturday night when he announced the launch of "Operation Cast Lead" against Hamas. According to a poll for Israel's Channel 10 TV on Sunday, 81 percent of Israelis agreed with him.

But as thousands of Israeli troops huddled in the pouring rain on the Gaza border tonight, poised to begin a ground invasion, many Israelis fear becoming mired in a drawn-out battle in the Gaza Strip.

Olmert had little to gain personally from launching the attack. He will retire in disgrace after February's general election, the most unpopular leader in Israel's history, his reputation sullied by a string of corruption allegations and possible criminal charges. He is still reeling from the 2006 Lebanon War, when he led Israel's forces against Hezbollah, only to be ridiculed abroad and denounced at home for what was widely regarded as a strategic failure.

Some have suggested Israel's general election on Feb. 10 may have influenced the decision to attack. Polls showed Barak, chairman of the Labor Party, running third to the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, in the race for prime minister. The Channel 10 poll taken Sunday already showed that Barak's standing had improved after the attack.

Notwithstanding the political speculation, Olmert must have been reluctant to go to war again. But from an Israeli perspective, he had to act.

Since 2001, 3,984 rockets and 3,943 mortar shells have been launched at Israel from Gaza, many of them at the sleepy lower-middle-class suburb of Sderot, now reduced to a ghost town.

Egypt brokered a truce that took effect in June, but since then Palestinians still fired 223 rockets and 139 mortar shells from the Hamas-controlled enclave. Last week, as the cease-fire expired, Palestinian militants launched 80 rockets and shells in a single day and attacked the two border crossings where Israeli supply trucks were carrying desperately needed food and medicine.

The Palestinian death toll continued to climb higher today, yet Hamas still managed to pound Israeli cities like Ashdod more than 20 miles to the north with rocket fire, bringing a million Israelis within range of the fighting.

Observers are questioning the Israeli strategy.

"If the aim is to stop the attacks from Gaza, then Israel should have said, immediately after the attacks on Saturday, that we are ready for a cease-fire. There are no other targets," said Yossi Beilin, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator.

The more than 400 carefully chosen targets bombed since Saturday appear to include all of the Hamas command, control and communications infrastructure, their weapons-manufacturing factories, arms and rockets stockpiles, missile silos, smuggling tunnels and more than 250 personnel, including key military commanders.

Many analysts believe Israel must resist the temptation to re-invade the territory it quit amid much fanfare in 2005, when it removed an entire garrison and more than 5,000 stubborn settlers.

"Israelis want to see this operation as decisive, but they know that Gaza is a horror film for them with many dreadful sequels," said Matt Beynon Rees, the former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine. "Ultimately, there'll be no peace - either in Gaza or for the Israelis living nearby - until a real peace deal is done between the two sides."

Another reason for Israel to call an early halt to the fighting is the fissure that has opened up in the Arab world, with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah supporting Hamas, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia tacitly blame Hamas for inciting the Israelis.

Olmert could try to exploit the split to create a new diplomatic momentum in which Hamas is marginalized, allowing the renewal of peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Fatah movement in the West Bank and the chief rival to Hamas among the Palestinian people.

Olmert can't risk the total destruction of Hamas in Gaza, lest Abbas be seen as politically profiting from the suffering in Gaza. Or, as Ramadan Shallah, secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, warned: Any Palestinian "who dares to return to the Gaza Strip aboard an Israeli tank would be condemned as a traitor."

It's a difficult balancing act, and one that will only become trickier as civilian casualties rise.

"The longer the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) stays, the more it will be subject to popular resistance and international pressure to withdraw," Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute, argued in a policy paper. "A protracted invasion would also strain Israel's relationship with the United States, other Western nations, moderate Arab states, and the Palestinian Authority.

"Military action in Gaza is not likely to be surgical or final. Hamas' entrenched position, literally and figuratively, rules out quick and easy military solutions, while large operations carry serious complications and risks, with no guarantee of success."

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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