Sunday, 4 January 2009

Analysis: Israel fighting ghost of Lebanon

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - As Israel rolled its forces across the border into Gaza and began its ground war on Saturday, Hamas leaders scornfully said the Israelis were playing right into their hands.

"The Zionist enemy is advancing toward the trap we have prepared for them," Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing, boasted in a statement.

"Gaza will be your cemetery, and you have no choice but to end the aggression and lift the blockade," added Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan.

The derision contained in those taunts may reflect false bravado. But it also underscores a central issue underlying the Gaza conflict and Israel's position: The Jewish state has lost a large measure of its capacity to intimidate and control its regional enemies, a new vulnerability that dates back to the stalemate with Lebanon's Hezbollah militia in 2006.

"Israel believes its deterrence was lost in that war, and Israel's current campaign against Hamas should be seen as an effort to regain that deterrence. Israeli military officials believe that if Hamas feared Israel, they would not be firing rockets at Israeli towns," said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

"The legacy of Israel's inconclusive 34-day war with Hezbollah in 2006 hovers over Israel's current military operations in Gaza," he said.

Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah mocked Israel in recent days, telling Palestinians they are experiencing a rerun of his group's monthlong conflict with Israel, offering them an analysis of Israel's battle plan and strategy for victory.

"What is happening today in Gaza is not similar but identical to what happened in July of 2006," Nasrallah said in a speech last week. "It is the same choices, the same battle, the same conspiracies, and God willing there will be the same outcome."

Nasrallah said Israel is trying to establish a foothold in Gaza, just as it did in Lebanon, to be used as a bargaining chip if the U.N. Security Council finally intervenes.

To judge from their public statements after the ground operation began on Saturday, Hamas has yet to be deterred after a week of air strikes that have wreaked havoc in Gaza, killing more than 480 people and injuring an estimated 2,750 - most of them Hamas members and their families.

Since the air attacks began, Hamas militants have bombarded southern Israel with more than 400 rockets - including dozens that extended deeper into Israel than ever before, according to the Israeli military.

For its part, Israel has yet to clearly express what it expects to achieve by sending in thousands of ground troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships.

Addressing reporters in a televised briefing Saturday night, Israeli Defense Minster Ehud Barak put the aims of "Operation Cast Lead" in simple but vague terms.

"The aim is to stop hostile activity from Gaza against the citizens of Israel and to bring about a fundamental change in the situation in the south," Barak said. "We seek peace. We have gritted our teeth for a long time. But the time has come to do what needs to be done. To give our citizens what is appropriate for every citizen in the world, peace and quiet, and to remove as far as possible the threat for the foreseeable future."

However, Amnon Abramovitch, one of Israel's leading military analysts, said he sees no clear strategy after studying the comments of four senior Cabinet members.

"Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak talk about an 'arrangement' (with Hamas). Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni talks about 'a severe blow' (to Hamas) but without any arrangement. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon talks about toppling Hamas. There are nuances within the Israeli Cabinet," said Abramovitch. "In all modesty, I don't know what to tell you about how it will end."

Khaled Hroub, author of "Hamas: A Beginner's Guide," told Al-Jazeera television that any Israeli incursion into Gaza is doomed to failure.

"I can't see any success, strategically speaking, on the side of the Israeli aggression. That is because Israel declared that their one main objective is to disarm Hamas and stop rockets from being launched from the Gaza Strip," he said. "Even after one month of this aggression, if one single rocket is launched from the Gaza Strip, this means the whole Israeli strategy has failed."

Hroub noted that Hamas is well entrenched in the Gaza Strip, hiding weapons and supplies in a network of tunnels, and would be a formidable enemy in close-combat fighting on its own territory.

Away from the bluster of Israeli politicians, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu gave perhaps the most concrete answer when explaining the ground invasion.

"The objective of this phase is to intensify the heavy blow already dealt to Hamas and to take control of the area from where most of the rocket attacks against Israel originate," said Benayahu. "Stage two of Operation Cast Lead has been launched to support our central goals, which are to deal a heavy blow to the Hamas terror organization, to strengthen Israel's deterrence, and to create a better security situation for those living around the Gaza Strip that will be maintained for the long term."

With that in mind, the huge force amassed at the border may not be a sign that Israel intends to reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip, or even topple Hamas from power. It may simply be a strategy chosen by the new Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, to carry out a limited operation with a simple objective: seize rocket-launching sites and wait for Hamas to agree to a new cease-fire, perhaps under international supervision.

Benayahu even said Israel might be willing to accept a "reduction" in rockets being fired at its cities instead of a total cessation. In that way, Israel might prevent Gaza from becoming a reprise of its battle with Hezbollah.

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

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