4th January 2009
By Matthew Kalman
The Israeli cabinet decision to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip was taken over the objection of two senior ministers and dominated by the memory of Israel's failure to destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago.
Mindful of the bitter recriminations that followed the ill-fated Lebanon war of 2006, Israel has set very limited objectives for phase two of 'Operation Cast Lead' in Gaza and left itself considerable room for diplomatic manouevring.
Israeli Deputy Premier Haim Ramon and Industry Minister Eli Yishai demanded that the invasion should seek to topple the regime of Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from President Mahmoud Abbas's forces in a bloody coup in June 2007 in which 400 people were brutally murdered.
Israeli infantry soldiers take up positions on the border before entering the Gaza Strip
But, aware of the exaggerated targets it set in Lebanon – and failed to achieve - the Israeli cabinet decide instead to seek more modest aims.
'The objective of this phase of the operation 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, in order to reduce those rocket attacks,' said Brigadier-General Avi Benayahu, the Israel army spokesman.
'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 organisation, 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,' he said.
'Reducing' the rocket attacks and dealing a 'heavy blow' to Hamas are a long way from a promise to stop the attacks completely and put an end to Hamas.
A Jordanian demonstrator shouts anti-Israeli slogans and holds a picture of late Hamas leader Nizar Rayan
Israel appears to be seeking to weaken the Hamas regime and is hinting that an occasional missile breaking an eventual ceasefire will not be a deal-breaker.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has managed to marginalise the voices led by ministers Ramon and Yishai for Israel to re-occupy Gaza and depose Hamas.
By setting limited aims for the operation, Olmert has avoided many of the pitfalls that plagued the 34-day war against Hezbollah which ended with at least 1,110 people killed in Lebanon and 157 Isarelis dead.
Israeli army spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovitch made that crystal clear. 'We have no intention of conquering the Gaza Strip,' she said.
An Israeli man rides a motorcycle near Kibbutz Kfar Azza during a visit to show solidarity with Israeli troops stationed on the Israel-Gaza border
The Israeli army is far better trained for this operation than it was for the fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The infantry, parachute and armoured divisions who crossed into Gaza on Saturday night have been training in urban warfare at a specially-built mock Gaza town at an Israeli army base in the Negev desert.
Israel's intelligence is also much improved compared to 2006, when Israeli special forces commandos were staggered to discover that Hezbollah was a well-trained, disciplined army and not the rag-bag of part-time gunmen they believed it to be.
The decision to invade is still a high risk gamble for the Israeli cabinet as the government faces elections in litte over five weeks.
PM Olmert, embroiled in a corruption scandal, is stepping down from any leadership role but Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - leader of the centrist Kadima party - and defence minister Ehud Barak, the Labour party chief, will have been greatly heartened by opinion polls showing the Israeli strategy has huge popular support - for now.
However, if Israeli soldiers start coming home in body bags and the offensive continues for days or weeks with no clear victory in sight they know that their jobs will be very much on the line as well as a likely hammering for their parties at the polls on February 10th.