Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Gaza War

Israel's end game in Gaza

What are Israel's goals? The overthrow of the Hamas government is often mentioned as a potential long-term objective...

Even by West Asia standards, the scale of the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip and the magnitude of casualties are astounding. Ever since Israel launched the ‘Operation Cast Lead’ two days after Christmas, close to 400 Palestinians have been killed and over a thousand injured. In the retaliatory attacks by the Hamas four Israelis were killed, including a Druze soldier and an Arab citizen. With an immediate ceasefire not in sight the casualties are bound to increase.

Prolonged rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip not only tested Israel’s deterrence but also have generated widespread domestic anger. With the Knesset elections just weeks away, Israeli politicians compete with one other as strong on security. The dwindling popularity of the Labour Party had put additional pressures upon Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

What are Israel’s goals? The overthrow of the Hamas government is often mentioned as a potential long-term objective. It is colourful and might even be popular to talk of ending the militant control. At least in private many Fatah would like see such an outcome as a sweet revenge for the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007.

To accomplish this far-reaching goal Israel would have to opt for, as Barak put it, boots on the ground. Israel cannot accomplish this without a full-scale ground offensive and the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. There are signs in that direction. So far the army has called up about 9,000 reserve soldiers. This is one of the largest mobilisations in recent years. A large number tanks and artillery are stationed around the Gaza Strip. These make a ground offensive an extreme possibility.

At the same time, Israeli leaders know the pitfalls of such an option. Pin-pointed operations and smaller incursions are more successful than a large-scale ground offensive. Hamas definitely has an upper hand in any conventional urban guerrilla war situation. In 1982 Israel needed days to reach Beirut but took more than quarter of a century to get out of Lebanon. The American experience is no better and before long the fall of Baghdad turned into an Iraqi quagmire. Hence, Barak would have to carefully weigh the pros and cons.

This means that Israel’s campaign would largely be aerial raids accompanied by naval bombardments. That nearly 50 sites were attacked within the first few minutes of the campaign indicates that it had planned the offensive long and hard. The aerial offensive has its advantages. It can benefit from Israel’s technological superiority and minimise army casualties.

The aerial campaign has its limits. The Gaza Strip is not a continent. The total area of this impoverished and most crowded place on earth is only 360 square km. The city of Bangalore, in contrasts, spans over 690 sq km. Therefore, even if it targets every known site associated with Hamas, before long Israel will run out of military targets.

Despite the technological advances, aerial campaign comes with a price: civilian casualties. Even if unintended, air raids against a crowded place like the Gaza city invariably kill a number of innocent bystanders. According the UN and other agencies, nearly a fourth of all those Palestinians killed so far are women and children. Civilian deaths are always emotional and potentially damaging to Israel. Already there are protest rallies in various western capitals and cities and they would only increase if the conflict prolongs.

Some Israeli estimates suggest that that only 220 out of 390 killed were members of Hamas. It is unclear if Israel distinguishes between members and militants of Hamas. With the Hamas leadership largely remaining underground, it is unclear if there are any political casualties.

The scale and intensity of destruction would suggest that the military potential of Hamas has been considerably reduced and not eliminated. That Hamas could launch longer range rockets into Israel, with some of them reaching 40 km, highlight its military potential. It is down but not out. Green and not white flag still flies in Gaza.

Thus, Israel would not be able to prevent the rocket attacks only by its military campaign. The massive deaths and devastation might persuade the Hamas to re-examine its strategy and seek a political understanding and renew the ceasefire. The maximum that Israel could expect from this campaign is this: a militarily weakened Hamas would be more willing for a political understanding.

At the same time, Israel also would have to accommodate some of the demands of the Hamas. They are also Palestinian demands. It would have end the siege of the Gaza Strip and stop its periodic military incursions into the Gaza Strip.

As one commentator reminded the Israelis, since the October war of 1973, each time Israel fought a war, the defence minister lost his job. The last one was Amir Peretz who led Israel into the disastrous second Lebanon war in 2006. If Barak were to avoid joining that company, he would require tangible results and a quick end to the military campaign.

To accomplish this, whether he likes or not, Barak would need a helping hand from the Hamas. That is the irony of West Asia.

For web link click here

(The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

No comments: