Israel is getting ready to invade Gaza
Wednesday, 20th February 2008
Lorna Fitzsimons talks to senior sources and concludes that, with heavy hearts, the Israelis are set to mount a military takeover of Gaza — a step that will leave the talks nowhere
This is not the way things were meant to happen. When Ariel Sharon ordered the removal of all Israelis from the Gaza Strip in 2005, leaders from around the world applauded. It was a clear message that Israel was willing to do almost everything it could to resolve the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians — including returning land without any assurances of peace and security. However, the initial optimism was quickly curbed by the grim reality on the ground: Hamas’s election victory in January 2006 and the sharp rise of rockets fired at communities inside Israel showed that unilateral withdrawal would not provide a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.
Today the number of rocket attacks on Israel is soaring. Senior Israeli diplomatic and military sources have indicated that there will soon be a large military ground invasion, reluctantly mounted by the Israelis, and a possible reoccupation of some of Gaza. If there is an invasion, Israel will have tacitly admitted that the experiment of unilateral disengagement has failed, leaving it at square one in its quest for peace with the Palestinians in Gaza.
It is hard to imagine how any sovereign state could tolerate the situation that Israel finds herself in today. Approximately 190,000 Israelis — the population of Brighton — living in southern Israel have been under attack for seven years. The 23,000 residents in the Israeli town of Sderot have been going through hell on earth: 30 per cent of them now suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, 90 per cent have experienced a Qassam rocket falling on their street; and over the past 18 months more than 1,600 cases of trauma have been recorded. An alarm system gives residents 15 seconds to seek shelter. Sometimes there are 20 attacks a day. Those who can afford to are moving further inside Israel, leaving the poor and elderly to remain. In a country of just six million people, the impact of all this is the equivalent of Newcastle, Preston or Derby being attacked daily.
And the attacks have intensified. In 2005, 401 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip; in 2006, there were 1,722. The belief that territorial concessions alone would provide greater security has collapsed as the rockets keep on coming. In the two and a half years that followed Israel’s total withdrawal, more than 3,700 rockets were fired at Israel — and that figure will be reached this year alone if rockets continue to be fired at the same rate as they have been in the first weeks of 2008. Since 2001, 24 Israelis have been killed and 620 wounded in rocket attacks launched from Gaza. The equivalent attacks on the UK in the same period would have seen 240 people killed and 6,200.
The situation is now even more precarious for Israel following the breach of the Sinai/Gaza border last month. From conversations I’ve had with intelligence sources, we know that Gazan terror organisations used the breach to upgrade their military capacity, bringing in arms and ammunition — and even operatives. Hamas and other groups now have rockets that are able to reach further inside Israel, placing even more people under the threat of attack.
A growing number of government sources now say privately that under the current conditions a major ground operation in Gaza is only a matter of time. Dr Zvi Shtauber, director of the Institute for National Security Studies, believes it is no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ such an operation will take place. Dr Mark Heller, Israeli-Palestinian policy analyst, agrees, calling it ‘almost a statistical certainty’ that Israel will be ‘compelled to re-enter Gaza’. Last week defence minister Ehud Barak called for ‘a calm and calculated management’ of the ongoing crisis, but revealed that he had ‘instructed the IDF to complete preparations for the possibility of a ground invasion in Gaza’. Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi went further declaring the IDF were ‘ready to deepen and widen any offensive in the Gaza Strip’.
It is clear that any military action in Gaza is likely to be ugly, dangerous and costly in terms of lives on both sides. Rockets manufactured locally using improvised materials and crudely launched from highly populated areas are one of the hardest threats to remove. There is no single or specific group of targets whose elimination would bring about a cessation of rocket fire. This makes military action highly complicated and Israel may well find itself embroiled in a long and bloody campaign taking over large parts of the Gaza Strip.
Experts such as Dr Rory Miller, senior lecturer at King’s College London, warn that if Israel does re-enter Gaza it must do so for specific militarily achievable objectives rather than as a response to domestic public opinion in Israel. He warns that the latter would be ‘disastrous’.
The atmosphere in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plane en route to Germany last week, however, reflected just how little enthusiasm there is to send in any troops at all into the Strip. ‘Anger is not an operational plan,’ Olmert said, indicating that the lessons of the 2006 war with Hezbollah have been learnt — you don’t take troops in unless all other options have been exhausted. But the alternative to invasion and stopping the rocket attacks is much worse; as an ex-parliamentarian I know that the first responsibility of any government around the world is to protect her citizens.
Last month I took a group of senior British editors to meet Amos Gilead, the irrepressible chief of the Israeli Defence Ministry’s political military-bureau. We met him just as the IDF announced its plans to limit the amount of fuel going into Gaza. The general argued emphatically that there was only one effective solution — invasion of Gaza. But, he argued, Israel was, in effect, deliberately fighting terror with one hand tied behind its back, choosing blockades and targeted assassinations specifically because there was widespread reluctance to reoccupy the land she had left voluntarily. He told the journalists, ‘We have one clear option open to us — to invade. We do not want to do this and so we’re trying everything, exhausting all other options to see if there is a chance this is avoidable.’
And that’s what makes Israelis so depressed about the situation today: the vast majority of Israelis do not want to have any presence in Gaza. They don’t want to rule over the 1.5 million people there. They thought they had fulfilled their part of the bargain over two years ago when Israel pulled out, forcibly removing Jewish settlers from their homes and leaving the communities they had built there. A large majority of Israelis supported that action with only 34 per cent opposing. In a country where everyone has a son or a brother serving in the army, there is little appetite for any large military operation that is likely to result in large numbers of soldier fatalities.
Israelis also know that there are likely to be significant negative knock-on effects on the negotiations with Palestinian President Abu Mazen if they do go into Gaza. The round of talks relaunched in Annapolis — where Prime Minister Olmert pointedly acknowledged the role Israel plays in causing Palestinian suffering — may well stall after an invasion. It will be almost impossible for any Palestinian to negotiate while there are tanks, soldiers and civilian deaths in Gaza. Olmert, who has staked his political future on successful negotiations — even instructing his foreign minister to meet her Palestinian counterpart on the day of last week’s suicide bombing — knows this more than anyone.
Hamas, as an Islamist, expansionist organisation that angrily rejects the status quo and Israel’s right to exist, has deliberately created this new reality. Never before has Hamas looked as irrelevant and as isolated as in Annapolis in November last year when almost every Arab state pledged their support to bringing Palestinian independence through negotiation and compromise. It is no coincidence that, threatened by Israel and the PA’s public commitments to negotiations and concerned that its popularity in the Palestinian street could dwindle, Hamas cynically whipped up a crisis in Gaza and on its borders. It has tried to create an alternative vision for the Palestinians: violent resistance and independence through war and bloodshed, and unfortunately it is succeeding.
More worryingly, military action in Gaza could have a detrimental effect far beyond the immediate borders of Israel and Palestine. In a conversation last week, a leading Egyptian moderate, Tarek Heggy, told me, ‘If Israel went into Gaza tomorrow and those pictures were broadcast throughout the Arab world, the implications for the rest of the region will be gigantic. They would create a lot of pressure on the moderate leaders.’
The recent breaching of the border with Egypt underscores Hamas’s decision to prevent any containment of the conflict to the strict limits of the Gaza Strip. Hamas is strategically pushing for an escalation that places its confrontation with Israel on a wider geo-political level — as just another front on what it wants to portray as the West’s ‘assault’ on Islam. A ‘spillage effect’, in which the clash between Israel and Hamas destabilises moderate players in the region is possible. And if it empowers Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas will have succeeded. Israeli leaders fully understand this, but just cannot see another way of stopping the daily barrage of attacks coming into Israel. As one Israeli security analyst summed it up, ‘We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.’
Israelis have learnt never to say never when dealing with Middle East politics, and some Israeli analysts are now arguing that military action in Gaza may actually be a boost for the peace process. Israel has always been prepared to cede territory gained on the battlefield for acceptance and peace with its neighbours. If Hamas rejects that formula then perhaps Israel’s anticipated action may make room for a more moderate Palestinian leadership that accepts the Jewish state and sees compromise as the only path to an independent Palestine. However, I worry that this is no more than wishful thinking, given the rise in Palestine and the wider region of political Islam and the decline of secular nationalism.
It is of course far from clear how events in Gaza will play out. What is plain is that the past seven years of attacks — and the dramatic increase in the past few months — have been unbearable for so many Israelis. Israel has acted with a commendable level of restraint that in all probability no other country in the world would have shown when under attack. Israel may well have to re-occupy large parts of Gaza, essentially admitting that its 2005 experiment of unilateral withdrawal failed — it wasn’t able to bring security to the region by giving back Gaza without a clear partner for peace on the other side. And where will all this leave Israel? Back at square one, pondering her next step in the search for a land-for-peace deal.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Wars and Rumors of War
Posted by whit at 2/25/2008 06:00:00 PM