What is Israel’s Endgame in Gaza

The Guardian- 12/01/2009

As Israel’s operation Cast Lead in Gaza enters its third week, questions are increasingly being asked regarding its aims. Is Israel’s ultimate objective the fall of the Hamas regime in Gaza? Or is Israel maintaining military pressure on Hamas in order to conclude the operation with a set of de facto ceasefire arrangements intended to prevent Hamas re-arming? The Israeli cabinet is itself divided on this issue. The operation is being guided by the triumvirate of prime minister Ehud Olmert, defence minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Livni. All three are thought to have differing conceptions as to what should happen now, though there are fewer differences regarding the outcome of the operation.

Barak had hoped to avoid a major ground operation of any kind into Gaza, and would like to see the operation wrapped up. Livni also wants to see the ground operation rapidly concluded. She would like to see the Israel Defence Forces withdrawn from Gaza without renewed understandings with Hamas but on the clear assumption that further military operations will take place if rocket fire resumes. Olmert, however, favors maintaining the military pressure on Hamas; he is due to ask for cabinet approval for continuing the ground operation.

Israeli reservists have now been introduced into the fighting, and the IDF is conducting operations into Gaza City, the seat of the symbols of the Hamas government in Gaza.

What is the prime minister aiming for? No coherent plan for the replacement of Hamas has been outlined. It is generally accepted that carrying out a military operation intended to topple Hamas would require the mobilization of further reservists, and a time frame of several weeks, would probably entail considerable Israeli loss of life and could end with an Israeli re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. Olmert, who is due to depart from the political stage with the general election on February 10, is unlikely to be thinking along these lines.

It is therefore most likely that the prime minister too intends Israel to emerge from the current round of fighting with the Hamas regime in Gaza severely weakened but still in power. If this assumption is correct, the current military activity in southern Gaza is intended as a means to ensure a more favorable outcome for Israel in the arrangements that will follow the fighting.

The key demand around which Israel’s diplomatic stance appears to be coalescing is for more efficient measures to prevent renewed Hamas re-armament following the conclusion of operation Cast Lead. Israel watched with trepidation in the ceasefire period as Hamas sought to emulate the example of Hezbollah. The tunnels of northern Sinai served as the main route by which ordnance was transported into Gaza. By these means, Hamas transformed its arsenal in the ceasefire period, acquiring sophisticated Grad and Iranian Fajr-3 missiles.

Israel would like to see an international force deployed at the southern crossing between Gaza and Egypt to ensure the effective prevention of further Hamas arms smuggling. Egypt so far is staunchly resisting the introduction of foreign troops. An alternative would be for a beefed-up Egyptian force on the border, possibly with technical support from US or European personnel.

In parallel, a Hamas delegation is also in Cairo, holding talks with Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman. Hamas has so far rejected the terms of the Egyptian initiative. The movement’s refusal to renew the ceasefire in December derived from its demand for the opening of the crossings connecting Gaza to Israel and Egypt. There is no prospect of Israel agreeing to this. It is therefore possible that Israel and Egypt will agree terms for new arrangements on the border, with Hamas left out of the arrangements, and remaining as an existing but weakened ruling force in Gaza.

Hamas has lost heavily in the course of operation Cast Lead. The movement’s backers in Iran and allies in Hezbollah are understood to be disappointed and angry about its failure so far to inflict serious damage on the IDF in Gaza, and its generally lackluster military performance. There are indications of splits between the Gazan and Damascus-based leaderships of the movement. The former are now more inclined to accept a ceasefire. The latter, under Iranian influence, are determined to fight on, regardless of the cost.

Hamas’s rhetoric of “muqawamma” (resistance) predicted a different outcome. The movement’s willingness to take casualties was meant to deter Israel from taking effective action, or force it to reverse itself before its goals were achieved. As things stand at present, the resistance model has therefore received a significant dent in the last days in Gaza.

If operation Cast Lead ends with minimal IDF losses, a severe blow struck at Hamas, no concessions to Islamist Gaza and significantly improved arrangements on the Egypt-Gaza border, this will constitute a significant achievement for Israel. The preference of the Israeli prime minister for continuing the ground operation, however, suggests that while the goal probably remains reducing rather than destroying Hamas, it does not mean that the current round of fighting is at its endgame.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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