The situation of residents of southern Israel in the days and months preceding Israel’s current action in Gaza was clearly intolerable. The Israeli communities of the north-western region of Negev had been absorbing rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza on a daily basis. Between June 15 2007 (the date of the completion of Hamas’s coup in Gaza) and February 12 2008, 790 rockets and 767 mortar bombs were launched from the strip.
The situation was not stable. In January, an ominous deterioration occurred when an Iranian-supplied Grad-Katyusha missile was fired at Ashkelon. This was not the first use of such ordnance, but the missile succeeded in landing within the city, missing a residential area by 50 metres. The rate of rocket fire increased in January, with 150 rockets landing in a four-day period in the latter part of the month.
No state would abandon its citizens to such a predicament.
In order to end the increased rocket attacks on its civilians, Israel has two essential options: to seek a ceasefire with Hamas, or to seek to prevent by military means the ability of Hamas to launch further attacks. Understanding Israel’s current course of action requires taking a closer look at each of these options.
Regarding a ceasefire, this could be brought about in two ways: the first way would be for Israel to respond to existing Hamas overtures for a ceasefire on the movement’s own terms. This would mean Israel’s agreeing to cease targeting movement operatives in the West Bank. It would also represent an abandonment of the position of Israel and the international community, according to which Hamas must recognise Israel’s right to exist, renounce terrorism and accept existing agreements between Israelis and Palestinians.
Past experience proves that Hamas would be likely to use such an arrangement to re-arm and resupply itself. Past experience also shows that Hamas would make no effort at preventing attacks from the territory it controls by other Palestinian terror groups. For example, the ceasefire declared between Hamas and Israel in November 2006, was unilaterally broken by Hamas on April 24 2007. But over 200 rockets were fired from Gaza in the intervening period, by other groups.
A ceasefire of this kind would amount to granting Hamas victory and legitimating its tactics. Israel therefore rejects this option.
The second way would be for Hamas to unilaterally seek a ceasefire because of the strength of the Israeli response. This would be a ceasefire without conditions. Some Israeli officials appear to believe that Hamas is close to this point – which would represent a setback for the movement. However, the evidence for this is meagre.
Hamas rocket attacks – including on Ashkelon – are continuing. Hamas has a long track record of indifference toward loss of life both among its own members and among the population it controls. Thus, while such a ceasefire would be desirable, it is unlikely that Israeli action up to this point has been sufficient to induce Hamas to “cry uncle”.
Regarding military action – again, this could take one of two forms. The first would be an all-out Israeli military assault on Gaza, to topple the Hamas regime. Such an option would exact a toll in both Israeli and Palestinian lives. Nevertheless, the IDF could achieve it. The problem would be the exit strategy.
The West Bank Palestinian Authority has already broken off negotiations with Israel over the Gaza events. It would be unwilling (and unable) to impose its will on Gaza following an IDF military operation. An international force, meanwhile, would be unlikely to materialise. Few countries would wish to risk their soldiers in the chaos of Gaza. Even if such a force did emerge, it would be unlikely to be willing to act with sufficient vigor to prevent renewed Hamas attacks from within Gaza.
The option of an all-out assault on Gaza is thus likely to be kept in reserve by Israel for the moment. Instead, the immediate prospect is for ongoing military action on the ground and in the air, on the scale seen in the last few days.
There is a possibility that IDF troops may at a certain point choose to undertake a limited reoccupation of northern Gaza, in order to put Ashkelon beyond Katyusha range. Israel will keep its opponents guessing, keeping the possibility of an all-out assault in reserve. Hamas will over the next weeks decide if it wishes to reduce its attacks, in order to maintain its control in Gaza. If it continues escalation, then a larger military operation to topple Hamas in the coming months will appear on the agenda.
The bottom line is that Israel is engaged in a long, exhausting war against a bloc of countries and movements committed to the strategic goal of its destruction. This coalition is led by Iran, and includes Syria and Hizbullah. Hamas is also a member, and its Gaza domain is one of the fronts in this larger war. The requirement for winning a long war of this kind are known and have not changed. Israel needs patience and fortitude, clear, systematic and creative strategic thinking, and above all – perseverance.