Monday, December 29, 2008

Defining the Goal

There are signs that Israel is preparing for a ground offensive into Gaza, as its air campaign against Hamas continues.

Various media reports indicate the IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers are still massing along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Other press accounts suggested that Israeli combat engineers had engaged in limited clearing operations, removing obstacles that might impede a ground assault into Gaza.

Defense Mininster Ehud Barak reinforced perceptions of a pending ground attack, suggesting that expanded operations were in the offing:

"If the criminal, intentional rocket fire at the citizens of Israel is not stopped immediately, Israel will use all legal means at its disposal to stop the illegal and aggressive acts against civilians,” barak said in an e- mailed statement from his office."

Meanwhile, Israeli jets and attack helicopters continued strikes against Hamas facilities and leadership targets inside Gaza. At least 10 Palestinians were killed in the latest attacks, but many western reporters have been banned from the area, and those numbers were provided by second-hand sources. All told, more than 300 Palestinians--many of them Hamas operatives--have died since the IAF campaign began over the weekend.

But the terror group claims its paramilitary wing, Izaddin Kassam, has been relatively untouched by Israeli airstrikes. Hamas sources tell the Jerusalem Post that many of those killed were "ordinary" policemen, who do not participate in rocket and mortar attacks against southern Israel. Hamas spokesmen have long claimed that their organization has a 15,000 member "army," trained and equipped to repel and Israeli invasion.

Those claims are a bit dubious, as is the group's denial that its leadership and militiamen are relatively unscathed. But a ground incursion into Gaza would be difficult. The area represents urban wafare at its worst, with IDF soldiers having to clear terrorists house-by-house, in some of the most densely-populated neighborhoods on earth.

If Israel sends in ground forces, it's unclear how long the operation might last, or what the offensive would hope to achieve. More accurately, we should say that Israeli leaders haven't clarified those points, at least publicly. They are painfully aware that the 2006 Lebanon campaign failed (in large part) because the war's objectives and underlying strategy were never defined, or publicly articulated.

This time around, we're guessing that those problems have been solved, and the Israeli goals will become more clear as military operations unfold. Writing for the Jerusalem Post, IDF Reserve Major General Giora Eiland postulates that Israel is aimed at achieving "long term quiet" along its southern border, rather than a complete elimination of Hamas. That latter goal would require a full-scale invasion, a renewed occupation--and heavier Israeli casualties.

Instead, General Eiland believes Israeli leaders would be satisfied with a greatly weakened Hamas, resolution of the prisoner issue (i.e., the return of Corporal Gilad Schalit, kidnapped more than two years ago) and an enforceable cease-fire.

Incidentally, Eiland views these conditions as a prerequisite for reopening border crossings. He believes that Israel's current offer, to reopen the crossings as part of a cease-fire is a mistake, since it reduces leverage in resolving the Schalit issue.

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