JERUSALEM (Jul. 3)
By sending ground forces into the Gaza Strip, making sweeping arrests of Hamas Cabinet ministers and legislators and bombing the offices of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Israel has significantly raised the stakes in its Sisyphean struggle against fundamentalist Palestinian terror. As the military response to the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit along the Gaza border unfolded, it became clear that Israel’s war aims went far beyond the return of the abducted soldier. Dubbed Summer Rains, the first major military operation since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year was intended to secure the soldier’s release, stop Kassam rocket fire on Israeli civilians, restore Israel’s deterrent capacity, topple the Hamas-led government and create conditions for an effective cease-fire.
Israeli leaders spoke about effecting a “strategic change” in Gaza and instituting new rules of the game, under which Palestinian leaders and terrorists would know that they would be made to pay a painful price for any violence against Israel.
But the Israeli media were highly skeptical. They pointed to contradictory war aims and suggested that the massive military operation may do more harm than good. For example, they asked: Will escalating Israel’s military response help save the captured soldier or put his life at risk? How does shelling empty fields create deterrence? And will removal of the Hamas government ensure the rule of the moderates or simply bring more extreme Palestinians to power?
The government was under strong domestic pressure to take tough action. The soldier’s abduction came after months of incessant rocket fire on the border town of Sderot, where residents went on a hunger strike to protest the government’s failure to protect them.
But that was not the only reason for the government’s new hard line. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also wanted to restore dwindling public confidence in his plan for a large-scale unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. By launching a major military operation, he was testing the government’s thesis that withdrawal from territory gives Israel considerable freedom of action if terror continues from the areas handed back. If that equation is seen to work in Gaza, Olmert believes the public will be more amenable to a similar pullback from the West Bank.
Olmert exploited favorable political conditions for a strong military response, especially the fact that Hamas is isolated internationally and, to a large extent, in the Arab world as well. Western-leaning Arab leaders were worried about kidnapping becoming a tool that could be used by local radicals against their regimes and tried to help defuse the crisis rather than criticize Israel.
But it is by no means clear that Israel’s use of force and regional pressure will have the desired effect. Israeli critics on the left argue that it could simply spawn more violence and terror. What will happen in Gaza when Israel leaves, they ask. Will Palestinian forces loyal to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas impose order and cross-border quiet, or will chaos reign, with more terror against Israel? Already Palestinian radicals are threatening mega-terror attacks in Israel or on Israeli targets abroad.
Israeli pundits almost universally denigrated the government’s new hard-line position.
“Pressure on Hamas is a good idea. But bringing it down will only hand over power to gangs over which there is no control,” wrote Gadi Taub in the Ma’ariv daily. In the same paper, Ben Dror Yemini called the arrest of the Hamas leaders “an own goal” from a public-relations point of view, arguing that winning the image war was as important as winning the war on the ground.
But the most scathing criticism came from the normally middle-of-the-road Sever Plotzker in the mass circulation Yediot Achronot. Plotzker accused the government of making two major strategic blunders — withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza and then allowing the radical Hamas to participate in elections.
“The unilateralism of the Israeli withdrawal was not seen by the Palestinian public as a punishment for terror, but, surprise, surprise, as a prize for terror,” paving the way for the Hamas victory, Plotzker wrote. And, he continued, Israel’s confused military policy is likely to further empower the most extreme Hamas leader, Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal.
“Through its contradictory responses, brandishing verbal threats, shelling empty real estate and arresting Hamas ministers who only yesterday were considered moderate, Israel is crowning the new Palestinian national hero, the partially poisoned (by Mossad agents in 1997) Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who, with our generous help, is rising like a phoenix,” Plotzker wrote.
His sentiments reflected a growing feeling in Israel that withdrawing from Gaza without agreement was a mistake. And so far the military operation, rather than changing this doubt, has actually entrenched it.
Much could depend on the outcome of a complex power struggle on the Palestinian side. For months, Abbas has been stymied by the more radical Hamas-led government under Haniyeh, some of whose more hard-line members owe allegiance to the Damascus-based Meshaal, who also controls most of the Hamas militias. Israeli leaders believe the escalation in Palestinian violence is part of an effort by Meshaal to embarrass Abbas and Haniyeh and to show who really rules Gaza.
By arresting Hamas government ministers and legislators, Israel was trying to stack the internal Palestinian deck in Abbas’ favor. It was also trying to send a clear message to Meshaal: Israel will not tolerate a bogus distinction between the political and military echelons, and if Meshaal and his allies continue to promote terror, Hamas could lose its hold on power.
Meshaal faces a difficult choice: seeking a compromise with Israel and probably losing face, or escalating the violence and risking even harsher Israeli measures against Hamas and becoming a target for assassination himself.
In describing the Israeli military operation, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called it “one of the most significant moments in setting the rules of the game between Israel and Palestinian terror.”
Indeed, one of the main objects of Summer Rains was to signal to the Palestinians that the rules have changed and that Israel will not hesitate to use overwhelming force if terrorism from Gaza continues. Now it remains to be seen whether the Palestinians accept the new rules as a basis for more peaceful coexistence, or whether the very attempt to change the rules leads to greater anarchy and even worse violence.