TEL AVIV – Even as Israel’s government prepares to talk peace with the Palestinians, Israel’s army is girding for war in the Gaza Strip.
With small-scale Israeli military operations having had only a limited effect on curbing Palestinian rocket attacks across the border, Israeli officials are speaking more bluntly than ever of the need to invade the Hamas-controlled territory with full force.
“Each day that passes brings us closer to a broad operation in Gaza,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week. “We are not looking forward to it and we would be happy if circumstances prevented it.”
Information from senior sources in the Israel Defense Forces indicates that Israeli troops have been training and stockpiling equipment at a pace that would suggest a major Gaza action is weeks away, at most.
Should such an operation get the green light, its exact timing would be of critical importance for Israel.
The U.S.-led peace conference between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to take place at the end of this month, and Olmert may find it hard to make his case in Annapolis, Md., if CNN is broadcasting images of Israeli tanks barreling through Gaza refugee camps.
Abbas would be forced to condemn Israel in a show of Palestinian solidarity, despite his own hostility toward the Islamist Hamas, and peace negotiations likely would fall apart.
Israeli media have been rife with speculation about the plans for Gaza.
“The army is prepared to enter the Gaza Strip. The orders exist,” wrote Alex Fishman and Ronni Shaked in the daily Yediot Achronot. “But a massive military incursion and seizure of parts of the Gaza Strip prior to the Annapolis conference are contrary to Israel’s interests.”
The problem is that Israel appears to have exhausted all its other options.
Israel’s current modus operandi — airstrikes and commando raids — make but a small dent in Palestinian terrorist capabilities.
Barak spearheaded an Israeli initiative to cut power and fuel supplies to Gaza in order to pressure Hamas into stopping the rocket fire, but the sanctions ran into censure abroad and at home due to the perception that they constituted collective punishment for Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinian residents.
Despite the potential diplomatic price of a major Gaza operation, the Palestinian threat from Gaza may be too pressing a priority for Israel to ignore.
There is broad consensus in Israel on the need to crack down on Hamas before the group builds up a military presence in Gaza that could pose an even greater menace to Israel. The commando raids and pinpoint airstrikes have not been enough to cripple Hamas capabilities.
According to Israeli officials, Hamas has smuggled 70 tons of high explosives into Gaza since it violently wrested control of the territory from Abbas’ Fatah faction in June. Hamas also has at least 15,000 full-time guerrillas, many of them trained in Iran and Syria.
Israel’s army does not want Hamas to acquire the capabilities Hezbollah demonstrated in Lebanon during the summer war in 2006. IDF officials say they cannot wait until Hamas has built up defenses along the Gaza frontier that would make an invasion unbearably costly in terms of Israeli casualties.
“Hamas is trying to entrench itself along the Gaza Strip border fence,” Brig. Gen. Moshe Tamir, a senior commander of Israel’s forces outside Gaza, told journalists recently. “They’re digging tunnels beneath, building bunkers, establishing mortar nests, observation posts, and escape routs.”
Amos Harel of the Ha’aretz daily said Israel feels its natural tactical superiority being eroded by the asymmetrical fighting with Hamas.
“Until recently, it was obvious who was winning this confrontation. The Israel Defense Force has an enormous advantage in terms of firepower, observation, control of the air, armored vehicles and troop training,” Harel said. “But in recent months, the efforts by Iran and Hezbollah to improve Hamas’ military capabilities are beginning to be felt. It is not only better weaponry, but also careful study of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War.”
Military analysts agree that if Israeli forces go into Gaza, their main objective will be to clear areas used by Palestinian rocket crews, killing and capturing as many militants as possible.
But that would raise two problems: How to avoid a reoccupation of a territory Israel quit in 2005, and what to do with the Hamas leadership once its members are in Israel’s gunsights.
Privately, some Israeli officials have suggested a Gaza invasion would be an opportunity to topple Hamas on behalf of Abbas, whose Fatah-led security forces are not up to the task.
It would hardly be an unfamiliar gambit: Many Israelis remember the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which aimed to crush the PLO and install a friendly government in Beirut. That failed spectacularly.
One senior Israeli official said Gaza’s fate is as much a matter of chance as of strategy.
Should a Palestinian rocket from Gaza “score a ‘lucky strike’ — say, a kindergarten or a clinic,” he said, “then it would probably force us to go in, whatever the diplomatic fallout.”