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With Diplomatic, Tactical Hurdles, Israel Puts off a Gaza Invasion


After weeks of threatening to invade the Gaza Strip, Israel appears to have decided to confront Palestinian rocket crews with a protracted but low-intensity air offensive.

This week, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza from helicopter gunships and unmanned aerial vehicles killed at least a dozen Palestinian terrorists, most of them from Islamic Jihad, which runs the rocket crews, but some also from Hamas. Palestinian shelling of Israeli towns near the Gaza border did not ease after the attacks.

“There is a war going on in the south,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as telling colleagues in his centrist Kadima party. “This is not what is usually called a large-scale ground operation but a precise, pinpoint operation — with impressive results.”

Despite the stepped-up attacks from both sides, political developments and tactical challenges make a large-scale invasion of Gaza unlikely for the near future.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak had threatened to order a major ground invasion of Gaza by late November, before winter fully set in and made the warren-like Palestinian refugee camps populated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad members even more treacherous.

But last month’s Annapolis peace conference, which stirred international hopes of reviving negotiations with the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, put the brakes on a Gaza offensive.

Now U.S. President George W. Bush is set to visit Israel and the West Bank next month to push for peace before he leaves office. It will mark Bush’s first trip to Israel since becoming president in 2001, and his first ever to the West Bank.

“You don’t have to be a security Cabinet member to realize that if the State of Israel wants to see President Bush here early next month, this visit should not be accompanied by 200 to 300 Palestinians killed in an Israeli ground operation in the Gaza Strip,” wrote Alex Fishman, the defense correspondent for Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot.

“So the military echelon is cautiously raising the bar against the terror from Gaza,” he wrote. “In the meantime, no problems are being solved; rather, the height of the flames is being played with. This is playing with fire — while trying to buy time.”

The other challenge to invading Gaza is tactical. Military planners anticipate a major ground offensive could leave as many as 50 to 100 Israeli soldiers dead, with little lasting results staunching terrorism in Gaza.

For now, Israel’s strategy is pinpoint airstrikes.

After this week’s strikes, Islamic Jihad, which lost its top Gaza field commander and several senior rocket crewmen in Israel’s attacks, threatened escalation, hinting at renewed suicide bombings in Israel.

Hamas, however, opted for a different tack.

Ismail Haniyeh, who heads Hamas in Gaza and was the elected Palestinian Authority prime minister until he was deposed six months ago following Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza, told Israel’s Channel 2 TV he would be willing to discuss a truce with Olmert’s government — “an end to both the barrages and the assassinations.”

Olmert, who refuses to talk with Hamas, was unmoved. Israel’s leadership has little desire to give Hamas or Islamic Jihad a hiatus in which to rearm and regroup.

But two Israeli Cabinet ministers broke with Olmert, saying the government should consider Haniyeh’s overture.

Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, said he would favor truce talks with Hamas as long as they were conducted through an intermediary and Israel’s attacks on Palestinian terrorists continued in parallel.

Ami Ayalon, a minister without portfolio and former Shin Bet security chief, said Israel must do more to bolster Abbas’ standing among his people while looking into ways of stemming the Gaza threat without major bloodshed.

“I would intend to talk to anyone if the objective is stopping the Kassam rocket fire,” Ayalon told Army Radio.

While Israel’s airstrikes have been accurate thus far, an errant missile that kills a large number of civilians could cause international outcry and scuttle political progress with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad already has condemned Israel’s strikes, which have caused minimal bystander casualties, as “criminal aggression.”

On the flip side, should a Palestinian rocket cause many deaths, Olmert may be forced to order an invasion of Gaza.

Some Israeli officials voiced skepticism about the long-term efficacy of the strategy of airstrikes and commando raids in Gaza.

“I think it is clear that eventually we will have to enter in a big way,” Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Israel Radio.

After this week’s attacks, Hamas reportedly approached Islamic Jihad to get the group to halt its rocket fire into Israel.

Though Hamas remains dedicated to Israel’s destruction, Hamas is interested in imposing order on the chaotic Gaza Strip and demonstrating that it can govern there.

Since routing Fatah from Gaza in June, Hamas has not sponsored rocket fire from the strip, at times saying it runs counter to Palestinian interests. But Hamas fighters have continued to attack Israeli border positions with mortars.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority managed to garner $7.4 billion in aid pledges from the international community.

Political analysts say Abbas hopes to bolster security and prosperity for Palestinians still under the sway of his relatively moderate Fatah faction, thereby stealing popular support from the isolated and cash-starved Hamas.

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