The Current Discussion: What's the most likely outcome of Israel's invasion of Gaza? A wider war? A Hamas defeat? Just more of the same?
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed to be living on another planet when he recently said, "We have never agreed that anyone decide for us if we are allowed to strike at those who send missiles into our kindergartens and schools, and we never will."
One week ago, Israeli President Shimon Peres appeared on Al-Jazeera TV, saying that no Palestinian civilians were being targeted in Gaza, and asking the anchor, Mohammad Kreshan, "Why are they doing this to us; why don't they want us to live in peace? We are not targeting children; they are!" The Doha-based Arabic channel--running the interview live on air--immediately sliced the screen in half and showed footage of blood-stained Palestinian children, some blown into pieces, challenging the Israeli President's argument.
The President of Israel and his Prime Minister were seemingly not watching the news to see whose kindergartens and schools were being hit by missiles. As of the afternoon of January 11, the death counter in Gaza has reached 919, including 275 Palestinian children. Olmert added, "No country in the world, even those preaching morals to us, would have shown the tolerance and restraint that we have!"
What restraint, the Arabs were loudly asking? Israel was using absolute and unacceptable force, violating every law there was to break in the Geneva Convention. As of this weekend, nearly 1,000 Palestinians have perished, as compared to 13 Israelis, in addition to 4263 Palestinians wounded. Of the Palestinians killed, nearly 225 died on the first day of the offensive, December 27, 2008. A total of 46 were killed--in cold blood--in one strike on an UNRWA school in Gaza, and on January 3, the IDF attacked the Ibrahim al-Maqadna mosque in Beit Lahiya packed with 200 Palestinian worshippers during evening prayer. Thirteen people, including six children, were killed.
Israelis are in disagreement on what to do with Gaza. Nobody in Israel wants to return to the war-torn and poverty-stricken Gaza Strip, but everybody in the upper echelons of power wants to see an end to Hamas rule there. Yitzhak Rabin once famously said, "I would like Gaza to sink into the sea!" showing just how distressed Israelis have been by Gaza, a thorn in their backside. As the war enters its 18th day, however, there are no signs that Hamas is retreating, or even close to being annihilated. Olmert's deputy Haim Ramon, recently said that the objective of the Gaza war was to "topple Hamas" while Major Gen Uzi Dayan, the former Chairman of the Israeli National Security Council, said Israel's goal should be to surround the Gaza Strip and "dismantle" the Hamas regime. When asked who should rule in post-Hamas Gaza, he replied that this was none of Israel's business, noting, "I prefer a vacuum to what is there now."
Israel is pushing ahead with "Phase Three" of its war on Gaza, dropping leaflets on the district's 1.2 million inhabitants, saying that this war was not against them--or what remains of them--but rather, "on Hamas." It wrapped up saying, "Stay safe by following orders!"
Also on Sunday, Israeli radio announced that thousands of Israeli reserve soldiers have been waiting to receive a green light from Israeli security cabinet to invade the Gaza City. Palestinian fighters continued to send missiles into Israel, on the southern city of Beersheba, after having struck at Netivot, Sderot, Ashkelon, and Ashdod. Additionally, on Sunday the IDF confirmed that for the first time since the war began, Hamas was using anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile, increasing the range of its missiles from 16 to 40 kilometers.
Those whose hopes were lifted by the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1860 on January 8, which calls for an "immediate" and "durable" ceasefire in Gaza, were disappointed to see it being rejected by both Hamas and Israel. Fourteen out of 15 member states supported the resolution, while the United States--not surprisingly--abstained from voting. Olmert claimed that the resolution was "unworkable" while Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha accused Hamas of having not taken into account "the interests of our people." Israel will not stop before crushing Hamas--or accepting defeat and acknowledging that it cannot root out Hamas from Gaza. It will not repeat the experience of 2006, when it stopped the war and failed to achieve any of its objectives vis-à-vis Hizbullah. Back then, Olmert said that he wanted to destroy Hizbullah and liberate the two Israeli soldiers abducted by the Lebanese group. Neither objective was achieved when a ceasefire was reached in August 2006, through UNSCR 1701. Olmert turns 64 in 2009 and leaves office next February. He will not allow himself to go down in Israeli history as the first Prime Minister to have lost two wars, with Hamas and Hizbullah.
For its part, Hamas will not lay down its arms before the Israeli assault comes to an end, and the siege of Gaza is lifted. It will demand an end of the embargo, and opening of the Rafah Crossing--the lifeline of Gaza--which in turn, would be de facto recognition of its control of the Strip. According to Hamas, only 10 of its fighters have been killed, while Israel claims the number is closer to 300.
While all of this was happening, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal spoke over the weekend from Damascus, boasting that, "Israel's offensive in Gaza has failed." He added, "In all modesty, I can say with full confidence that on the military level the enemy has totally failed. It has not achieved anything." He asked, "Has it stopped the rockets?" pointing out that since the war on Gaza began, Hamas has been raining rockets on Israel, proving that its fighting abilities remain intact despite the colossal damage inflicted on Gaza by the IDF. While Meshaal was uttering these words, a delegation from Hamas landed in Cairo--for the second time since the current war began in late December--to discuss an Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The Egyptians are calling for an international force to monitor the Palestinian territories, something that is echoed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but curtly refused by Hamas. Meshaal said that any international force would be treated as an "occupation force" by the Palestinians.
Hamas clearly still has plenty of fighting spirit, shown by the defiant words of Meshaal and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya. If it cannot score a military victory, as Hizbullah did in Lebanon in 2006, it aims at scoring a political one, by sitting with all parties involved, to re-open the Rafah Crossing, which was closed when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. According to the agreement of 2005, the crossing would be administered by the Europeans, Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) of President Mahmoud Abbas.
When the PNA's Force 17 withdrew from Rafah in 2007, so did the Europeans. The Egyptians were unwilling to re-open the crossing by signing an agreement with Hamas that would offer de facto recognition of the party's control of Gaza. It would legitimize Hamas control and, from an Egyptian standpoint, transform Egypt's borders into borders with Iran, rather than the Palestinians. Hamas would be scoring a political victory if it gets all parties to re-open Rafah, and recognize its government in Gaza.
Although Israeli sources said that the war on Gaza was approaching its final stages, observers of the scene are not optimistic. Any deal, logically, would need U.S. backing or sponsorship. The French have proposed to broker such a deal, and so have the Turks, but Israel will not accept unless a deal is hammered out by, or under the watchful eye of, the Americans. In the remaining eight days of his presidency, George W. Bush cannot broker any deal in Gaza. It would have to wait until Barack Obama comes to power on January 20. And even then, it cannot happen overnight, meaning a sustainable deal cannot be reached until 7-10 days after Obama comes to the White House. That would add up to a 30-33 day war on Gaza--identical to the number of days Israel fought Hizbullah in Lebanon. If 919 were killed in 17 days--and Israel lives up to its record--we might wait for another 919 to die in Gaza, bringing the total number to over 1,800. No political gain in the world--neither for Israel or for Hamas--would ever be worth that number of deaths.
Shimon Peres should have someone tune him onto al-Jazeera to get an answer to his lame question, "Why are they doing this to us?"
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