What is the goal of Israel’s “all-out war” against Hamas, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called his country’s air assault against the Islamic militant stronghold of Gaza?
It depends on whom you ask. Most of Israel’s leadership has left the goal somewhat vague. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told FOX News that the raids were meant to stop an “intolerable” situation — Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which have put over half a million Israelis at risk.
But other Israeli politicians have gone further. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations says the mission’s goal is to “destroy completely” the “terrorist gang” that runs this narrow strip by the sea that is home to some 1.5 million Palestinians. Striking an equally bellicose tone, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, says the attacks are aimed at, first of all, “stopping the attacks on our cities” and then, “eliminating the threat of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.” The latter goal, he says, means “toppling the Hamas rule.”
That is a far more ambitious goal and may prove beyond Israel’s reach. Many analysts warn that Israel should avoid repeating its experience in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 when it invaded its northern neighbor to destroy Iranian-allied Hezbollah’s infrastructure, but failed to do so and wound up being widely blamed for unnecessary death and suffering.
There is little doubt that ejecting Hamas from its Gaza perch would benefit not only Israel but Arab states that have signed peace treaties with Israel. Yet the Palestinian Authority, the ruling power in the West Bank that was violently ousted by Hamas from Gaza in 2007, is unlikely to return to power there — especially not at the end of an Israeli gun, or in this case, a missile.
Replacing Hamas with Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, for all its corruption and other shortcomings, however, is a goal shared by Israel’s most strategically important neighbor — Egypt. “We warned you again and again that a rejection of the cease fire will bring an Israeli attack,” said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, angrily wagging his finger at Hamas during a press conference on Tuesday. Mubarak was furious that Hamas declined to extend the six-month cease fire that Cairo had brokered between Israel and Hamas last June.
Ignoring a torrent of Arab abuse, Mubarak said his government would not fully open its border crossing at Rafah into Gaza unless Abbas’ Palestinian Authority was back in control of the border post. Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, is not taking this stance for Israel’s sake. Hamas would like nothing better than to see the Mubarak regime toppled by the militant Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and only significant opposition force in Egypt. So in backing Israel in this struggle with Hamas, President Mubarak is pursuing his own, as well as Egypt’s strategic interests.
But what can Israel accomplish by continuing its aerial assault or escalating it into a ground war? The Israelis are running out of targets to bomb. Killing Hamas’s leaders, who quickly went underground in Gaza, is impossible without putting boots on the ground, analysts agree. But Israeli’s foray into Lebanon showed this is a politically risky and perhaps strategically ill-fated mission.
So far Israel is holding firm. On Wednesday, it rejected a French proposal for a 48-hour cease fire, but said it would allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza. And after a Cabinet meeting this afternoon, departing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel “did not begin the Gaza operation in order to finish it with rocket fire continuing like it did before,” suggesting a ground invasion may be the next step if Hamas does not agree to a truce that it will now respect. The decision to continue its offensive in Gaza, he said, was made by his “kitchen cabinet,” which includes Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Livni, both of whom hope to succeed him as Prime Minister in national elections in February.
This is a tricky course of action for them and for Israel. So far, most Israelis have supported the bombing of Gaza. But should Israeli soldiers begin dying in a ground offensive, unity could evaporate. Egypt and neighboring Jordan, which has also quietly supported the retaliatory air raids, could well succumb to Arab pressure. And just as worrisome, Israel’s northern border might also erupt.
So far, notes David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hezbollah has not fired a single rocket into Israel in defense of Palestinians. Yes, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has denounced the Jewish state, called for rallies to support the Palestinians and for Egyptians to rise up against President Mubarak. But Hezbollah is likely to remain on the sidelines, Schenker argues, unless there is a change on the ground. Sending Israeli soldiers into Gaza might be too much even for Hezbollah, or its patron, Iran. “If the Israeli air campaign against Hamas persists and evolves into ground operations,” Hezbollah, “at the encouragement of its Iranian patrons — could be pressed to enter the fray.”