Total war next
Depending on how Netanyahu responds to a Palestinian resistance operation that killed two Israeli soldiers, Gaza could soon see a return to all-out war, writes Saleh Al-Naami
With quick steps and without a sound Gamal, 19, returned at 6am Saturday to his home in the seafront village of Al-Zwaida in the centre of Gaza after another night of surveillance of the eastern front at Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp. The camp is located opposite his village to the east, near the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Like thousands of other members of Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, Gamal helps protect the eastern border into Gaza, spending his nights monitoring and relaying any movement by the Israeli army.
There are several surveillance shifts around the clock. On Friday, a group of Al-Qassam lookouts spotted an Israeli special operations unit inside the border east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. A firefight ensued, resulting in the death of the Israeli unit's leader, whose rank was major, another soldier and the wounding of four others. Although several Palestinian factions claimed responsibility for the operation, observers of Palestinian affairs agree that Hamas was the perpetrator.
This was the first operation by Palestinian resistance fighters since the end of the war on Gaza, taking place deep in the heart of Gaza, not inside Israel or on the border. It also came in the wake of a rising demand to respond to Israel's settlement and Judaisation policies in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Most recently, Israel's prime minister decided to add the Hebron and Bilal mosques to the list of Jewish heritage sites; some believe this is grounds for a third Palestinian Intifada. At the same time, the incident came shortly after a key Hamas figure, Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, was assassinated in Dubai by the Israeli Mossad, followed by vows of revenge on the part of the Palestinian resistance movement.
Salah Al-Bardawil, a leading Hamas member, said that the operation east of Khan Younis proves that despite efforts to undermine Hamas, especially accusations that it has abandoned resistance methods, the group is the most capable among the Palestinian factions of hurting the occupation by utilising military and human resources in creative ways. "There are signs that thousands of Hamas supporters headed to martyr Al-Mabhouh's home to inform his family that the operation was to avenge his death," Al-Bardawil told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Hamas promised it would respond to his murder, and this is it."
The Hamas leader believes that the operation was a "strong blow to a clique within Fatah that repeatedly claimed that Hamas was acting like Fatah in the West Bank by repressing and stifling resistance." Al-Bardawil continued that, "the leaders of this clique are now embarrassed and annoyed, and not a single one of them has made any statements after the operation proved the falseness of all their claims."
In the wake of the incident, the pressing question in Gaza now is whether it marks a qualitative change regarding conditions in Gaza, and would it end the unspoken truce that has prevailed thus far? Roni Daniel, military correspondent for Israeli Channel 2, reported that while Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak supports a military response to the operation, Barak insists this should not escalate into a full- fledged war on the scale of the last Israeli war on Gaza. Daniel added that sources close to Barak stated that, "as long as Hamas does not launch missiles and makes do with explosives, then [Israel's] response will remain limited to specific targets in Gaza."
Meanwhile, a number of army generals have called for continuing the policy of targeting leaders and activists of resistance groups for assassination. This would shore up Israel's deterrence power, which has diminished lately, according to the military brass. The Hebrew website of Maariv newspaper quoted Zvika Fogel, artillery commander in Israel's Southern Command, as saying that the calm that prevailed after the last war enabled Hamas to become stronger, which resulted in the latest incident.
"Israel's response is well known to Palestinian groups: attacking weapons depots and tunnels in Rafah," Fogel told Maariv. "But these methods no longer deter these organisations." He said that the army must change its policy in dealing with the escalation on the part of the Palestinian groups, namely that vital targets should now be carefully chosen and precise assassinations should be carried out against group leaders. Fogel asserted that this had been a successful policy in the past and helped deter Palestinian resistance. "These leaders should be on the run and go underground, and not be given the opportunity to move or operate," he added.
Meanwhile, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz threatened that Gaza could be reoccupied and the rule of Hamas there brought to an end. "Israel cannot concede to Hamas being armed with long-range missiles," Steinitz told Israel Radio. "Israel may have to reoccupy Gaza and end Hamas's control there if it has no other choice."
Noteworthy is the fact that the Israel opposition also supports the idea of responding to the incident. Former minister of internal security Avi Dichter, a leading member of the opposition Kadima Party, believes that the main dilemma facing Israel is Gaza, not Jerusalem. "The strategic predicament is how to destroy the terrorist infrastructure that Hamas is building in Gaza with assistance from Iran," Dichter opined. If the Palestinian Authority is incapable of putting an end to it with the help of Arab states, then Israel must do it by itself, he said.
Many observers in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel believe that Israel is certain to respond to Friday's skirmish, and is currently debating timing. Amos Harel, political commentator at Haaretz newspaper, argued that the operation was the first real security challenge for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu since coming to power one year ago. Like other rightwing leaders, Netanyahu claims that he is the most capable in dealing with security challenges.
Harel explained that Israel's response would be dictated by a number of factors that Tel Aviv cannot ignore. While Netanyahu is eager to respond, he fears that a large-scale military operation would end the relative calm in settlements in southern Israel. The prime minister has claimed that this truce is clear evidence that the last war succeeded in achieving its goals. Harel noted that Friday's confrontation came at a time when relations between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama are at crisis point, in light of Israel's continued settlement building. Netanyahu realises that a new war on Gaza requires Washington's support and international cover, which is not available for the time being.
Israeli observers also assert that Netanyahu believes the most vital issue that must be addressed during his tenure is Iran's nuclear capability, and that time, effort and relations should not be wasted on any other matter. Meanwhile, there are the implications of the Goldstone Report and the accompanying drop in Israel's stature on the world stage. However, other observers argue that political and strategic reasoning is not the only factor influencing Israel's conduct under Netanyahu. He is routinely trying to appease extremists in his governmental coalition, even at the expense of Israel's interests, as witnessed in the recent debacle with the US.
In all events, it appears that Gaza may soon witness a severe escalation. Any response by Tel Aviv to the last resistance operation could compel Palestinian fighters to start launching new missiles into Israel, which could result in all-out war
The link: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/992/re8.htm