Saleh Al-naami
Al- Ahram
June 16, 2008 - 5:11pm

Over the past 10 months, observers have been expecting an Israeli offensive in Gaza, notwithstanding Egyptian efforts to arrange a truce between the Israelis and Hamas. Yediot Aharonot 's military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai says that it is impossible for Israel to agree to the Egyptian initiative, not after the recent attacks by the Palestinian resistance. Israeli leaders, commanders, and intelligence officials believe that a truce would be seen as a victory of Hamas. The latter says that the rocket attacks are its way of telling Israel to lift the blockade.

A truce would only undermine Israel's power of deterrence, as the Palestinians are likely to perceive Israel's agreement as a sign of weakness, Ben-Yishai argues. He cites a senior Israeli officer as saying that Israel must strike at Gaza before accepting any truce with Hamas. Israel has made it clear that no truce is possible unless the smuggling of weapons stops and Hamas tones down its conditions for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Israeli public wants its government to either accept a truce with Hamas or wage an offensive to end the rocket attacks, which has become more effective of late. The rocket attacks are a big issue and the government has promised to stop them. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows that most of his cabinet oppose a truce with Hamas and want a large- scale operation mounted to bring down the Hamas government. Unless he orders an attack on Gaza, Olmert may see his coalition crumble. Several parties in his government, especially the religious Shas, have threatened to walk out. Recently, Shas leader Eli Yishai hinted that his party's continued participation in the government hinges on a military strike against Hamas.

Many in Israel believe that both Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak want an offensive on Gaza to boost their flagging careers. Likud Knesset member Gideon Saar says that Olmert wants to use the offensive to divert attention from his legal problems and look as if he was taking charge once more. An offensive against Gaza would give Olmert a chance to silence his critics, for the nation needs to be united in time of military confrontation.

Olmert, who has been reassuring the Americans and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would stay in office, is indeed likely to do that. And Barak, who has been criticised by his own Labour Party, is also eager to do something about Hamas's rockets. The settlements on which Hamas fires rockets include several kibbutzim run by a powerful federation within the Labour Party. And the leaders of that particular federation have been calling on Barak to either accept the Egyptian initiative or fight. Barak is not in a position to ignore the federation's demands, especially since others in the Labour Party have been mocking him for staying on good terms with the beleaguered Olmert.

Summer would be a good time for a military offensive, as it would be easier to evacuate Israeli settlements close to Gaza, observers say. But many think that Israel would end up waging a small and fast operation, not a major one, just the right amount of muscle flexing before a deal is reached with Hamas. Should a Hamas attack succeed in killing some Israelis, the response would indeed be swift, observers believe. But Israeli officials are for now keeping their plans secret, while feeding the media with contradictory reports.

Some believe that Israel may attack a small section of Gaza by land while staging air raids all over the Strip. Others say that an offensive can be launched exclusively from the air. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon recently said that army commanders told the cabinet that the Hamas government can be brought down without need for substantial ground attack.

Palestinian writer Nehad Khalil believes that Israel is trying to bully Hamas into backing down somewhat. If Israel launches an offensive, it would a small one, Khalil told Al-Ahram Weekly. The last thing Israel wants right now is a large scale military operation that may put it back in charge of the Strip, thus making it responsible for providing basic services to 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel has worked hard to separate Gaza from the West Bank and, for all its hatred of Hamas, it likes to keep things the way they are. Israel is still hoping to make Egypt take control of Gaza, and an offensive on Gaza right now would end such hopes.

Furthermore, to launch a large-scale military offensive, Israel needs a bit of international support. For now, the Americans, for all their opposition to Hamas, are discouraging a large-scale military offensive in Gaza. Washington doesn't want anything to happen that may rile nerves in the region at a time when it is trying to put together a united front against Tehran. Many Israeli officials see the point.

Another obstacle to a big operation in Gaza is Egypt, which has been working so hard as a go- between in Palestinian affairs. The Israelis don't want to upset the Egyptians, and are therefore averse to doing anything that may embarrass Cairo right now. Still, something is likely to happen, if not sooner then perhaps later. Israel and Hamas are on a collision course, and a showdown may be postponed, but not indefinitely.


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