Tobias Buck, Andrew England
The Financial Times
December 28, 2008 - 1:00am

Less than 28 months after the end of Israel’s botched war in Lebanon, the country has launched another massive assault against a militant Islamist group in the region. This time, the enemy is Hamas not Hizbollah. And this time, Israelis are hoping fervently that their political and military leaders know what they are doing.

The government and army are at pains to stress that the lessons from the failed conflict in Lebanon have been learnt. Indeed, few question the military expertise of the defence minister, Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and Israel’s most decorated soldier, and the army chief-of-staff, Gabi Ashkenazi.

Israeli defence analysts have heaped praise on the military planners, describing the bombardment of targets across the Gaza Strip as an Israeli version of the “shock and awe” tactic that led to the swift US defeat of the Iraqi military in 2003.

Yet – in an uncomfortable echo of the two most recent wars in the Middle East – the weekend assault also raises a troubling question: will the use of overwhelming firepower bring Israel any closer to achieving its military and political objectives? Or will it merely strengthen support for Hamas and other militant groups, while adding to the instability of the volatile region as images of scores of dead and wounded Palestinians are beamed across the Arab world?

Israeli leaders have made clear the main aim of the assault is to stop Gaza-based militants from firing rockets and mortars on nearby Israeli towns. Removing Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip may be the ultimate desire but is not at this stage a military objective.

According to analysts, this marks a crucial difference from the botched 2006 war in Lebanon, when the government sought nothing less than the ousting of Hizbollah, the Shia group, from southern Lebanon. It was a goal Israel’s armed forces failed to achieve, dealing a severe blow to the country’s power of deterrence and throwing the government of Ehud Olmert into a crisis from which it never truly emerged.

“The aim of the operation is to force Hamas to come back to some form of ceasefire – but under different circumstances from the one agreed in June. That means a complete end to rocket fire and an end to smuggling of weapons,” said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of Israel’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

But there are still nagging doubts over whether Israel can achieve even the more limited war goals it has set itself. The big uncertainty, according to Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Mr Barak, is whether Israel is able and willing to do enough to bend Hamas’s will. “There is obviously no guarantee that Hamas will feel battered enough to sue for a ceasefire,” he said.

Judging by the group’s response to the current as well to earlier Israeli attacks, Hamas will not be in a rush to follow the Israeli playbook. All through the weekend, Hamas kept up a barrage of rocket attacks on Israel. Like other militant Islamist groups, Hamas celebrates martyrdom and has proved itself able to absorb a large number of casualties without losing the will to fight. It is, moreover, safely entrenched in its Gaza stronghold, and its small, flexible rocket units do not require complex military infrastructure to keep up the fire on Israel.

Many analysts believe air strikes alone will not be sufficient to stop the rocket fire, arguing that only a full-scale invasion of the strip can achieve this. Yet few believe Israel has the stomach for the bloody urban warfare that would accompany such a ground offensive, which would almost certainly lead to high Israeli casualties and expose the government to inter­national condemnation.

But if Israel ends the campaign without fully achieving its goals, that will almost certainly enhance Hamas’s prestige among Palestinians, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, whose conciliatory line towards Israel returns to haunt him every time Israel strikes at Gaza.

Arab diplomats and analysts were yesterday also voicing concern that Israel’s actions would further strengthen extremist forces. Mustafa Alani, analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre, said: “What are we going to see? More recruitment of fighters for Hamas, for Hizbollah, for al-Qaeda – you name it.”

Hesham Youssef, a senior official at the Arab League, added: “We should not allow the situation to deteriorate to give further ammunition to the hardliners and those who would benefit from an unstable situation in the region.”


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