Zvi Barel
December 28, 2008 - 1:00am

As of yesterday, politicians and the public at large have been enthralled by a new prospect: that of a wide-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. Such a prospect answers all their heart's secret wishes: Avenging the rocket fire by Gazan militants, reclaiming Israel's prestige, delivering a fatal blow to Hamas, providing payback for Israel's 2005 pullout from Gaza, sending a strong message to Iran, an implicit one to Hezbollah, and also showing the government's concern for its citizens and scoring some points with the electorate ahead of the elections.

The public's imaginations are let loose as they chant a battle-cry. Fighter planes have already bombed dozens of targets in the heart of Gaza and tomorrow thousands of troops may storm its alleyways. On the third day the Israel Defense Forces might eliminate Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh, Mushir al-Masri and Mahmoud al-Zahar. It will seize the Hamas government's buildings and an army spokesman will display captured arm caches containing sophisticated missiles and thousands of guns to the press.

At the same time commando units will free captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and return him to his parents alive and well. Then the slower more difficult operation will begin involving house-to-house searches and arrests of suspects. The press will lose its interest and calm will return to Sderot. Elections will be held on schedule and party leaders Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu will fight over credit for the successful campaign in Gaza. This is an imaginary scenario because we're not being told the real one. Yet. It will only be revealed when a investigatory committee is commissioned to determine what really happened in Gaza.

How many soldiers are expected to be killed in the first wave? How many months is the IDF expected to spend in Gaza, sweeping its houses and tunnels? How many Palestinian civilians will be killed? Will Gilad Shalit survive in such a scenario? Will Hezbollah remain passive during a Gaza offensive? How will the residents of the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt react? What about the new U.S. president? And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? Not that he really matters.

According to the government, Israel has full legitimacy to take action against those who threaten its citizens. That is the reason the state was created and no other country would tolerate such attacks on its towns. It's a nice slogan, identical to that of Hamas: Why should Gazan citizens tolerate such a long and severe siege for so long? Can its leadership tolerate a succession of targeted killing against its leaders? And what of the killing of innocent civilians in air strikes? Hamas agreed to a cease-fire to end the violent dialogue.

It should be remembered that Israel chanted the same slogans when the Second Lebanon War began, from which it came back badly bruised. The optimistic scenario did not materialize then and it is hard to believe it will now in Gaza. The legitimacy of the Lebanon war triumphed just as the war was lost.

Unlike the Lebanon war, whose chief priority was to bring back the abducted IDF soldiers which encompassed the destruction of Hezbollah's military "infrastructure," the Gaza operation's motivation is different: Halting rocket-firing at the Negev and destroying Hamas' rule. A new order will be set up in the occupied territories and the PA, and Abbas will be brought back to Gaza under the Israeli military's aegis. Just before we get lost in this dream scenario let us examine reality.

Six months ago Israel asked and received a cease-fire from Hamas. It unilaterally violated it when it blew up a tunnel, while still asking Egypt to get the Islamic group to hold its fire. Are conditions enabling the return of a ceasefire no longer available? Hamas has clear conditions for its extension: The opening of the border crossings for goods and cessation of IDF attacks in Gaza, as outlined in the original agreement. Later, Hamas wants the cease-fire to be extended to the West Bank. Israel, for its part, is justifiably demanding a real calm in Gaza; that no Qassam or mortar shell be fired by either Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any other group.

Essentially, Israel is telling Hamas it is willing to recognize its control of Gaza on the condition that it assumes responsibility for the security of the territory, like Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It is likely that this will be the outcome of a wide-scale operation in the Gaza Strip if Israel decides it does not want to rule Gaza directly. Why, then, not forgo the war and agree to these conditions now?


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