Mkhaimar Abusada
The Daily Star (Opinion)
December 31, 2008 - 12:00am
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=5&article_id=98760


The truce between Hamas and Israel ended in the early hours of December 19, but the accusations over why it ended have followed the missiles and rockets across the border.

Hamas accuses Israel of not complying with the terms of the six-month Egyptian-mediated truce under which Israel was expected to end its siege and blockade of the Gaza Strip, reopen the commercial border crossing between Gaza and Israel and halt its military activities against Gazans.

Israel holds Hamas and other Palestinian groups responsible for not respecting their part of the truce. Israel claims that the firing of Qassam rockets and mortar shells did not stop and accuses Hamas of exploiting the truce by conducting more training and building better fortifications along the border between Gaza and Israel. Israel has also said straight out that the border crossings would not be fully reopened without the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006.

In the knowledge that Israel had sent its envoy Amos Gilad to Egypt to renew the truce a week before it expired, Hamas felt it could hold out for better conditions. The Islamist movement seemed convinced that the political leadership in Israel was not interested in a new war in Gaza. Hamas also felt that Israel wanted to exploit the political divide between the West Bank and Gaza as long as possible and therefore was not in a hurry to start a war with Hamas.

But, to the contrary, the Israeli security establishment was busy with the long-term preparation of a major military operation and was carefully gathering intelligence, engaged in secret discussions, operational deception and spreading disinformation to mislead the public. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, reportedly instructed the Israeli armed forces to prepare for the operation over six months ago, even as Israel was beginning to negotiate a new truce agreement with Hamas.

Hamas fell into the trap. Israel is in the middle of an election campaign and the governing coalition is looking for excuses to justify a military attack on Hamas and its infrastructure in Gaza. Some of the right-wing parties in Israel, mainly the Likud headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, were accusing the government of not doing enough to stop the firing of missiles from Gaza and even called on Barak to resign from his position.

According to Israeli public opinion polls, the Labor party headed by Barak will be the main loser in the coming elections while the Likud stands to become the biggest party in Parliament. In other words, this was Barak's golden opportunity to launch a military strike against Hamas and improve his standing with the Israeli electorate. As a result, Israel launched the largest Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip since it last captured the territory in June 1967, leaving almost 400 people dead and hundreds more wounded at the time of writing.

What comes next is extremely important. Whether Israel halts its air strikes against Gaza or continues the war and launches a ground invasion will depend on Israeli goals and interests. Israel has learned some lessons from the 2006 Lebanon war and has limited its immediate goal to ending the firing of missiles from Gaza. But military operations are like snowballs: The more momentum they gather the bigger they become. Soon Israel might find itself launching a full and comprehensive invasion if it calculates that the cost will be minimal.

But Israeli calculations will also depend on Hamas' behavior. If Hamas launches a large number of long-range missiles at major Israeli cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod, it will provide Israel with another golden opportunity to go all the way. But if Hamas restrains itself, Israel might reconsider its position. Israel expects Hamas to retaliate and launch a barrage of missiles on Israeli towns and cities, but Hamas has so far been careful. The movement knows that any irrational behavior will cost it its government and potentially its existence in the Gaza Strip.

Nevertheless, Israel is hedging its bets. The army announced its intention to call up 6,700 reservists and Israeli officials said some reservists had already been mobilized to help protect Israeli towns and villages on the Gaza border from retaliatory Palestinian rocket attacks. Hundreds of Israeli infantry and armored corps troops are headed for the Gaza Strip border in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Was the war on Gaza inevitable? One can argue that Israel's genuine interest with its air strikes is strikingly similar to Hamas' interest in firing scores of rockets into Israeli population centers: to force a cease-fire on better terms than the one just ended. For Hamas, this largely means securing an easing of Israeli economic sanctions against Gazans. For Israel, this centers on ending rocket fire. For both sides, it means a prisoner exchange involving Shalit and hundreds of jailed Hamas members.




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