Roula Khalaf
The Financial Times
January 1, 2009 - 1:00am

The residents of Gaza saw in the new year with more Israeli air strikes and the prospect of an imminent ground offensive.

Unlike other wars, where populations run out of the conflict zone and refugee crises develop, Gazans have nowhere to go. Long before Israel’s latest offensive, the strip had been locked up from all sides, with no access to the outside world.

Six days into the Gaza operation it is already looking like another mindless war, from which no one can emerge a winner. Israel has destroyed a good part of the Hamas infrastructure – it may, in fact, be running out of targets.

Its assault has also highlighted the fact that Hamas has few friends left among governments in the Arab world. Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on new year’s eve lashed out at the Jewish state yet offered no concrete help to the Palestinians.

But the supposed primary objective of the operation – to stop Hamas launching rockets on Israeli towns – is far from being achieved.

Sure, Hamas wants a ceasefire but not without an Israeli commitment to ending its siege of Gaza. What does Israel want? Its leaders already appear confused as to their ultimate goal, as well as the ways of reaching it. They speak of teaching Hamas a lesson and of securing a ceasefire “on terms favourable to Israel”. But does that mean maintaining the crippling economic blockade on the territory, and deciding when, and whether, even humanitarian aid can enter the strip?

The next move Israel is considering is a ground offensive. Yet Israeli leaders should be rereading the Winograd commission report, a damning assessment of the fiasco of the 2006 war with Lebanon.

The findings blasted the government of Ehud Olmert, still prime minister today, for failures in strategic thinking and planning, on both the political and military fronts. It criticised policymakers’ equivocation, saying they were never sure whether they intended to inflict a short and unexpected blow to Lebanon’s Hizbollah or to embark on a temporary occupation of southern Lebanon that would push the Shia group away from the border.

Yet Israeli leaders do not appear to have learnt the lessons of the Lebanon war.

Hamas, on the other hand, has learnt that the Israeli army is not unbeatable. Though the Palestinian organisation lacks the strategic depth that Hizbollah enjoyed – the Lebanese group that bloodied Israel’s nose could count on military replenishment through Syria – it is betting that the longer it withstands Israeli bombardments, and proves it can still retaliate, the more it will undermine Israeli public support for the offensive. Although Israel insists that it is looking for long-term calm in Gaza, the history of its conflict with Hamas suggests that the best outcome it can hope for is a rather short-term ceasefire.

Remember back in 2004, when Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the Hamas leader, and went on to decapitate the rest of the group’s leadership in what was supposed to be a deadly blow to the group?

Israel’s killings were followed by disengagement from Gaza and evacuation of Jewish settlements, leaving the territory in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. But it was not long before Hamas not only regrouped but also gained politically, winning the January 2006 parliamentary elections and eventually ousting the PA from the territory.

The attempt to deal with Hamas, and with Gaza, as if they were isolated elements of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was bound to backfire. While Israel left Gaza, it tightened its grip on the West Bank, kept control of Gaza’s borders and did little to bolster the PA by advancing the peace process or giving hope to Palestinians that they will achieve the statehood they crave. Israelis might prefer to forget this history. But what was true then is true today: that it would be foolish to think there is a Gaza, or a Hamas, solution without a coherent and real Palestinian peace strategy.


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