Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff
January 5, 2009 - 1:00am

The eastern outskirts of Gaza City was where the Israel Defense Forces encountered the most serious resistance yet since the Gaza ground incursion began Saturday. Troops who raided the home of a Hamas man in the area Sunday discovered that the house served as cover for the entrance of no fewer than three underground tunnels, from which Hamas gunmen fled to nearby houses and fired.

In one tunnel, Hamas gunmen got into a close-range battle with a soldier from the Golani Brigade who got separated from the other troops. It appears the Palestinians tried to abduct the soldier by dragging him into the tunnel. He managed to get away and rejoin the other troops. That's the basis of the rumor Hamas spread Sunday, when it claimed to have kidnapped two soldiers.

The rumor, which foreign television stations turned into a report, also leaked to the Israeli press and increased public fears for several hours. The IDF spokesman put off issuing a denial for several hours (during which Hamas spread additional wrong reports), reinforcing the notion that there was no reason to get dragged along by the enemy's media manipulations.

In the same area, a Golani soldier was killed and several others were wounded by mortar fire. For Gaza veterans, the tough battles were no surprise. Ali Muntar, a hilltop on Gaza City's eastern outskirts, has long been considered the gate through which Gaza's conquerors arrive.

In the meantime, it looks like the IDF plan is progressing as expected. The key question is how much time the army has left. Some General Staff members hoped the government would call off the ground incursion if an appropriate exit plan was developed in time. That turned out to be a fruitless expectation. It appears French President Nicolas Sarkozy's arrival will restart diplomacy.

At this point, Egypt is expected to play an important role, despite the tensions between Cairo and Hamas. Egypt wants to see Hamas bleed before it gets fully into the role of mediator. Cairo is now waiting for a formal request by the Arab League before it intervenes. On the other hand, Egypt observes what its population wants, and Egyptians - like people across the Arab world - are rooting for Hamas and holding protests against Israel.

It would be a mistake to see the war in Gaza as a rerun of the Second Lebanon War. The Israeli position looks better now because the IDF is better trained and more prepared, the risk Hamas poses to the home front is lower than that posed by Hezbollah, and perhaps most important, Hamas has something to lose. The most important goal from Hamas' perspective is maintaining its hold on Gaza, and the Israeli operation poses a serious risk to that. All the same, it's not safe to assume that Hamas will collapse under Israeli military pressure. Israel also faces the danger of high casualties or abductions.

And so the reserve call-up portends bad news. Israeli society has not changed its approach to soldiers' deaths after the Lebanon failure. Wars in Israel are sometimes redefined as failures after the death of the first reservist. An extended stay in the Gaza dunes, which are liable to turn into a quagmire, would bring that eventuality closer.


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