Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff
January 10, 2009 - 1:00am

On Wednesday, as foreign emissaries and mediators shuttled across the Middle East, the latest defense establishment assessment was that Hamas was not yet ready for a cease-fire. "They are adamant about ending this war with some sort of political achievement," an Israeli security source said. "Otherwise, the heavy price they paid will be seen to be in vain."

The Israeli dilemma is the mirror image of the one faced by Hamas. Israel, too, has paid a steep price. It's true that it has the upper hand in the fighting and has suffered only a fraction of the casualties sustained by the Palestinians (10 Israelis killed, compared with some 550 Palestinian dead, as of midday yesterday). But the operation has exacted a great effort: from the home front in the south, which has been subjected to steady rocket attacks for two weeks; from the army, which is encircling Gaza; from the worried parents of the soldiers; even from the politicians who decided to enter Gaza despite the risk of another Lebanon-like fiasco. A steep price also remains to be paid in the international arena for the killing and destruction wrought by the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip, whose full extent will be revealed in its entirety only after the Israeli troops leave. The rockets fired from Lebanon into northern Israel yesterday morning raised anew the possibility of a second front in the north, though it appears that Hezbollah does not want to get into a major confrontation with Israel at this time.

It is not surprising that the country's leadership is hesitant about leaving Gaza without a concrete achievement. Only the assurance of quiet on the southern front for a lengthy period of time now looks like a goal that can justify the price that has already been paid.

The military plan for the war in Gaza comprises four main stages, with an optional exit point built into each of the stages. Israel entered the first two stages at the chief of staff's recommendation. The decision to launch Operation Cast Lead took shape on December 18, on the eve of the expiration of the tahadiyeh (cease-fire), was approved by the security cabinet on the 24th and executed on the 27th, in the form of the large-scale air strike. The security cabinet authorized the ground offensive, stage 2, which included the encirclement of Gaza, on Friday, January 2, and it was launched the next day.

The third stage is now under discussion: a significant expansion of the ground offensive, involving the entry of more forces and the seizure of more key areas. (Stage 4, which is unlikely to be implemented, calls for the conquest of the entire Gaza Strip.) The IDF is presenting two alternatives to the political echelon, involving the conquest of different areas, but it appears that deep down the chief of staff and some of the senior generals hope this can be avoided. A reasonable diplomatic agreement, especially one with the potential to reduce the arms smuggling into the Strip, would allow the army to conclude the operation soon and withdraw with minimal casualties. An expansion of the operation would certainly put pressure on Hamas but also carries the risk of many more Israeli losses.

Expanding the ground operation will require the entry of the reserve brigades, which yesterday completed their training at the Tze'elim base in the Negev. If Israeli society has in recent years developed a serious allergy to the death of soldiers in combat, that syndrome is a great deal more acute with regard to reserve soldiers, most of whom are married and have families. If, from Israel's point of view, a reasonable diplomatic agreement can be reached soon, Israel will accept it and bring the soldiers home quickly. But before the understandings are finalized, things could get complicated on the ground, and the government could be dragged into injudicious decisions to intensify the military campaign.

Once upon a time, when Israel had only one television station, the electronic media left bereaved parents time to cope with their grief before plying them with questions. The change came at the end of 1993, a few weeks after Channel 2, Israel's first commercial station, went on the air. Lt. Col. Meir Mintz was killed by Hamas terrorists in Gaza City on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal. A Channel 2 team filmed his wife, Adi, explaining that it would be best to speed up the withdrawal and expressing her hope that her husband would be Israel's last victim in Gaza.

Fifteen years later, with the IDF in Gaza again, the media is not even waiting for the funerals. On Wednesday, the parents of the three Golani Brigade soldiers who were killed by accidental tank fire in Sajaiyeh were filmed one after the other. The message was identical: They are not angry at the IDF, they support the operation's continuation. That's how it is in war, things like that happen. The reaction is in part connected to the identity of the soldiers killed. (For those who are still repressing reality, here is the death toll as of this writing: four soldiers from the national-religious community, two Druze and one son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.) But it may also reflect a deeper process, whose roots lie in the failure in Lebanon: the understanding by the soldiers and their parents that if Israel is determined to score an achievement against Hamas, there will be more casualties.

"The war in Gaza highlighted one conclusion for me," says an officer in an infantry brigade. "Lebanon 2006 was a failure because of us, not because of Hezbollah." Another officer recalled how in Operation Defensive Shield, in the West Bank in April 2002, he had refrained from entering a mosque in Nablus in which a large booby-trapped weapons cache was stored. This time the army is not hesitating. More than 10 mosques in which arms were stored have been attacked from the air. This discussion has barely reached the media, whose representatives are busy writing color stories about soldiers' heroism. The subject comes to the fore now and then, in the remark by a brigade commander about the devastation his troops wrought in the northern Gaza Strip, or in the comment by the commander of the Yahalom unit on Wednesday: "We are very violent. We do not balk at any means to protect the lives of our soldiers."

It was not only the accident with the tank that passed relatively quietly here. The mortar fire that killed the civilians in the Jabalya school, after rocket fire was identified from the schoolyard, did not lead to a break in the operation, either. The preliminary debriefing in the Paratroops Brigade found that the IDF mortars were 30 meters off the point from which the rocket fire originated. That is the distance between the yard and the school, where civilians were huddled. In the eyes of the IDF, Gaza is to Lebanon as the second sitting for an exam is to the first - a second chance to get it right. And this time the army is far better primed for the mission, after a long two-year battle-procedure preparation, which was executed in an exemplary manner, particularly by Southern Command. So far, things are going well from the army's point of view.

Pushed back 60 years

A few days before the air offensive in Gaza, Israelis who are in indirect contact with Hamas transmitted a message to the organization's leaders in Gaza, through mediators: The rocket barrages will not go unpunished; if you do not stop the launch squads immediately, the consequences will be disastrous. When the senior Hamas leaders emerge from their places of hiding after the war, they, too, will have to take stock. They may well repeat what Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said after the war in Lebanon: If he had known that there was even a one-percent chance that this was how the Israelis would react (to the abduction of the two reservist soldiers), he would have preferred to restrain himself.

Still, the assessment in Israel is that in the present circumstances, Hamas' military wing wants to go on fighting. While the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades have been severely damaged, the loss has not been fatal. A few of its senior operatives were assassinated by Israel. Others lost their homes (and in some cases their families) in bombings intended to destroy large arms caches. In one case, neighbors forcibly ousted a Hamas commander from a new home to which he had moved after his previous residence was destroyed, fearing that the new one would be bombed, too.

On Hamas' end, the war is being run by the relatively junior command echelon. The senior officials are stuck in bunkers under the hospitals. The resistance is based on hit-and-run tactics: fighting that is not very organized, almost sporadic. Thus, the officers in one Israeli brigade are now talking about two squads that are harassing the soldiers. There has been something of a decline in rocket launches in the past few days, with the launch teams taking care to operate under cover of mosques or densely populated neighborhoods.

At the beginning of the Second Lebanon War, the chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, said it would be necessary to push Lebanon "20 years back." Under the Israeli offensive, Gaza has been hurled back into the 1940s. Electricity is available only for a few hours a day. It is almost impossible to watch television, so people gather around battery-powered radios. The IDF imposed a curfew that begins at 6 P.M., but even before that hour most Gazans are not eager to venture out.

Only a few homes have running water, as the pumps of the Gaza Water Authority no longer work, because of the fuel shortage. "There is no choice, so we shower less," says Ahmed, from the Sajaiyeh neighborhood. "We collected water in plastic containers. The containers that were not hit by Israeli fire are used for drinking and washing." In Beit Hanun and Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, the sewage has overflowed and is flowing in the streets. This week the World Bank warned that the deadly combination of sewage and a water shortage is liable to cause an outbreak of epidemics in Gaza, a development Israel surely does not want and would not be able to cope with.

The defense establishment still hopes that the harsh situation in Gaza will induce the population to rise up against Hamas. But what one hears in every phone conversation from Gaza is fathomless hatred for Israel, which is growing even more extreme. Hamas may not be as popular as it was, but it may well be that a few months after the operation it will succeed in starting to rebuild with the help of Iranian funds. The hostility toward Israel will remain and with it the desire for revenge will grow. The price will be paid by the generations to come, in Israel and in the Gaza Strip.

Dependence on Egypt

In just 11 days, president-elect Barack Obama will take office. On Tuesday he was asked about the war between Hamas and Israel. He said he was concerned about the civilian casualties on both sides. That concern could turn into anger at Israel in the course of the inauguration ceremony. Washington expects - though it is not saying so out loud - that Israel will end the war before Obama is sworn in as president.

During the past few days, members of the outgoing Bush administration have been trying to reach a series of understandings with Cairo, which will result in new security arrangements along the Israel-Egypt border. Together with the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Sallai Meridor, the administration is also trying to block some of the initiatives that are taking shape at the United Nations. Various texts put forward by Arab states seek an immediate Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. A declaration like that is liable to induce Hamas to respond negatively to the Egyptian initiative.

According to David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Process, Egypt and Israel have a joint interest in stopping the rocket fire into Israel and to prevent arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Egypt wants to present Hamas with a new tahadiyeh agreement that will not refer to the smuggling issue; Cairo is well aware that any document that mentions that subject or an international force will be rejected outright by Hamas. Egypt, which positioned itself against Hamas from the start of the Israeli operation, has to soften the organization so it will agree to its cease-fire initiative. The agreement must therefore consist solely of elements palatable to Hamas, such as a cessation of fire, along with other achievements, such as the opening of the crossings for goods to pass through. Egypt is leaving the war against smuggling to talks it will hold with Israel.

Cairo understands that a Hamas refusal could result in the end of the organization's rule in Gaza and the collapse of its political leadership. In that sense and through the Israeli operation, Egypt has restored its deterrent capability against Hamas. The organization's leaders, who accused Egypt of linking up with the Zionists and of being accomplices to a plot aimed at ousting them from power, understood this week that without Egypt there is no agreement on the horizon. Accordingly, two members of the Damascus-based Hamas political bureau were sent to Cairo to discuss the details of the Egyptian plan. For Cairo, this is also an opportunity to settle accounts with those who refused to take part in the effort to restore Palestinian unity. (Hamas refused to send representatives to Cairo last November for reconciliation talks with Fatah.) Egypt will also accumulate a great deal of credit in Washington as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East and as a strategic partner, with Israel, against the Iranian "axis of evil."

By the same token, Israeli dependence on Cairo will increase. If the agreement now being mooted is executed, Israel's security will depend more than ever on the Egyptian army. On the other hand, insufficient Egyptian activity on the border, or an erosion of the Egyptian forces that allows the smuggling to continue, is liable to prompt Israel to recapture the Philadelphi Route. That scenario, too, is apparently being taken into account in Cairo.


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