Omar Karmi
The National
January 4, 2010 - 1:00am

A year after the Israeli offensive on Gaza, the ceasefire continues to hold and 2009 saw Israel register the lowest number of incidents of Palestinian-Israeli violence in the decade just ended, according to a report released last week by the country’s internal security agency

Nevertheless, Israeli analysts will not rule out another war on Gaza, even if Israeli leaders are wary of the political cost. The question is not whether, but under what circumstances, renewed conflict might break out, the analysts say.

“Six or eight years will not repeat itself,” said Yoram Schweitzer, a military analyst at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, referring to the period since rocket fire from Gaza started. “Israel will be much more aggressive and won’t let rocket fire drag on for that long; the Israeli public won’t tolerate that anymore.”

The rocket fire from Gaza certainly swung public opinion in Israel firmly behind the war when it broke out. Since 2001, militants in Gaza have fired predominantly homemade rockets across the border into Israel. While the technology behind them grew more and more sophisticated, they caused relatively little damage and in seven years until the end of 2008, only 13 fatalities.

Nevertheless, constant pictures from Sderot, a small Israeli town near Gaza, of people running for cover and houses taking damage, had an enormous effect on Israeli public opinion and proved politically intolerable to the previous government of Ehud Olmert. Thus when a six-month ceasefire, fragile at all times not least due to Israeli army operations, finally broke down and rockets flew again, Israelis were ready for war.

The war and its 1,400 mostly civilian Palestinian casualties, however, did little to change public opinion. Israelis remain hugely supportive of the war and reject international accusations of war crimes and disproportionality, as contained in the report that came out of a United Nations investigation led by the South African judge Richard Goldstone.

“Ninety-nine per cent of Israeli Jews believe we conducted the war in the most humane way possible against an enemy that hides in civilian areas and that Goldstone was simply wrong,” said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst based in Tel Aviv.

What that means, said Mr Alpher, is that should the Israeli government consider reopening hostilities in Gaza, the domestic debate will be about international reaction rather than the rights or wrongs of the conflict itself.

Israel has largely shielded itself from any political fallout from the Goldstone report with help from the United States, but another war might make it increasingly difficult for Israel’s allies to shield the country from growing international exasperation.

This is something the Israeli public is acutely aware of, said Mr Alpher, and is likely to see the army prepare for a different kind of conflict.

“The Goldstone report and international reaction more broadly certainly act as a deterrent factor to any new war,” said Mr Alpher.

Some, like Mr Schweitzer, argue that Israel needs to explain itself better. International opinion, said Mr Schweitzer, was not cognisant enough of the difficulty of minimising civilian casualties in a war fought in a largely urban theatre against groups employing semi-military, semi-guerrilla tactics. “Israel needs to explain better to international public opinion the complexity of a war against groups like Hamas or Hizbollah.”

While there is no imminent threat of renewed conflict, Gazans cannot tolerate a continued siege that is taking an enormous toll on the impoverished strip’s economy and infrastructure. As long as there is no sign of an end to the Israeli-imposed blockade, violence will always remain a possibility.

For now, though, Israel and Hamas are deep in indirect negotiations over a prisoner swap that would see about 450 out of nearly 8,000 Palestinian prisoners released in a deal for a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. In Gaza, commanders and soldiers in the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, believe that deal is crucial and once done, may signal the beginning of the countdown to another battle.

Mr Schweitzer said he thought the prisoner exchange would have the opposite effect and relieve some pressure. Nevertheless, the threat of renewed hostilities would continue for as long as there was no direct political engagement between Hamas and Israel, said Mr Schweitzer, something the Israeli government so far is simply not interested in.

Mr Alpher said that any new war would either be very limited in scope or a much more comprehensive reoccupation. He dismissed the suggestion that there was a sense of unfinished business in Gaza, but said that nevertheless the situation would remain unstable.

“We have no realistic strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza.”


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