Gur Salomon
Xinhua (Analysis)
November 15, 2012 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 (Xinhua) -- Israel's leadership unleashed its air power against Hamas's military chieftains in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday afternoon, locking on Ahmed al-Jaabari, the head of the group's military wing, and prompting the organization to "declare war" on Israel.

Shortly later, the army announced it has embarked on an operation, dubbed "Pillar of Defense," saying that it aims to impair the command and control structure of Hamas's top leadership and curb the incessant rocket attacks from the coastal territory on southern Israel.

Operations to that end are currently limited to a series of airstrikes that target Hamas's military assets throughout the strip, mainly its stock of a few dozen Fajr-5, rockets with a range of 75 km, just enough to strike the greater Tel Aviv area and further North, as well as training camps, munitions depots, rocket manufacturing workshops in basements and communication centers.

But Israel is mulling to turn the heat up a notch with a large- scale ground operation that may possibly commence in the coming days. A number of tank brigades, bolstered by infantry troops and armored personnel carriers, had deployed along the border ahead of a possible incursion into Gaza.

Whether or not the tanks and infantry will roll into the territory depends on what will unfold in the coming hours and days. "It was a matter of opportunity," Col. (ret.) Miri Eisin, a veteran of Israeli military intelligence and spokeswoman for former prime minister Ehud Olmert during the 2006 Lebanon war, said of al-Jaabari's killing."

"You seize it once it presents itself. Israel sought to send Hamas a message: that they cannot do all they want, that it will not allow them to determine the rules of the game," Eisin said.

Israel's political and military leaderships have said that Hamas has "crossed the lines" during the current round of cross- border violence, with upwards of 160 rockets and mortar shells lobbed at southern Israeli cities and communities in the four days that preceded al-Jaabari's assassination -- injuring dozens who sustained shrapnel wounds, forcing about a million people to rush to public bomb shelters around the clock and the shutdown of schools and businesses.

"No government would accept such a situation. We do not accept such a situation, and I, as prime minister, am not prepared to accept this situation," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel during a visit to a rocket interception system deployed in the coastal city of Ashkelon on Monday, a high-profile media event that sought to shore up international backing for a possible ground offensive.

"The operation has four goals: to bolster deterrence, target the rocket infrastructure, deal a blow to Hamas and reduce the damage to our home front," Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained in a televised statement Wednesday.

Well do. But Israel has embarked on an adventurous military campaign with no clear-cut exit strategy, and the stakes are enormous. Where is it all leading, and, more importantly, how will it end?

"Both Netanyahu and Barak, contrary to their image as trigger- happy warmongers, are not interested in an unnecessary war," Einat Wilf, a lawmaker from Barak's Independence faction and a member of parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, told Xinhua.

"The goal is to restore deterrence, to undermine some of the primary capabilities that Hamas has amassed with Iranian support. It seems that that has already been achieved. I don't think they ( Netanyahu and Barak) are planning to enter Gaza. Once they feel that deterrence has been achieved, the operation will conclude."

Indeed, Israel's political and security echelons are confronted with a dilemma: how to craft a limited operation that would wreak havoc on Hamas's military infrastructure and bring about a long- range cease-fire without striking a fatal blow to the organization.

Aside from firing rockets or turning a blind eye to other militant groups who do so, Hamas is also a political entity that administers municipal and social services, as well as charity functions. It seeks to preserve its rule, wrested from Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007, and is likely to compromise once military operations exact unbearable costs.

Local media reported late Wednesday night that Ismail Haneya, Hamas prime minister in Gaza, narrowly escaped an Israeli airstrike.

Israel, for its part, does not seek to see a more radical group taking over, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Salafite jihadists ideologically linked to al-Qaida that are vying for control of the coastal territory, home to some 1.5 million Palestinians. Nor does it want a prolonged ground offensive with fatalities among troops and rocket fire that could extend to Tel Aviv.

"You can't eradicate Hamas, just as you can't decimate al-Qaida, but the goal is not to allow terrorist organizations to call the shots," said Eisin.

"They are the ones who should be hiding, not Israeli civilians. You have to assert your sovereignty, but that does not mean that you have to obliterate them. Israel wants to reach a situation in which Hamas says 'okay, we have had enough,'" Eisin added.


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