December 24, 2008

The Coming Battle for Gaza

Rocket attacks launched by Hamas into Israel have increased significantly since the Egyptian-brokered "calm" agreement between the fundamentalist group and Israel expired on December 19.

On December 24, for example, over 80 rockets and mortar rounds were fired into Israel. This included some longer range Katyusha rockets striking buildings in Ashkelon, 10 miles from the Gaza border.

A resident of Ashkelon summed up the current situation best, "We can't live this way."

That same sentiment is growing all over Israel as the government ponders the best way to deal with the worsening situation. Even the Egyptians, normally supporters of the Gazans, are coming to the conclusion that Israel will soon have no choice but to intervene militarily in Gaza.

Gaza has become a stronghold of Hamas - an acronym for the Arabic words meaning the (Palestinian) Islamic Resistance Movement - since its election victory over rival party Fatah in January 2006. Soon after its victory at the ballot box, it expelled virtually all of Fatah from the Strip, forcing them to the West Bank. This expulsion in essence created two Palestinian states: "Fatah-stan" in the West Bank and an almost Islamic "Hamas-stan" in Gaza. According to Arabic-language press reporting, Hamas has gone so far as to introduce flogging, amputation and execution as punishments in the Gaza penal code.

Hamas has never recognized Israel's right to exist and is in a self-declared state of war with the Jewish nation. Even after its assumed power, Hamas refused to acknowledge Israel and has vowed to continue its armed resistance against Israel. Even during the cease-fire, Qassam rockets routinely hit the border town of Sderot, one mile from the border with Gaza.

Drawing by Israeli child in Sderot depicting rocket attack

Since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, over 6,000 of the Qassam rockets have been fired at Sderot, killing 13 people, wounding dozens, causing millions of dollars in damage, disrupting daily life, forcing about 25 percent of the people to leave, and crippling the economy.

The director of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, revealed that Hamas has received longer range rockets from Syria and Iran, smuggled in through Egypt. These rockets can not only reach Ashkelon as in today's attacks, but as far into Israel as Ashdod, 17 miles from the border. To put this into context, Ashdod is halfway to Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip, has a population of 200,000 people, and is Israel's largest port facility, accounting for over 60 percent of the nation's imports.

At some point, the Israelis will have no option but to intervene militarily. It's not a good option, but it may turn out to be the only option. Gaza is densely populated and no matter how carefully the Israelis mount an operation, there will be a great number of civilian casualties. This, of course, will bring world condemnation of the Israeli action.

When the Israelis move, there will be Hamas retaliation. In addition to continued rocket and mortar attacks, there will be roadside bombs with improvised explosive devices. Hamas no doubt has seen how effective these have been in Iraq and Lebanon. Also, Hamas will make good on its promise to dispatch suicide bombers into Israel proper - this is a demonstrated capability. There is also the question of what Fatah and its own collection of militants - especially the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - will do when Israel attacks fellow Palestinians.

All this takes place against the backdrop of the upcoming Israeli parliamentary elections, scheduled for February 10, 2009. In all likelihood, the next prime minister who will emerge from that vote will be either the Kadima party's Tzipi Livni (currently the foreign minister and acting prime minister) or Likud's Benyamin Netanyahu (a former prime minister). So, it will be "Hardliner A" or "Hardliner B" come early next year. Each has pledged to forcefully end the Gaza crisis.

Benyamin Netanyah and the author in Jerusalem (2006)

Hamas should take note. Neither of the two potential prime ministers have much use for Hamas or Gaza. When the Israelis intervene, they will not make the mistakes of Lebanon 2006. When they invade Gaza next, it will be decisive.

Hamas has a narrow window to prevent the coming bloodshed. They have pushed the Israelis about as far as they are going to be pushed. It's time to think about the people of Gaza for a change.