January 2, 2009

An Israeli ground incursion into Gaza?

AP Photo - click for larger imageIsrael continues to build up its ground forces on the borders of the Gaza Strip in preparation for a probable ground incursion into the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli Air Force has effectively exhausted its preplanned campaign targets list, and is now striking targets of opportunity as they are identified by manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft. Israel likely has all the forces in place now for a ground operation in Gaza.

One of two things will happen in the coming days. Either Hamas will offer a ceasefire that includes a commitment to cease rocket launches into southern Israel and a statement that recognizes Israel's right to exist, or the Israeli leadership will order the Israeli army to move into Gaza. That order, at the minimum, will be to eliminate Hamas's ability to fire rockets into Israel, or may go so far as to attempt to destroy Hamas.

UN Map - click for larger imageUnited Nations map of Gaza (click for larger image)

Barring Hamas's decision to come to terms with the Israelis - and I do not see that happening - the Israeli military will enter Gaza in force. As I have said before, the Israelis will not repeat the mistakes of 2006 when they did not use overwhelming force against Hizballah in Lebanon. That ill-fated decision by Ehud Olmert has resulted in a much stronger Hizballah. When Israeli troops enter Gaza, it will be with with tanks and infantry backed by artillery and aviation. Hamas is not Hizballah - they may be as committed, but not as proficient.

Israel has been cited by some misguided critics for use of what they label "disproportionate force" in Gaza. These critics do not understand military conflict. They would have you believe that if Hamas kills an Israeli, then the Israelis should kill one Hamas militant. That's not use of force, that's merely vengeance. If Hamas is systematically killing Israelis, the Israelis should use any force required to eliminate Hamas's capability to kill more Israelis. In military conflict, there is no such thing as disproportionate response. You use what you think you need to prevail and accomplish the objective.

Just as Hamas is not Hizballah, Gaza is not southern Lebanon. The narrow Gaza Strip can easily be segmented by Israeli armored thrusts, possibly into as many as three sectors. Israeli forces could initially isolate the northeastern part of the Strip, in effect cutting off the city of Gaza and the sprawling Jabaliyah refugee camp. Israeli troops can move from Israel to the Mediterranean, a distance of less than five miles, and cut off this area. The area north, east and south of Jabaliyah are the "launch basket" for the Hamas rockets that have been used against Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba.

The goal of the initial thrust will be to isolate the Gaza-Jabaliyah pocket from resupply and reinforcements from other area of the Strip. All of the weapons that enter Gaza do so via the porous border with Egypt into the Rafah area, and Islamic militant fighters are easily recruited amid the squalor of the Khan Yunis refugee camp. Separating the fighter pool and weapons supply route from the launch area should begin decreasing the number of rockets being fired into Israel.

After the initial thrust, the Israelis should concentrate on two areas: clearing the "launch basket" around Jabaliyah and sealing the border with Egypt. Clearing the launch basket is obvious: closing the border with Egypt prevents the escape of Hamas leaders and the introduction of additional weapons into the Gaza Strip.

This will not be easy. Hamas is a committed foe. Gaza is a densely populated urban area that will require difficult house-to-house urban warfare. The Israelis have probably determined that they have no choice - the time has come to address the issue of Hamas. It will not be long now.