RAMALLAH – According to several prominent Palestinians and Israelis, another major Israeli military assault on Gaza, even harsher than last year’s Operation Cast Lead, is imminent. But will this change anything, and have the underlying causes behind the previous bloody war been addressed?
During the last week the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have carried out a series of raids and air strikes across the Gaza Strip which have left five Palestinians dead, three of them confirmed Islamic Jihad operatives, and a number wounded.
The IDF action followed a renewal of rockets being launched at Israel from within the coastal territory. To date this is the most serious escalation in violence between Palestinian resistance fighters and the Israeli military since Cast Lead.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly warned Hamas "to watch its step." At the same time senior Islamic Jihad leader Khalid al-Batsch issued a statement in Gaza saying that "the Israeli assault clearly indicates that Israel is in preparation for a major military operation in the Strip by using political and media campaigns to foster international support for ‘such aggression.’"
"The countdown to the Second Gaza War has begun in earnest," says Israeli columnist and analyst Bradley Burston in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
"Another Gaza war, this one likely to be an even more bitter onslaught, could not only prove lethal to what is left of Israeli moral credibility, it could undermine and cripple U.S. President Barack Obama’s military-political offensives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, slipping further down the slope, Yemen," adds Burston.
Burston’s speculation is based on recent statements and analyses given by senior IDF officials whom Burston explained had given similar comments before the last Gaza war.
Last Wednesday Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant of Israel’s Southern Command warned that the quiet in Israel’s south may only be temporary.
"We are facing another round in Gaza," added Maj. Gen. Yom-Tov Samia, a reservist and the former head of the IDF’s Southern Command, on Israeli army radio on Sunday. Samia argued that the IDF would have to move into Gaza again and conquer the 9-mi.. Philadelphi Corridor.
This corridor runs along the border of Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip, dividing the southern town of Rafah. It is honeycombed with hundreds of tunnels which are used to smuggle everything from household goods to weapons into Gaza to beat the crippling blockade on the coastal territory.
This would help reduce Hamas’ "oxygen supply," said Samia. He said this round of fighting would be more serious and focus on permanent results, including the possibility of reoccupying Gaza.
But this reoccupation would result in greater losses to the IDF in bloody house-to-house fighting as they search houses along the border from which tunnels exit. The soldiers would also become easier targets for Hamas fighters.
Palestinian civilian casualties would skyrocket. This is something that Israel can ill afford from a political point of view as it continues to struggle to fend off severe international criticism leveled at it over its previous indiscriminate campaign in Gaza.
However, political scientist Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah doubts another full-on war is on the cards.
"The Israeli military can say what it likes, but another major ground invasion on Gaza is a political decision which can only be taken at a governmental level, and the Israeli government is aware of its limitations," Awad told IPS.
"Israeli intelligence on Gaza is weak. They don’t have specific military targets and haven’t been able to establish the whereabouts of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The much-vaunted prisoner swap has yet to take place."
"The Israelis have not succeeded in destroying Hamas either politically, as they are now stronger than before," added Awad.
Israel also appears to have failed in its objective of crippling Hamas militarily and stopping the firing of rockets on Israel.
During the height of the intensive bombing campaign in Cast Lead Israel continued to be targeted by rockets. The rockets only stopped on Hamas’ orders several hours after a ceasefire was declared. Meanwhile, arms smuggling through the tunnels continues unabated.
Hamas is believed to have rearmed since the last confrontation with even more advanced long-range missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv as well as being in possession of anti-tank missiles and shoulder-to-air missiles.
"What I do see is increased and focused Israeli military incursions aimed at specific targets with increasing numbers of Gazans dying," Awad told IPS.
So, which way next?
"The time has come to rethink Israeli strategy in Gaza," said a Ha’aretz editorial. The same economic incentives used in the West Bank to discourage violence should be applied in Gaza. The crossings need to be opened, argued the editorial.
"The state of Israel must understand that Hamas rule in Gaza is a fact, and it is with that government that we must reach a situation of calm," said retired brigadier Shmuel Zakai on IDF radio over a year ago. ”Hamas can’t be defeated with force. Its defeat can only come about at the hands of the Palestinian public should they tire of the Islamic group’s rule.”
Israeli analysts further argue that third-party intervention in the form of a hands-on Obama White House that involves pressuring the Israelis to resurrect the 2008 largely successful truce with Hamas and alleviating the embargo on Gaza is the way to go.
(Inter Press Service)