JERUSALEM – The likelihood of a large-scale Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip has crept closer as more rockets continue to land in southern Israel and another Israeli was killed by a mortar shell, further hardening attitudes among senior ministers against a proposed truce with Hamas.
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane as he returned to Israel from Washington, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday that a military offensive was now a more likely option than a cessation of hostilities with Hamas. "The way it looks now, we are closer to a military operation in Gaza than we are to any other type of [diplomatic] arrangement."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s assessment was similar. "A military operation is closer than ever, and it may even precede a cease-fire," he said Thursday while touring Kibbutz Nir Oz, where a 51-year-old Israeli man was killed earlier in the day by a mortar shell fired by Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip.
The mortar attack, which killed Amnon Rosenberg, father of three, when it slammed into a paint factory on Nir Oz, brought to three the number of Israelis killed in rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in the past month.
Barak has been the strongest voice in the Cabinet in favor of accepting a truce with Hamas. Mediated by Egypt, the truce would see an end to the rocket fire from Gaza in exchange for a cessation of Israeli military operations in the strip and an easing of the siege Israel imposed on Gaza when Hamas seized control of the area a year ago.
Until now, the government has been hesitant to launch a major operation in Gaza aimed at routing Hamas for fear it would result in a high number of Israeli military casualties. Israeli leaders have also been scratching their heads over a possible exit strategy from Gaza once an operation, which could last up to six months, is over.
Were the rockets to start flying again and Hamas to reassert itself the day after a major military operation in the coastal strip ended and Israel pulled out of the area, the army would be ridiculed and Israel’s deterrence undermined. Olmert has also been reticent to hastily dismiss the truce proposal for fear of offending Egypt, which has toiled hard to persuade all the Palestinian militant factions in Gaza to agree to a cessation of hostilities.
But the Israeli prime minister now sounds more open to the military option, and those in the security cabinet who see the plus side of a major offensive against Hamas are gaining the ascendancy. They argue that the Islamic movement, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, will exploit any lull in the fighting to arm itself further. When the truce collapses, they say most Israelis believe it will within a few months Israel will then have to carry out a military operation in Gaza. And the toll among Israeli soldiers, facing a better-armed and better-organized Hamas, they say, will then be even higher.
"The government is making a bad mistake by not taking a strategic decision to end Hamas rule in Gaza," Vice-Premier Haim Ramon said Thursday. Ramon, who is one of the most vociferous opponents of the Egyptian-mediated truce proposal, believes the army "knows how to end Hamas’ rule. If it’s not now, then we will pay a much heavier price further down the line both in human life and in the wider region."
The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, has for some time been warning that Hamas will become a strategic threat if the military does not act soon against the Islamic movement. Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, recently warned that within two years Hamas would possess rockets with a 40-kilometer range, which would enable it to strike at Beer Sheva, Israel’s fourth-largest city.
Ramon also warns that if Israel agrees to a cease-fire, it will bolster the standing of Hamas and undermine moderate Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, especially President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Israel is currently engaged in peace talks, and who has been at loggerheads with the Islamic movement ever since it routed his Fatah forces in Gaza a year ago. If Israel acceded to a truce, Ramon cautioned, "Abu Mazen [Abbas] will start talking to Hamas. If we’re speaking to them indirectly, why shouldn’t he?"
Acquiescence to a truce, he continued, would also bolster groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as their patron Iran. "Hamas is part of the radical axis that triumphed in Lebanon two weeks ago," he said. "It will be terrible if they win in Gaza."