Israeli strategic crisis
With shells hitting Israeli settlements, the Israeli government examines renewed and costly military action or forcing Egypt to administer Gaza, writes Saleh Al-Naami
The Israeli cabinet meeting Sunday turned into an orgy of posturing among ministers clamouring for everything from the blood of Hamas to the invasion and reoccupation of Gaza in response to the wounding of a child during the bombardment of the Israeli settlement Siderot by homemade Qassam shells.
"Why are we still allowing [Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud] Al-Zahar to walk around alive?" exclaimed Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz in the course of a tirade on Israel's failure to clarify its goals in Gaza, foremost among which should be the elimination of the Hamas leadership, apparently. In the opinion of Minister of Justice Meir Shatrit, the answer to Qassam rocket fire is to raze whole neighbourhoods in Gaza City to the ground. Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni and Interior Minister Avi Dichter felt a little emotional blackmail might goad the Israeli government into launching a massive incursion into Gaza. Responding to the Palestinian missile threat would "test the government's ability to apply the conclusions of the Winograd Commission," they said, referring to the board that investigated the causes of the Israeli debacle in its war against Lebanon. Dichter added that the rocket fire had already forced 20 per cent of the inhabitants of Siderot, located to the northeast of Gaza city, to leave the settlement.
In contrast to the tenor of that stormy cabinet session, official statements and leaks to the press suggest that Israel will not stage an invasion of Gaza, at least not in the coming days. Rather, it will intensify its assassination policy against leaders of the "Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigade". Despite calls for Hamas blood, sources close to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert say that Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas political leaders will not be targeted "for the time being".
Nevertheless, the Israeli occupation army has been planning a full-scale invasion of Gaza and training its forces for that for some time. Putting the plan into action, however, is contingent upon two factors: better weather conditions and Israel's ability to rally sufficient international support -- or at least cover -- for the operation. Senior Yediot Aharonot commentator Nahom Barnie reminded his readers that all of Israel's wars, with the exception of the 1956 war, took place in spring or summer and predicts that the Gaza campaign will take place in early April. As for mobilising international support, Yoram Turbowicz, Olmert's chief of staff, emphasised its importance. Speaking on Israeli army radio Monday, Turbowicz said the invasion would result in numerous Palestinian civilian casualties, for which reason Israel had to do its best to convince the world that this course was vital to Israel's security. According to presidential Charge d'Affaires Haim Ramon, the primary objective of the Gaza campaign would be to topple the Hamas government. In a radio interview, Ramon announced that, according to Israeli plans, Hamas rule would be over in a few months.
Ahmed Youssef, senior advisor to presidentially dismissed Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyeh, believes that Israeli threats to stage a full-scale invasion of Gaza, assassinate Hamas leaders and topple the standing government in Gaza, should be taken seriously. "Israel, in cooperation with the Fayyad government in Ramallah, will use these operations to create a constitutional crisis and power vacuum in Gaza," he told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that Israel is desperately trying to create chaos in order to justify reneging on the commitments it made -- if minimal -- at the US-sponsored Annapolis meeting. Israel wants to evade negotiations over final status issues and to persuade the international community not to pressure it into engaging in a real political settlement process, he said. However, Youssef went on to warn that Israel will be taken by surprise by the response that Hamas and other resistance factions will mount, which will be of such a magnitude as to create a "balance of terror" between the two sides, he said.
Professor of political science Walid Al-Mudallal also believes that Israel is serious in its intent to launch a major military incursion into Gaza, now that it has become clear that other military options and the economic boycott of Gaza have backfired. "The type of limited operations the Israeli occupation army waged last year actually strengthened Hamas, in spite of the heavy cost the movement paid, and the economic boycott has also proved to drive people to support Hamas, especially following the collapse of the border wall between Egypt and Gaza," he told the Weekly. In addition, he said, it has been demonstrated over time that limited military operations and economic pressures have reduced Israeli's ability to capitalise on the internal Palestinian rift. "If things continue as they are, the effect of internal Palestinian divisions as a 'positive' factor for Israel will decline so much that Israel will have no option but to launch a major military campaign in order to be able to completely change the political structure in Gaza by toppling Hamas and paving the way, in coordination with Cairo, for Abbas's return," he said.
Al-Mudallal adds that Tel Aviv is planning its move on the assumption that Cairo and most other Arab capitals want to see the Hamas government fall. The strategic affairs specialist also pointed out that there is a direct relationship between Israel's escalation on Gaza and the Winograd Report, which reproached the Israeli government and army for its hesitancy in engaging in ground operations for fear of a high death toll in Israeli army ranks. "After Winograd, this factor can no longer be a prime determinant of Israel's plans concerning Gaza," he said. Al-Mudallal also believes that Israel will attempt to goad Palestinian resistance movements into staging operations that would result in a high number of Israeli civilian casualties in order to give it the pretext it needs before world public opinion for a massive incursion into Gaza.
It is curious, however, that the build-up to an invasion is occurring at the same time as an Israeli bid to export the Gaza crisis to Egypt. On Sunday, Israeli Channel 2 quoted Minister of Finance Ronnie Bar-On, one of the closest to Olmert, as saying that the Gaza problem should be sloughed off onto Egypt so as to make it appear as though it were an Arab dilemma that Israel has nothing to do with. "We have to think of all possible means to drag Egypt into the Gazan swamp and make the administration of Hosni Mubarak responsible for supplying Gaza with electricity, fuel and food," he said. Even some Israeli ministers who are described as Labour Party "doves" are enthusiastic about the idea of exporting the Gaza crisis to Egypt. One of these is Minister Ami Ayalon who harshly criticised Olmert for failing to take appropriate advantage of the border wall collapse in order to involve Egypt in Gaza.
Some Israeli strategic analysts are equally enthusiastic for what strategic affairs scholar Doron Zaifi called "the Egyptian option". In an article published on the Israeli news website, Ynet, Zaifi wrote that at a time when there are no indications on the horizon of a possibility that negotiations will lead to a settlement that will guarantee a solution to the conflict, the best option for Palestinians in Gaza would be to be linked to Egypt. However, he pointed out, if Israel wants to go in this direction it would have to withdraw its objection to the reopening of the Rafah border crossing, agree to an Egyptian-Palestinian administration of this crossing, and halt all military operations in Gaza, which, he warned, would draw down the curtain on "the Egyptian option".
Inside Israel, "the Egyptian option" met with no small opposition. The Israeli Manufacturers Association objected that any Israeli disconnect from Gaza would be disastrous for the Israeli economy, several sectors of which are heavily dependent on commercial exchange with Gaza. Also, some army generals warned that the option would raise the danger of Gaza being flooded with advanced weaponry, turning the Strip into southern Lebanon in miniature.
Ibrahim Abrash, minister of culture in the Salam Fayyad government and a prominent Fatah leader, fears that Israel's chances of succeeding in separating Gaza from the West Bank are high. In his opinion, Israel will try to turn the political clock back to before 1967 and to push for the annexation of Gaza to Egypt and the annexation of the West Bank to Jordan. Such a spectre "should compel Hamas and the Palestinian Authority presidency and Fatah to take pre-emptive action before the Palestinian cause is killed and the Palestinian dream is destroyed," he urged in interview with the Weekly, adding, "the governments in Ramallah and Gaza are so busy squabbling about their legitimacy that they fail to realise that if they continue that way neither of them will have any legitimacy."
Youssef is not so pessimistic. "Israel will never be able to turn Gaza over to Egypt as long as both Hamas and the Egyptian government reject this idea," he said. In all events, it is clear that the longer Israel continues its military operations in Gaza the less it will be able to export the Gaza crisis to Egypt, and should it press ahead with a full-scale invasion it will have to rule out "the Egyptian option" altogether. At the same time, it is patent that Israel is determined to radically alter its strategy in dealing with the Palestinian people, and with Hamas in particular, and that it will exploit the firing of Qassam missiles into Israeli settlements in the Negev to that purpose.