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Israel Unlikely To Agree Gaza Cease-Fire Until Military Objectives Achieved

Palestinians flee in Gaza City after Israeli strikes on January 12.
Palestinians flee in Gaza City after Israeli strikes on January 12.
On January 9, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the UN Security Council's new resolution that calls, among other things, for an immediate, durable, and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Stressing that attacks on Gaza will continue, Olmert said, "Israel has never agreed that any external entity would determine its right to defend the security of its citizens." Two days later, on January 11, Olmert said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting that the Israeli armed forces were close to reaching the goals that they set for themselves in Gaza.

The declared military aims of the attack were to stop Hamas from firing rockets at southern Israel; to end the smuggling of arms to Gaza via the 200 or so tunnels linking southern Gaza with Egypt; and to weaken the military capabilities of Hamas.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a veteran soldier, told the media at the beginning of the Gaza operation that the offensive would be long and difficult. In doing so, as well as lowering Israelis' expectations, he tacitly admitted that the aims of the operations will not be achieved easily.

But Israel's political objectives have not been clearly defined. While some Israeli officials have stated that the outcome of the offensive could lead to a new cease-fire with Hamas on Israel's terms, others have predicted a decisive military victory over Hamas that could result in either regime change in Gaza or the elimination of Hamas. Government spokesman Mark Regev has stressed, however, that regime change is not on the agenda.

Destroying Hamas Infrastructure

In an attempt to achieve its military aims, Israel began its attack on Gaza by bombing dozens of military, police, and public buildings in the Gaza Strip. These included public buildings and institutions affiliated with Hamas such as the office of the prime minister, ministerial and municipal offices, as well as the Islamic University of Gaza.

This was followed by more aerial attacks targeting numerous rocket-storage facilities and rocket-launching sites. As a result of these attacks, substantial damage was inflicted on the Hamas governmental infrastructure and military capabilities.

The second phase of the attack, called Operation Cast Lead, began on January 3 when Israeli armored and infantry brigades advanced into the Gaza Strip and effectively divided it into two parts. As a result, the northern part, including Gaza City with a population of approximately 400,000 and the town of Jabaliya, are being encircled from land by Israeli forces, while the Israeli navy maintains a maritime blockade.

Demonstrators burn an Israeli flag during an antiwar rally in Stockholm.
In conjunction with this, Israeli forces are deployed close to the southern section of the Gaza Strip, and Israeli aircraft continue to bomb an 11-kilometer swathe of land in this section bordering Egypt. In the early hours of January 8 alone, Israeli bombers targeted this area 60 times. According to Israeli officials, over 200 tunnels dug by Hamas in this area were the main supply route for arms and ammunition from Iran and Syria to this group.

Continuing with their encirclement of Gaza City and Jabaliya, the Israeli ground forces have been engaged in eliminating Hamas fighters, destroying ammunition and rocket depots, and thus trying to prevent rockets being fired from north of the strip into southern Israel. In other words, aiming to establish a 20-kilometer- plus buffer zone between southern Israel and the southern section of the Gaza Strip in the hope of keeping most Israeli towns and villages out of the range of Hamas rockets.

However, it appears that Israel has not yet achieved this aim, as there are indications that Hamas rockets are still being fired into Israel. Reports on January 11 indicate that fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters continues in the north and northeast of Gaza City.

Hamas Fights To Survive

Hamas fighters for their part seek to demonstrate the inability of Israel's aerial and ground attacks to halt rocket firing into southern Israel. In fact, if Israel decides to bring the entire northern section of the Gaza Strip under its control, then it would have no choice but to resort to messy door-to-door urban fighting. This could bog down Israeli forces, as well as causing the death toll to rise among its troops, something that Israel is very reluctant to risk doing.

Hamas fighters know that they are no match for Israel's war machine, and therefore seek to draw Israel into irregular combat in urban areas. By taking advantage of Israel's aversion to the prospect of significant casualties, they hope to force Israel to quickly terminate its offensive, rather than get bogged down in a war of attrition.

Hamas needs to survive as an organization at the end of Israel's attack. However, some of its leaders warn that if the Hamas government is overthrown, the military wing of the organization will launch an all-out armed struggle against Israel.

According to Israeli military experts, the military wing of Hamas has 20,000 fighters armed with small arms, mines, improvised explosive devices, and homemade Qassam rockets, as well as Katyusha and 122-milimeter Grad rockets. In line with its Islamist ideology, Hamas sees the war against Israel as a religious duty and its members are eager for martyrdom.

What Can Israeli Offensive Gain?

Apart from the timing of the attack, which seems to have been determined by political expediency in the light of the forthcoming general elections in Israel on February 10, the conduct of the Gaza offensive during the first two weeks of the conflict shows that Israeli commanders have taken into account the lessons learned from the 2006 conflict with Hizballah in Lebanon. It appears that they are trying hard to remove the stain left on their reputation by the failure of the offensive against Hizballah. This would mean that, unless the current offensive is an unequivocal success, the military will have great difficulty in restoring the faith of Israeli society in the armed forces.

What does Israel's military hope to achieve?
While the siege of Gaza City continues, it is quite likely the Israeli army may launch another wave of attacks to achieve the other primary aim of the operation, that is, preventing any further smuggling of arms to Gaza. This would mean that the army will most probably focus on the Rafah area and the Gaza-Egypt border.

On January 8, the Israeli air force dropped hundreds of leaflets warning the 30,000 inhabitants of the border area to leave their homes because of planned attacks. In spite of the mounting casualties (over 900 on the Palestinian side), Israeli ground troops, on the back of aerial attacks, will probably advance to the border area to halt the flow of arms into the Gaza Strip. Only after this is Israel likely to accept a favorable cease-fire.

Nevertheless, this wave of attacks could be averted if international efforts to broker a cease-fire can come up with an efficient mechanism, such as deploying Western observers along the Gaza-Egypt border, to prevent the flow of arms into Gaza. A policy paper drafted by Israel's Defense Ministry before the Gaza operation stated a preference for a Western force to perform that task. Whether such a mechanism can prevent Hamas from rearming is open to question, however.

So, too, is the durability of any cease-fire that might bring the current fighting to an end. The Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip will severely diminish the capabilities of Hamas, including its military wing, but the organization's political activities will continue, and whether it remains a significant force among Palestinians will depends on how the current conflict ends.

In the final analysis, as Avi Shlaim of Oxford University has said, "there is simply no military solution to the conflict between the two communities...and the only way for Israel to achieve security is not through shooting, but through talks with Hamas."

Hossein Aryan is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL