Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Israel Looking to Silence Hamas Forever

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Dec 31 2008 (IPS) - This is the most senseless of all the wars that Palestinians and Israelis have fought, says Israeli President Shimon Peres. The futility, he suggests, stems from the Hamas insistence, ever since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, on continuing to shell Israeli towns and villages.

"Their shooting has no point and no logic. Nobody understands what are Hamas's goals," said Peres, speaking alongside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was briefing the President on the state of the war Tuesday evening.

"The Gaza offensive will not end until our goals are reached," said Olmert in response to reports that Israeli defence officials were considering a 48-hour truce in the devastating air attacks prior to possibly launching a major ground operation.

So, what are Israel's goals?

There seems to be national consensus – at least among Israeli Jews – on the two declared objectives of the military operation: long-term ceasefire, and deterrence – that Hamas is compelled to hold its fire.

The Israeli consensus extends to another front – there is already a 'ceasefire' with respect to the Feb. 10 Knesset (parliament) election. So much so, that the front-runner in the polls, right-wing Likud opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, has been enlisted to front Israel's information campaign to the world.

Netanyahu, even within the guise of national advocate, is positing the war targets in much starker terms than the governing centre-left coalition. On Wednesday morning he stressed in an interview on Israel Radio that the choice lies with Hamas – agree to a real ceasefire, or risk Israel following up its offensive and forcing regime change in Gaza. Otherwise, argued Netanyahu, Israel would have achieved nothing "since next time Hamas will be in a position to shell and rocket towns as far afield as Tel Aviv itself."

When former prime minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza three years ago, he was less focused on creating conditions favourable for a full-fledged peace process, and more on positioning Israel better to fight the Palestinians if that became necessary. Since then, and especially with the ensuing Hamas takeover of Gaza 18 months ago – after Hamas won the election in Gaza in 2006 – Israel's punishing military action now could never have been legitimate to the international community.

Despite the temptation to take the 'smash 'em to bits' option all the way and to oust Hamas from power "once and forever", that does not seem to be on the cards. There is simply no answer to the question of who would take charge of Gaza in place of Hamas: Israel is not interested in re-engaging Gaza and, in the present circumstances, it is unimaginable for the Palestinian Authority to be carried back to Gaza on the shoulders of the Israel military. Israel has been through that in 1982 in Lebanon after they routed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and tried to install a friendly regime in Beirut.

A second option would be to go all the way with the Gaza disengagement policy – leaving Israel no longer responsible for any developments in Gaza. That too, however, is unfeasible, at least in the short term, since it would mean permanent Hamas entrenchment in Gaza and allowing it to argue – as Hezbollah did in Lebanon two years ago – that it has beaten Israel in battle.

It would in effect transform the two-state solution into a three-state solution – between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza separately, something that would change the agreed parameters of the whole peace process and thus condemn any negotiations on the future at least on east Jerusalem and the West Bank to definite failure; few in the international community, or in the Arab world, are keen on that.

Thus, the legitimacy of self-defence being so critical to Israel, whatever secret wishes they harbour, the government projects its war aims in not overly-ambitious terms: make conditions so painful for Hamas that it will have to subscribe to a long-standing ceasefire.

That said, Israeli leaders continue to retain an element of ambiguity about the purpose of the war. Sizeable ground forces have been massed around Gaza. But even within Israel, there is growing concern about whether the use of force might not be disproportionate.

Israeli Television Channel 2 reported an opinion poll conducted on Wednesday which shows 58 percent of the Israeli public opposed to a ceasefire, as against 42 percent who believe a ceasefire should come into force right away. Analysts noted that of the 42 percent in favour many are likely to be Arab Israelis who appear to be strongly critical of the war. Arabs comprise almost 20 percent of the Israeli population.

Against this potential escalation, prize-winning novelist David Grossman has called for a temporary pause in the fighting by Israel, in effect to test Hamas's intentions while implicitly testing this Israeli strategic ambiguity. In the liberal Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, Grossman suggested: "We will hold our fire unilaterally and completely for the next 48 hours. Even if you fire at Israel, we will not respond…Israel must constantly check to see when its force has crossed the line of legitimate and effective response and from what point it is once again trapped in the usual spiral of violence."

The coming 48 hours will be critical in testing an ever-relevant equation in Middle East stability – will Israel accept the limits of its own power, and will the Palestinians – in this instance Hamas – abide by the limits of their own weakness?

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