Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

MIDEAST: Israel Ponders End to Offensive

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jan 7 2009 (IPS) - “Unlike the Qana tragedy in 1996 which brought about an immediate end to the Israeli offensive in southern Lebanon, Tuesday night’s Israeli shelling of the Fakhura UNWRA school will not bring about an abrupt cessation of the Israeli military campaign,” says analyst Chemi Shalev in the Wednesday morning edition of Israel Today. “But it will definitely accelerate the diplomatic pressure for a ceasefire.”

The big question, he says, is “will Israel’s leaders now know what to do to secure our war objectives?”

The school attack underlies what John Ging, head of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) in Gaza had been saying repeatedly for the previous three days since the start of the ground offensive: the Palestinian population in Gaza is locked in and simply has no effective escape from the hostilities. Hard-pressed by the deteriorating plight of Gaza’s civilians, Israel informed the UN it was implementing a three-hour unilateral halt to hostilities Wednesday afternoon as a “humanitarian interlude”.

It is the coming 48 hours, however, that will be critical in determining whether a long-term ceasefire can take hold. And, whether Israel is able to devise its own successful way out.

With the onslaught against Hamas at a crossroads, Israel’s security cabinet convened Wednesday morning. The choice, according to government officials, was between, on one hand, escalating the military campaign and deepening Israel’s territorial grip on the Gaza Strip to the extent of taking control of Hamas strongholds in the heart of Gaza City and other urban centres or, speeding up the diplomatic option. “Conceivably,” one official said, “both options could be embraced together.”

Just prior to the school attack, international diplomatic efforts had been gaining momentum, notably with the visits to the region of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and of the EU foreign ministers delegation, plus the belated involvement of U.S. officials who were trying to string together a diplomatic arrangement that would be satisfactory to both Israeli and U.S. strategic interests.

Israeli leaders spell out three specific conditions for ending their offensive: the absolute cessation of Hamas rocketing of Israeli towns and villages; watertight control – with or without an international component – of the Egyptian border with Gaza to obviate the possibility of Hamas re-arming once a ceasefire has gone into effect; and third, the exclusion of any Hamas presence either at that border, or at Israeli-Gaza crossing points (Gaza is supposed to get its fuel, food, medicine and other critical humanitarian needs via Israel though, prior to the war, Israel would periodically close its border with Gaza in retaliation for Hamas shelling).

Major-General Giora Eiland, the former head of strategic planning in the Israeli army, put the equation bluntly. Speaking on Israel Television Tuesday night, he said, “Egypt is the key to a deal. There need not even be an international component to the supervision of the Egypt-Gaza border – either in working out the arrangement or in on-site control,” Eiland added. “This is a matter purely between the Egyptians and us. We need to tell them – ‘you want the Israeli-Gaza crossing points kept open at all times so as to avoid hardship for the Palestinians civilians in Gaza. We will guarantee that, provided you ensure that no arms get through to Hamas via your borders.”

Before the killings at the UNWRA school, Israeli officials had been talking of the idea of a de facto diplomatic arrangement, “without the bride” – without Hamas, that is, as an equal party in any future arrangement.

Does the school attack alter this in any way? Certainly, Egypt has moved into a more strenuous role in pressing Hamas on the imperative that it agree to a ceasefire. Certainly, too, it has upped the international community’s insistence on the hostilities ending forthwith. Nor has it gone without note in Jerusalem that it certainly produced the first outspoken comment by U.S. president-elect Barack Obama who deplored the suffering of civilians on both sides.

Still, some Israeli military experts remain tempted to argue that for Israel to curtail its military offensive now would be tantamount to undoing all tactical and strategic gains achieved so far in undercutting Hamas’s strength, and risk having Hamas re-emerge emboldened despite the battering it has taken. Against this, other defence experts – including reportedly Defence Minister Ehud Barak himself – reiterate the argument that a 48-hour ceasefire for a humanitarian assessment of the situation could still serve Israel in ultimately securing its campaign goals.

Against these pros and cons, the key dilemma that continues to hover over the Israeli leadership as it updates its strategy – military and diplomatic – is whether deepening the ground campaign will further boost Israel’s deterrent capability vis-à-vis Hamas. Or, whether the school attack hasn’t already clipped the wings of that hard-won deterrence achieved during the earlier aerial phase of the war.

Israeli leaders know that what is for sure is that they cannot afford to squander the initial international legitimacy for their strike against Hamas – despite the horrors of the war – should they now make the wrong decision about how, and when, to end the fighting.

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