The ongoing situation of conflict in Gaza underwent a sharp escalation over the weekend, when 50 Qassam and Katyusha rockets were fired at Israel.[i] In response to the ongoing launching of Qassam rockets on Israeli civilian targets, and the commencement of Grad/Katyusha attacks on Ashkelon, IDF forces seized the initiative in the last days. IDF infantry and armoured forces subsequently undertook ground operations in the northern Gaza Strip town of Sajaiya. Two soldiers of the Givati Infantry Brigade were killed in the operation, and seven more Israeli troops were wounded. Around 100 Palestinians, the large majority of them operatives of Hamas or other organisations, have also been killed.[ii] In a further significant development, IAF aircraft struck at the offices of Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority in Gaza, completely leveling them.[iii]
There are clearly no easy options or miraculous solutions available to Israel vis-à-vis Gaza. The city of Ashkelon has a population of 110,000. Comparative to Israel’s overall population, it contains a proportion of Israel’s citizens comparable to the number of British citizens resident in the city of Birmingham. This article will explore Israeli options in the unfolding situation, and will seek to place the latest events within their broader context.
Option 1: Pressure on Hamas to declare ceasefire, or Israel-Hamas ceasefire agreement
Regarding Israeli options, the operation undertaken in northern Gaza over the weekend is not the beginning of the ‘major IDF operation’ into Gaza which has been the subject of much debate and speculation in Israel and internationally in the last weeks.[iv] Rather, Operation ‘Hot Winter’, as the operation was called, was intended to achieve the limited objective of striking a blow at the infrastructure of Hamas terrorism in Sajaiya and the Jabalya refugee camp. The second phase of the operation – namely, a search and destroy mission intended to root out weapons in the area – has now been completed. At a military briefing on Saturday, senior Israeli defence officials agreed that the purpose of the raid was to raise the cost for Hamas of continuing to launch rockets at Israel, while avoiding the large-scale ground incursion for which Hamas has been preparing.[v] The hope underlying this is that the price of the blows being inflicted on Hamas can be raised to a point where the organisation – perhaps via the Egyptians – seeks a new ceasefire, offering the cessation of rocket attacks.[vi]
There are a number of immediate problems, however, which make the realisation of this hope less than certain. Firstly, such a ceasefire (which would presumably include Hamas also moving to prevent by force other organisations from carrying out such attacks) in the face of Israeli operations would represent a major climb-down by the movement. There is little evidence to suggest that the operation of the last days represents a blow of sufficient magnitude to Hamas to induce it to consider such an option. Indeed, all reports from the ground indicate that the current mood among the residents of Gaza is one of rallying around the Hamas government. Hamas missile attacks on Ashkelon have continued today. Hamas’s history shows that it is not averse to sacrificing the lives of both its own members and of Palestinian civilians. There is thus little reason to suppose that pin-point operations will be sufficient to tip the balance in the direction desired by Israel.
A second problem is that in the past, ceasefires reached with Hamas have not held. Rather, the movement has used them to stockpile equipment in order to re-launch attacks at a moment of its own convenience. For example, Hamas declared a ceasefire with Israel on 23 November 2006. The movement then unilaterally abandoned the ceasefire in April 2007, in response to IDF activity against militants in the West Bank.[vii] There is a strong likelihood that a ceasefire at the present time would be used in a similar way.
If Israel were to agree to a ceasefire which would also involve Israeli commitments – an option in which Hamas is understood to have expressed an interest – many of the same cautions would apply. Such a ceasefire would be likely to include an Israeli cessation of targeted killings of Hamas members in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, in return for ending rocket fire on western Negev towns, Hamas would be permitted to continue its rule of Gaza. Past evidence suggests that Hamas would use such a ceasefire in order to build up its missile capabilities, selecting the moment when to re-commence hostilities – perhaps this time with a rocket capability capable of reaching Ashdod or further north. A ceasefire of this kind would also represent a de facto recognition by Israel of Hamas rule in Gaza, and would probably lead to a wider international normalisation vis-à-vis the movement.
Option 2: Israeli re-conquest of all or part of Gaza
An alternative option open to Israel would be a large-scale military offensive into Gaza. This would include the re-occupation of the Strip, or of large parts of it. Such an operation would exact a considerable toll in lives from both sides. It could certainly be achieved by the IDF. The question, however, would be what would follow.[viii] The West Bank Palestinian Authority has already made clear that it would support Hamas against Israel in such a conflict, which indicates that there is little or no prospect of Fatah re-assuming the administration of Gaza in the period following an Israeli toppling of the Hamas-led Gaza government. However, Israeli military and diplomatic sources confirm that there is evidence indicating international readiness to create an international force which would replace the IDF following the toppling of Hamas in Gaza. Sources confirm that a full-scale offensive would last for an extended period – up to six or seven months, after which control would be handed over to the international force. A potential drawback of this would be the issue of whether such a force would prove able to prevent the resumption of Hamas attacks on Israel from Gaza.
IDF re-occupation of the entire Strip would mean the re-opening of a protracted war between Israel and Hamas. This would exact a considerable cost both in Israeli lives and in international criticism of Israel. Some analysts have therefore suggested a partial re-occupation of northern Gaza.[ix] This would avoid pulling the IDF back into Gaza’s urban centres, but would be unable to provide a comprehensive answer to the rocket attacks, since the Grad-Katyusha system would still be able to reach Israeli civilian targets. Such an operation could, however, put a significant proportion of Israeli communities out of the range of the shorter-range rockets.
Hamas-run Gaza is ultimately one of a number of centres of active conflict in the emerging Middle East strategic contest between Iran and its allies (including Hamas), and an alliance of pro-western states including Israel. It is Iranian money and aid which has enabled Hamas to build up the formidable rocket arsenal that it has at its disposal. It is Iranian aid which enabled Hamas to build the militia force which drove out Fatah in June 2007, and which would engage the IDF in the event of a large-scale incursion into the Strip. Thus, the final aspect with which Israeli decision-makers will be contending as they decide on which option to pursue will be the possibility of further escalation. Hamas is part of a system of de facto alliances which includes Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and which centres ultimately on Iran. The beginnings of a large-scale conflict in Gaza contains within it the possibility of escalation into a wider clash, with the prospect of one or another of these Hamas allies being drawn in.[x]
The dynamics of the Gaza situation – and the absence of easy options – can only be understood against the backdrop of the emergence of a regional alliance opposed to any peace process with Israel. This alliance is engaged in a long war strategy, intended to one way or another maintain conflict with Israel, with the strategic goal of its destruction. Such a foe is by its very nature immensely hard to deter. Yet the price of striking a real blow against it would be high. Ultimately, the clear unacceptability of leaving Israeli civilians vulnerable to ongoing, unprovoked and lethal attacks on them is likely to determine Israel’s course.
[i] The Grad-Katyusha rockets fired at Ashkelon contained a payload of 20 kilograms of explosive material. By comparison, the explosive charges used to commit the 7 July 2005 bombings in London each contained 5-7 kilograms of explosives.
[ii] “IDF exits Gaza, Grad attacks continue,” Jerusalem Post, 3 March 2008. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1204473064427&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
[iii] Ali Waked, “IAF strikes Haniyeh office,” Ynetnews, 2 March 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3513481,00.html
[iv] Barak Ravid, “Barak to Justice Min: Can we hit civilian areas used to fire rockets?” Haaretz, 2 March 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/959840.html
[v] Hanan Greenberg, “IDF gears up for Gaza op,” Ynetnews, 2 March 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3513450,00.html
[vi] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “IDF pulls troops out of Gaza, Hamas declares victory,” Haaretz, 3 March 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/959984.html
[vii] Isabel Kershner, “Hamas military wing fires rockets at Israel,” New York Times, 24 April 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/24/world/middleeast/24cnd-mideast.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin
[viii] Nahum Barnea, “2 Dreadful options,” Ynetnews, 2 March 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3513529,00.html
[ix] Moshe Arens, “Northern Gaza must be recaptured,” Israel National News, 25 April 2006. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/102518
[x] Michael Oren, “It’s the Middle east, stupid,” Washington Post, 2 March 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/25/AR2008022502224.html