Israeli strikes on Gaza and the implications for the peace process

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On December 27 2008 the Jewish state launched a savage assault on Gaza city, which left 255 people dead and over 700 injured. Almost half of those killed were women and children. Israeli military officials confirmed that more than 100 tons of bombs were dropped on Gaza within a span of few hours. The attacks were the most brutal the people of Gaza had witnessed in many years. Yet the military operation codenamed Operation Cast Lead was not a spontaneous response to the termination of the true between Hamas and Israel, rather it was part of a well crafted military and diplomatic scheme intended to accomplish specific objectives.

Ever since, Hamas toppled the Palestinian Authority (PA) in June 2007, the Israelis perturbed by militant nature of the organisation have been planning to secure Israel’s borders with Gaza though a series of initiatives. The wide ranging measures consisted of mobilising the international community to accept Hamas as a terrorist organisation, isolating Hamas internationally and regionally, instituting a complete economic blockade of Gaza, instigating a popular uprising against Hamas’s political leadership and collating intelligence related to Hamas’s security and military infrastructure. The later has led to a full-scale military operation intended to destroy Hamas’s security apparatus and its military capacity to strike back.

Despite the overwhelming superiority of the Israeli army in relation to the poorly equipped Hamas fighters, senior military and political figures were reluctant to wage another war without thorough planning. Essentially the cautious approach adopted by the civilian government was intended to avoid a repeat of the spectacular failings of the Israeli army during the Lebanon war of 2006. Hence the Israel used the six month truce with Hamas to gather invaluable intelligence before conducting the latest military operation. The Jewish paper Haaretz in an article entitled ‘Disinformation, secrecy and lies: How the Gaza offensive came about’ confirmed the cautious approach. It stated : ‘Defence Minister Ehud Barak instructed the Israel Defence Forces to prepare for the operation over six months ago, even as Israel was beginning to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with Hamas. Barak maintained that although the lull would allow Hamas to prepare for a showdown with Israel, the Israeli army needed time to prepare, as well. Barak gave orders to carry out a comprehensive intelligence-gathering drive which sought to map out Hamas’ security infrastructure, along with that of other militant organizations operating in the Strip. This intelligence-gathering effort brought back information about permanent bases, weapon silos, training camps, the homes of senior officials and coordinates for other facilities.’

The manipulation of the truce to amass intelligence and prepare for armed combat demonstrates Israel’s unwillingness to accept Hamas as a viable entity in the peace process. In this regard Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, “Hamas cannot continue to control Gaza…In the long term, Israel cannot tolerate an extreme Islamic state on its southern border.”

The plan to attack Hamas came into effect on November 19 2008 when dozens of Qassam rockets and mortar rounds exploded on Israeli soil. Thereafter, Israel began a diplomatic offensive with a number of countries to explain its intentions. On December 15 2008 Defence Minister Ehud Barak told visiting Austrian President Heinz Fischer that "I am not afraid of launching an offensive in Gaza, but I’m not running to Gaza.” Likewise Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visited Cairo and told Hosni Mubarak about Israel’s plans to attack Gaza. (The fact that Livni was invited to Cairo as opposed to Olmert or Barak indicates that she is the preferred US choice to lead Israel). Furthermore, comments from some world leaders as well as regional leaders not only support the Israeli offensive on Gaza but hold Hamas responsible for the current situation. “Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people. The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza,”said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said,” I call on Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately. These attacks are designed to cause random destruction and to undermine the prospects of peace talks led by (Palestinian) president (Mahmud) Abbas.” Mahmud Abbas and Egypt also blamed Hamas. Speaking from Cairo Abbas said, “We talked to them (Hamas) and we told them ‘please, we ask you, do not end the truce. Let the truce continue and not stop’ so that we could have avoided what happened.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said, “The wounded are barred from crossing" into in Cairo, blaming "those who control Gaza. We are waiting for the wounded to cross.” In fact the only people who were caught off guard by the attacks were Hamas and bore the brunt of the initial assault. It is expected that Israel will expand the operation into a ground offensive and actively seek out and destroy Hamas’s security and military infrastructure.

But beyond destroying Hamas’s ability to rule Gaza and launch rocket attacks against Israel, what is Israel trying to achieve. Israel is well aware that the incoming Obama administration is serious about implementing a comprehensive solution to Israel’s disputes with Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. The composition of Obama’s foreign policy team (advisors and officials) together with Jimmy Carter’s recent visit to the region points to a much more active US engagement than the outgoing Bush administration had managed to achieve in the past 8 years. Additionally, the Obama administration unlike the Bush administration is not too close to the Israeli lobby. This realisation has spread quickly amongst Israeli politicians. Therefore the expansion of settlements in West Bank and the latest military offensive in Gaza is designed to give Israel the upper hand over the Palestinians before the onset of peace talks sometime after January 2009. America has consented to this and expects Israel to agree to a ceasefire as soon as it feels it has achieved its security objectives in Gaza.

Regarding the Palestinian position, both Israel and America want the Abbas to lead the negotiations. However, Abbas’s presidential term expires on January 9 2009. Although his own Fatah party makes a case that the term could legitimately be extended by another year, Hamas is opposed to it. By inflicting huge damage on Hamas, the US through Egyptian mediation is expecting Hamas to agree to some type of power sharing formula with Fatah that retains Abbas as the president. Snap elections maybe called to achieve this outcome.

On the issue of who will lead Israel in polls scheduled for February 2009, the US favours Livni. Livni’s strong stance against Hamas as a prelude to the latest military conflict has boosted her appeal amongst Israeli voters. On December 26 2008 a poll published in the Maariv daily showed Livni’s moderate Kadima Party neck and neck with its hawkish Likud rival ahead of general elections. A Teleseker survey showed Kadima winning 30 of parliament’s 120 seats, to Likud’s 29 seats. The poll surveyed more than 800 people and had a margin of error of 2 seats. Previous polls in recent weeks had given Likud a strong lead.

However, the challenges facing the US in kicking starting the peace process and arriving at some resolution are significant. Both Hamas and Fatah are discredited amongst the Palestinian populace and the even if both parties are able to form a unity government there is a strong likelihood that people will resist its dealings with Israel. On the Jewish front, Israeli intransigence to derail American peace initiatives is notorious. Unless, the Obama administration shows determination to force Israel into a peace deal then very little will be accomplished by America.

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