First Knock out Terror Machine – Then Talk to Hamas

After a mother and toddler escaped miraculously with scratches from a Qassam explosion outside the door of their Kibbutz Zikkim home, and Sderot residents roundly abused visiting defense minister Ehud Barak, the Israeli Air Force was ordered into action Monday night and Tuesday morning, Dec. 17-18. Eleven senior Jihad Islami operatives were killed in Gaza City, including Majd al Harazin, head of Jihad Islami’s military arm in Gaza and Karim Dahlul, director of Qassam missile production.
The Israeli military spokesman maintained the Shin Bet had provided precise intelligence on three command levels of the Iran-funded and trained jihad group – the military chiefs, the Qassam missile squads and their manufacturing bosses.
On the West Bank, the Jihad Islami’s northern commander was shot dead in Kabatia outside Jenin. Later Tuesday, a Hamas command center was targeted in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younes. Two operatives were killed. During the day several rounds of heavy missile and mortar fire was directed against Israel locations. No one was hurt.
After the Hamas-Jihad Islami terror machine was allowed to build up to formidable proportions, even a large-scale Israel military operation in the Gaza Strip will not easily stifle the missile and mortar campaign grinding down the Israeli population. However, the longer it is delayed, the harder it will be.
In the course of 2007, Palestinians in Gaza fired 2,359 missiles and mortar shells into Israel, double the 2006 figure. The current estimate is that, barring a full-scale counter-terror offensive in Gaza involving the call-up of reserves, the 2008 figure will soar past 4,000, and may well include volleys from the West Bank as well as Gaza.
In this offensive, the IDF’s mission would entail liquidating the Hamas terrorist war infrastructure, clobbering the 12,000-strong armed Palestinians – many of whom may go to ground in the dense civilian population, demolishing their command centers, missile foundries and arms arsenals, and severing their smuggling routes from Egyptian Sinai to Gaza. This campaign would not be short or painless.
Israel’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi put his finger on a key question when he asked what happens the day after the war. In other words, to whom would the IDF hand the Gaza Strip?
He had no answers. Ashkenazi knows there is no point in handing Gaza back to Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which lost the territory to a Hamas coup in June. Abbas and his associates are good at begging aid, but hopeless at securing or otherwise governing territory.
NATO is strapped for troops to serve in Afghanistan and will have none to spare for Gaza. A Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian force has no precedent and would be an unknown quantity, assuming that the three governments agreed to form such a force.
Since the 15,000 UN peacekeeping force took over in south Lebanon after the 2006 war, not only Hizballah but the pro-Iranian-Syrian camp in Lebanon is laughing. They have prospered and gained strength, militarily and politically, under the protection of an international shield. This scenario would be replicated in the Gaza Strip.
It would be pointless to list the blunders committed in seven years by the governments headed by Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in handling the Palestinian and Hizballah terrorist challenges. What counts now is charting a way forward out of the current predicament for the IDF and policy-makers to pursue – first in Gaza, then in the West Bank, before the latter territory goes the way of the former.
By now, Hamas rule is too entrenched to overthrow without the IDF capturing the entire Gaza Strip. It is important to stress that the siege-cum-sanctions strategy imposed by Israel and other nations has been ineffective in unseating Hamas in Gaza in the same way as this strategy failed to cow Iran.
Returning to the Gaza Strip is generally seen as a non-option for Israel. On the premise that, after conquering the enclave, Israel will have no one to pass it to, the only course remaining is to engage the defeated Hamas stripped of its military might in talks on stiff terms for handing it back.
There was a brief moment when the former national security adviser Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland rightly urged the Olmert government to seize the chance of engaging Hamas in talks for informal truce arrangements, rather than going to war. That moment occurred after Hamas won the Palestinian general elections in early 2006 and sought legitimacy. Iran and Syria had not yet brought the radical group completely under their thumb.
But the prime minister missed that moment, hesitating to come down on the side either of military action or negotiation.
Today, Israel’s options have shrunk. Hamas and its partners are at peak strength and vitality. Saudi Arabia and up to a point Egypt have joined their protectors. Hamas’ offers of an informal truce are tricks to win a brief respite from the limited in-and-out sorties carried out by Israeli forces, especially those targeting their leaders.
Israel’s policy-makers refusal to commit the IDF to a serious operation leaves Hamas and Jihad Islami with the initiative for escalating violence at will, trusting they can vanquish the irresolute “Zionist entity” by persistence.
On the West Bank, conditions on the ground are shaping up into the Gaza model but are still containable as long as the Palestinian Authority is not expected to fight terror. The promise that one day, the Palestinian Authority will have this capability is no better than a pipe dream. So far, with all the generous aid poured out by the most powerful Western forces, Abbas and his Fatah control only a part of one West Bank town, Ramallah.
Keeping the lid on the West Bank continues to be solely up to Israel’s military and security forces, which have performed excellently until now in keeping terror at bay. The tactics employed by the Americans in Iraq would be useful both on the West Bank and eventually in Gaza after its pacification: Ignoring the Palestinian Authority, Israel should engage local powerhouses for long-term ceasefire arrangements – if necessary, by forking out large sums of money to purchase calm.
Subduing the enemy and negotiating long-term ceasefire accords from a position of strength appear to this analyst as the only feasible option left to Israel at this time. It is not ideal and the cost will be high, but seven years of Israeli government mistakes carry a price.

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