In the wake of the Gaza conflict, six Western, Arab and Israeli leaders banded together to use the bloody Gaza conflict as a fulcrum for bringing down the Palestinian Islamist Hamas and aiming a blow at its sponsor, Iran.
The ad hoc Group of Six, formed by US president George W. Bush, German chancellor Angela Merkel, King Abdullah, Jordan's Abdullah II, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, also drafted a plan for the future.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources reveal its broad outlines. The details will be filled in as the plan unfolds.
The axiom approved by them all is that Gaza will not revert to the status quo ante.
The Philadelphi corridor, Hamas' main supply route through Egypt for hardware and the passage of fighters on the move, will be demilitarized and relegated to international military monitors.
Egyptian troops will enter the Gaza Strip to enforce the ceasefire and ascertain that Hamas does not rearm and regroup.
The IDF will remain in the Gaza Strip at the points held when fighting ends and a ceasefire goes into effect for as long as it takes to install these international mechanisms.
Can this program work?
The Palestinian Authority will take over Gaza's government in stages, starting with responsibility for the seven crossings – six on Gaza's border with Israel and one with Egypt. They can then be reopened and the embargo on Gaza lifted.
Before opening the passage to Egypt, Abu Mazen will take over its location, the town of Rafah which straddles the Gazan-Sinai border. The West Bank model of handing one town at a time to the Palestinian Authority will be repeated in Gaza. When his regime is secure and stable, Israeli forces will pull back to the international border.
After that, the Saudis and Egyptians will press ahead with their ambition for Abu Mazen's Fatah and Hamas to open power-sharing talks leading to a merger under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
At this stage, nothing is settled, except the basic premise, namely that so long as Hamas rejects an unconditional ceasefire – a kind phrase meaning capitulation on dictated terms – the IDF will continue fighting. It will take the battle into Gaza's cities and not yield before Hamas is crushed as a military force.
This is the big club the six powers hold over Hamas' head – unless the Arab rulers falter at some stage.
Hamas' leaders grasp that they cannot hope to survive an all-out Israeli assault. Israeli attackers will brave Hamas strongholds in the cramped urban conditions of Gaza's towns and refugee camps – even at the cost of heavy casualties.
If not curtailed, the Gaza operation will be a long haul
Unless Hamas buckles now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources do not believe that the hostilities will be over any time soon; they foresee weeks of fighting that will most probably overlap the onset of the Barack Obama presidency and run into months.
During that time, Israeli forces will set up permanent lines in the enclave and carry out sorties against Hamas forces and weapons caches, gradually grinding down its combat capabilities and reducing the rocket fire against Israeli cities.
Twelve days of Israeli bombardment left Hamas with only 40 percent of the arsenal it started out with on Dec. 27, when Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead. Most of the small foundries manufacturing the Qassam missiles have been smashed by aerial and commando strikes. Hamas was nearly cut off from its supply lines by the constant pounding of the Philadelphi smuggling tunnel region on the Egyptian border.
This offensive culminated Wednesday night, Jan. 7, in massive Israeli air strikes and tank fire to finally wipe out the tunnel system and capture the strategic border strip.
At that point, the six-power strategy swung into coordinated action.
Coordinated six-power action
In New York, the US defeated a second bid for UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate and mandatory ceasefire. This left the Egypt ceasefire initiative standing out as the only diplomatic game in town. French president Nicolas Sarkozy had tried and failed to graft his ideas on that initiative. Thursday night, a serious attempt was made to bridge the differences between the US-UK-French draft and the Arab text.
In Gaza, Israel suspended military operations for three hours Wednesday and two hours Thursday, opening a window for essential supplies to reach the one and-a-half million beleaguered inhabitants. The firing resumed thereafter.
A ceasefire now would give Hamas the chance to claim it had fought Israel to a standstill and robbed it of victory, a rerun of the unresolved ending of the 2006 Lebanon War with Hizballah. Prime minister Olmert barely survived that disaster and does not propose to live through another. Backed by most of Israel's defense cabinet and high command, he is determined not to let victory escape Israel against and is driving the army to go through to the last critical stage of the Gaza campaign.
Stage One was a week-long heavy aerial bombardment of Hamas' facilities from Dec. 27 to Jan. 3, 2009, when Stage Two began with an invasion of the Gaza Strip by tank, infantry, artillery and engineering units. Israeli troops secured the northern region – “Qassamland” from which most missiles were launched, bisected the enclave and halted on the northeastern outskirts of Gaza City on Jan. 5.
Hamas' rejection of a ceasefire signals the onset of Israel's final stage
Stage Three started Jan. 7 with a massive assault for the capture of the Philadelphi route, the barrier between the Gaza Strip and Egyptian Sinai, which most tacticians have always held Israeli forces should never have abandoned.
The last stage is programmed to last until Saturday, Jan. 10 at the earliest.
Israel has finally set itself the task of flushing Hamas out of its southern strongholds, seizing control of the smuggling tunnels and clearing the ground ready for an Egyptian or international force to take over.
It will leave the Palestinian terrorists marooned behind a tightening noose choking off their external logistical lifeline from Sinai to the south, the north, the east and the sea. The Israeli navy has imposed a 40-km blockade on Gaza's shores.
Hamas' rejection of the ceasefire terms articulated by the Six Powers and dictated by Egypt was delivered from Damascus Thursday night, Jan. 8. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report it will be the signal for Israeli forces to raise the heat of warfare and start entering the northern and eastern districts of Gaza City.
To shorten this last stage, the toughest of all, and bring key Hamas elements to their knees or surrender, the IDF will have to boost the five brigades fighting in the Gaza Strip with two or even three of the reservist brigades on standby.
From Wednesday, the US, Egypt and Israel were seen to be working in harness.
The first two are leading the diplomatic front. They expect Israeli forces on the battlefront to do well enough to give them the levers for success. All three will have to keep up a fast pace and reach their goals before Tehran catches its breath and decides to put a spoke in their wheels to rescue its Palestinian protege from its downfall.
This contingency is explored in a separate article.