Too Soon to Celebrate End of Gaza Conflict

Israeli leaders insist that Israel’s armed forces left Hamas seriously crippled – which is undeniable; but the second half of the proposition, especially when it is articulated by defense minister Ehud Barak, that Hamas had “lost its appetite to strike Israel targets for a very long time” – is over-optimistic, give seven considerations outlined here by debkafile‘s military and counter-terror analysts:
1. Hamas is in no state to reach a clear decision because its leadership is divided on this very issue.
The Gazan faction headed by prime minister Ismail Haniya tends to accept Egypt’s proposals for shelving armed warfare for now and trying to bury the hatchet with the Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas. A power-sharing deal would give Gaza a legitimate Palestinian address for the receipt of Arab reconstruction aid, especially the half billion dollars allocated by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
This line is opposed by Hamas’ Damascus faction led by Khaled Meshaal. Toeing the bellicose line taken by the Iranian-Syrian camp, he rejects a long-term armistice, Cairo’s steps to halt arms transfers to Hamas and all other conditions for reopening Gaza’s crossings.
Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, though seriously degraded by the fighting, strongly supports the Damascus line against Haniyah.
2. Both Jerusalem and Cairo own an interest in playing down Egypt’s active contribution to Israel’s military feat. Had Egypt not kept Gaza’s gate to Sinai through Rafah closed, thereby shutting off Hamas’ access to reinforcements and fresh weapons supplies, the Israeli operation would have lasted longer and casualties would have been higher.
Prime minister Ehud Olmert, foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Barak were hardly responsible for opening the diplomatic window which allowed the IDF to carry on fighting in the urban centers where Hamas had planted its military strongholds and stores. It was mostly Hosni Mubarak’s work.
Cairo not only held Hamas to siege but blocked the airwaves to its broadcasted messages for influencing Arab opinion and the world’s media.
3. Israel repaid Cairo by refraining from finally crushing Hamas and forcing its surrender. IDF commanders said they were short of no more than five hours for the knockout. But here, Egypt drew the line.
4. For the first time in its history, Israel bound itself to a major Arab power in a battle against an Arab force. This commitment has not ended. It obliges Israel to continue to respect the partnership for its next steps, especially when Egypt is the only party dealing with the Palestinian terrorist group on Israel’s behalf
5. Until last week, Egypt enjoyed solid Saudi backing for its policy of diminishing Hamas and putting a damper on the Iranian-Syrian drive for influence in the Arab world – even Cairo’s cooperation with Israel’s military operation was accepted in Riyadh.
But then came a royal about-face. When the Arab League summit opened in Kuwait on Jan. 19, Mubarak was dismayed to find the Saudi king pulling the rug from under his feet on both counts. Abdullah then demanded that the Egyptian president make the peace-making gesture of appearing publicly with his Syrian and Qatari colleagues, Iran’s Arab partners. Reluctant to offend the monarch, he agreed, but the next day walked out of the summit and flew home, signaling the Saudi king that his campaign against Iran, Syria and Hamas was far from over.
6. Abdullah’s wish to appease the Iran-led radical camp has also divided the Saudi leadership. Foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal, who espouses the Egyptian line, also removed himself from the Kuwait Arab summit, leaving the other Arab foreign ministers high and dry without an agreed final communique on the Gaza crisis. Al Faisal is supported by another senior Saudi prince, the national security adviser Bandar bin Sultan.
7. The divisions in the Arab world have encouraged Tehran to persist in rearming Hamas and the Hamas-Damascus faction to maintain its intransigent posture. They are certain that high military tension against Israel in the Gaza Strip and the diplomatic pressure on Egypt will break them down.
This contest of strength crackles with inflammatory potential, exacerbated by two key dates: Israel’s general election on Feb. 10. Arab foes have traditionally sought to influence the outcome of Israel’s elections, which this time right-of-center Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu is practically sure of winning; and Feb. 12, the first anniversary of the violent death in Damascus of Hizballah’s military chief Imad Mughniyeh, which the Lebanese Shiite militia blaming Israel has sworn to avenge.
It is no wonder therefore that part of the Israeli reservist force called up for the Gaza operation is still under arms and a strong tank force surrounds Gaza’s borders against any contingency.
This simmering stew will greet the Obama administration’s new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, when he launches his mission this week with visits to key capitals. He will find Jerusalem and Cairo moving forward with their agendas for the Gaza Strip following a script put together during the hiatus in Washington between two presidencies.

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