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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - December 29, 2008

Gaza War Issue: Alpher answers questions on the causes, impact, and repercussions

The views of Yossi Alpher, Israeli Security Expert, do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.

Q. What caused Israel to launch an attack on the Gaza Strip on Saturday?

A. A short-term ceasefire or "tahdia" between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, mediated half a year ago by Egypt, was declared by Hamas to have expired on Dec. 19. Hamas' declaration was based on its claim that Israel had not fulfilled its conditions for extending the ceasefire after six months: expanding it to the West Bank and opening all the Gaza commercial passages. Both Israel and Egypt insisted that no such conditions had ever been agreed. Even before the Dec. 19 deadline, Israel was launching limited operations to interdict Hamas fighters inside the Strip and Hamas was launching rockets at Israeli civilian targets.

Indeed, throughout the ceasefire Hamas rocket fire never fully ceased--some 215 rockets were launched from the Strip--just as it has continued over most of the past eight years (more than 4,000 rockets). Lest we forget, Hamas rockets deliberately target civilians, hence are tools of terrorism; Hamas refuses to recognize or negotiate with Israel, and Hamas took over the Gaza Strip from Fateh by force. Even after Israel withdrew unilaterally from all Gazan territory in 2005, the rocket and mortar attacks continued.

Q. What does Israel hope to accomplish with its offensive?

A. The official goal of operation "Cast Lead" (the name in Hebrew relates to a Hanukah song, in addition to its obvious military association) is to punish Hamas to a point where it agrees to renew the ceasefire on conditions acceptable to Israel. In applying lessons learned from the abortive Second Lebanon War (summer 2006), Defense Minister Ehud Barak has framed Israel's war objectives in minimalistic terms. The IDF does not even claim to be able to stop the rocket fire militarily.

Q. Suppose Hamas refuses to return to a ceasefire, despite its losses.

A. Barak is assuming that, by threatening an extended, open-ended operation and calling up reserves, he can signal Hamas that Israel is far better situated to prevail in the long term. Still, the longer this operation goes on, the more it is liable to escalate and generate complications.

Q. For example. . .

A. The most obvious danger is a move by Hezbollah to open a second front of rocket attacks on Israel's north. Terrorist attacks could be launched from the West Bank, while Israel's own Arab citizens have already begun demonstrating. There is also a danger of terrorism abroad, against Israeli and Jewish targets. Finally, Israel risks international condemnation and regional hostility.

Q. Why shouldn't we see this operation as a repeat of Israel's blundering war against Hezbollah in summer 2006?

A. Defense Minister Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi appear to be acting in a far more calculating and cautious manner than did their predecessors in 2006. The war aims are limited and the troops better trained. The civilian rear is better protected; emergency measures for supplying and maintaining normal life in the rear were invoked immediately (in 2006 they were never invoked). And the governmental decision-making process followed the far more methodical pattern laid out by the Winograd commission than that of 2006.

One characteristic of the war zone cannot be changed. Once again, as in 2006, Israel is fighting a militant Islamist non-state actor deployed in a kind of sovereign black hole where the usual rules of inter-state behavior do not pertain. True, that area, the Gaza Strip, is flanked this time by a friendly and cooperative (with Israel) Egypt rather than a hostile Syria that continued to supply rockets to Hezbollah throughout the fighting. But the usual strategic calculations clearly do not pertain to Gaza, either. Many things can go wrong. Most obviously, Hamas could simply refuse to return to a ceasefire, leaving Israel with an open-ended conflict.

Q. Is Israel employing disproportionate force?

A. I know of no way to counter terrorism with "proportionate" force. Should Israel fire rockets at Gazan civilians? Israel's use of massive force against aggression is legitimate under international law. It is more relevant to ask whether it will succeed.

Q. How do Israel's elections factor in?

A. Thus far, surprisingly little. By delaying the Israeli operation for weeks despite widespread criticism of his passivity and indecision, Barak ensured that he would not be accused of exploiting the security situation for political purposes. All parties on the Zionist left and right, from Meretz to HaBait HaYehudi, have lined up behind the government and agreed to postpone election campaigning.

If the Gaza operation proves successful by forcing Hamas to return to a ceasefire, or even if Hamas refuses but is seen to suffer heavy losses, Barak and his Labor party (which is lagging far behind Likud and Kadima) will benefit; even a poll held today would probably give Barak another few mandates. But if the operation drags on and degenerates into some sort of long-term attrition, Barak may lose. Here it bears recalling that heavy fighting at election time has historically benefited the Israeli political right, e.g., Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon in the spring of 1996 (when Netanyahu beat Peres) and the second intifada in early 2001 (when Sharon was elected).

Q. How will Israel deal with allegations by Hamas and the Arab world that Israel is inflicting a "massacre", holocaust, etc., along with attempts to condemn it in international bodies?

A. There are three key factors here. First, time: the longer the operation continues, the harder it will be for Israel to fend off international criticism. Here we should bear in mind that while Israel considers heavy Hamas losses to be an achievement that paves the way toward Hamas capitulation, Hamas tends to glory in its "martyrs" in keeping with a Palestinian tradition of victimhood. Second, the "Kafr Kana syndrome": in 1996 and again in 2006, Israel had to curtail military activities in Lebanon after large numbers of civilians were killed in Kafr Kana in southern Lebanon by errant Israeli artillery shells or bombing. If and when this happens in Gaza, it could end the operation. Finally, US support: as long as it is forthcoming in the Security Council and elsewhere, Israel can fend off international criticism that often emanates from countries, including in the Arab world, whose leaders quietly encourage Israel to finish the job.

Q. Can you expand on the Arab reaction thus far?

A. Notably, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the official Egyptian press and some media in the Gulf have, while harshly criticizing Israel, also taken Hamas to task for provoking Israel's aggression. "We have warned of this grave danger," Abbas said in Cairo on Sunday. "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."

But everywhere else, including among Israeli Arabs, media criticism is heavy and angry.

Q. "Finish the job" implies reoccupying the entire Gaza Strip and physically eliminating Hamas. Is that an option here?

A. Not as the operation is presently configured with its limited objective of restoring a ceasefire. Theoretically, the operation could somehow escalate in that direction. But very few people in Israel have the stomach for renewing occupation over 1.5 million Palestinians and for the scope of casualties this would entail.

Q. So operation "Cast Lead" really offers Israelis no long-term remedy for its problem with Hamas.

A. This is the crux of Israel's dilemma. This operation has the limited objective of restoring the ceasefire. If it succeeds, it might provide peace and quiet for a few months, while Hamas sets about rearming for another round. The operation's limited nature, while reflecting a sound and cautious approach, also inevitably reflects the fact that neither Israel nor its moderate Arab neighbors, Egypt and the PLO in the West Bank, has a workable strategy for actually dealing with Hamas in the long term.

One such strategy could indeed be to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and physically eliminate Hamas. But Israelis are not prepared to again manage the lives of 1.5 million Gazans, nor are they prepared to sustain the scope of losses this would entail. Neither Egypt nor the PLO (nor for that matter the international community) would likely volunteer to replace the IDF in Gaza as long as violence continued--which could be forever.

(Here is the place to note that there is no room in the Gaza Strip, physically or politically, to introduce an international force, whether now, after the fighting ends or, in a worst case, following Israeli reoccupation. For such a force to succeed requires a viable Arab state partner that doesn't exist in Gaza. Nor would any third party likely volunteer to be caught in the Israel-Hamas crossfire.)

Two alternative strategies that Israel could more easily experiment with are talking to Hamas and abandoning the economic boycott of the Strip. While few Hamas leaders seem prepared to talk to Israelis, there apparently are a few (the remarks of one appeared in this Q & A last week). Informal and unofficial talks would not compromise the position of Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO. If indeed Hamas is here to stay, then there may be merit even in discussing its long-term ceasefire ideas.

Israel could release its counter-productive economic chokehold on the Gaza Strip the moment the current military operation ends. This would reflect recognition that economic warfare has never altered Palestinian attitudes toward Israel, while the current blockade constitutes collective punishment with severe humanitarian consequences. Israel could declare that henceforth, if Hamas attacks Israelis, the IDF will punish the Hamas leadership, not the population-at-large.

Q. Will this Gaza conflict be President Obama's first crisis in office?

A. Probably not. The fighting in and around Gaza should wind down by January 20. But it won't produce any dramatic new "rules of the game", either, meaning that Obama will definitely have Gaza on his plate. On the other hand, it's interesting to speculate that Ehud Olmert commenced his term in office with a war in Lebanon and will end his term with a war in Gaza. Will the second one end as badly as the first? A lot depends on how he and Barak manage it.

Q. Finally, what do you suggest Israel should do at this point in the operation?

A. It should exploit this moment of strength to declare a unilateral ceasefire for 24 hours and ask Egypt or Qatar to mediate with Hamas to bring it to its senses and restore the status quo ante ceasefire. This might enable Hamas to end its part of the hostilities with dignity. Israel can hint that it will reconsider the economic boycott if Hamas maintains genuine quiet.