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Hard Questions, Tough Answers -- Gaza War Edition -- with Yossi Alpher

On Israel ground operations, its lengths, chances for "success", and efforts to end the fighting

Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst, co-founder and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian internet dialogue and Middle East roundtable He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior official with the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.


Q. Israel's launching of a ground operation in Gaza Saturday appears to reflect the support of only around a quarter of Israelis (according to an Haaretz poll on Friday). Why did the Olmert government opt for a ground campaign?

A. The government is caught up in the logic of its own war aim, modest and generalized as it is, "to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of southern Israel over the long term". Had Operation Cast Lead stopped on Saturday and been confined strictly to air attacks--by Saturday the Israel Air Force was in any case running out of quality targets--it was questionable whether that objective would have been achieved. Hamas would have declared victory and continued firing rockets into Israel, despite the immense damage Israel has wreaked.

Meanwhile, the Israeli leadership perceived that it had a green light from the US and the EU to continue the operation for at least a few more days. The Bush administration and the Czech government (that holds the EU presidency from January 1) blamed Hamas for the fighting (the Czechs later reversed themselves). French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the outgoing EU president, who has advocated at least a temporary ceasefire, is arriving in the region today, Monday, and has postponed UN Security Council action (France chairs the council from January 1) until after that visit. Leaders of moderate Arab states have also signaled in one way or another that they welcome the damage Israel is doing to Hamas, even if their "street" (public opinion) is increasingly incensed.

Still, as of today the diplomatic clock is ticking on this operation, with Europe and Egypt taking the lead in view of the countdown in the US to the Obama inauguration.

Q. Isn't a ground assault against a guerilla/terrorist enemy hiding among 1.5 million Palestinians a huge gamble?

A. Despite Israel's relative freedom of action, a ground assault into Gaza does indeed represent a huge gamble, especially for Minister of Defense Barak. He could have argued for a unilateral ceasefire on Saturday, in the hope of preserving at least a portion of the credit for "teaching Hamas a lesson", at least through Israel's Feb. 10 elections.

One factor motivating the decision to proceed on the ground is the recognition that Israeli intelligence assessments of Hamas' capabilities appear thus far to have been exaggerated: instead of 200 rockets a day, Hamas and its allies have succeeded in launching only about 50, and four Israelis have been killed by them. Conceivably, Hamas' capabilities on the ground are also not as serious as originally assumed. Israel's initial ground penetration into northern Gaza and in two columns bisecting the Strip between Israel and the sea was accomplished with minimal casualties.

Another motivating factor is the impression that the IDF and the political decision-making echelon have indeed learned the lessons of Lebanon. Israel's civil defenses in the areas under rocket attack have improved immensely, thereby contributing to a low civilian casualty rate and strong public support for the overall war effort. Ground/air coordination and military/civil synchronization have also improved. Unlike in Lebanon, the IDF is attacking on the ground with a large force and closely coordinated armor, infantry and air support. Intelligence has pinpointed hundreds of Hamas targets. Reserves are being called up sparingly, and the IDF Spokesman's public diplomacy efforts are vastly improved.

Finally, an IDF presence on the ground in Gaza offers Israel a good bargaining chip with either Hamas or the international community.

Q. How far does the IDF plan to penetrate?

A. The ground offensive appears to be structured "modularly" so that it can be stopped or restructured at any time if it gets into trouble or international pressures increase. Judging by statements and hints from the leadership, it appears to be at least conceivable that, if Hamas defenses crumble and IDF losses are light, the operation will be extended to include eliminating Hamas in Gaza and at least briefly reoccupying the Strip.

At the time of writing, Israeli forces had not penetrated Gaza's dense urban areas where most Hamas fighters awaited them. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak told a Knesset committee that the operation had not yet achieved all its objectives. This means either an additional military phase of urban warfare that could prove very costly in human lives, or some sort of international intervention that serves Israel's goals.

Q. It's still not clear how Israel will "win" this war.

A. No, it isn't. Going back to the logic of Israel's war objective, Hamas has only to refuse Israel's ceasefire terms to deny it a decisive victory. On Sunday, Israeli intelligence reportedly detected signs that the Hamas leadership was faltering and that it recognized that ending the ceasefire was a strategic mistake. Mahmoud a-Zahar, perhaps the senior Hamas political leader in the Strip, broadcast what sounded like a desperate call to Hamas forces to "shatter the Zionist enemy".

In an extreme scenario, if Hamas collapses and Israel reoccupies all or part of the Gaza Strip, Israel still needs an effective exit strategy to avoid any one of a number of nasty scenarios: chaos and anarchy in Gaza on Israel's "watch"; exposing its soldiers to prolonged guerilla warfare waged against an unpopular occupation; and attempts by organizations even more extreme than Hamas to take over. To avoid these outcomes, Israel would need the close cooperation of Egypt, the West Bank-based PLO and the international community.

Q. Israel, Egypt, Turkey, the Arab League, the US, the EU and others have begun talking about introducing some sort of international force into Gaza as part of a strategy for ending the fighting. What is involved here?

A. An international force deployed along the philadelphi strip separating Gaza from Egyptian Sinai might succeed. If Israel, Egypt and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority all agreed on the terms of reference for a force whose task would be to prevent Hamas from rearming by smuggling arms in tunnels under philadelphi, and if Israeli armed forces clear out a kilometer-wide path along the border and all sides agree to prevent Hamas from approaching the Rafah crossing, the idea might work. It could conceivably also enable Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing along the lines agreed in 2005 when Israel withdrew: PLO officials and EU monitors on the Gaza side, Israeli monitoring from afar by CCTV, and close supervision regarding who crosses.

In concert with such a force and in consultation with Egypt, Israel is apparently also suggesting reopening the Israel-Gaza passages under EU and PLO supervision, as also provided for in the 2005 agreement. This might be acceptable to Hamas, which wants the passages open, but it would have to agree to remove its personnel from the passages and enter into renewed coordination with the PLO. In this sense, Hamas could torpedo these arrangements by refusing to back off from the passages. If, on the other hand, Hamas does agree to renewed coordination with the PLO, this could be a double-edged sword: Hamas could try to exploit a new unity government--which most Arab states, led by Egypt, are advocating--and eventually new Palestinian elections to take over the West Bank as well.

One way or another, Israel is not looking for a renewed bilateral ceasefire with Hamas, but rather multilateral arrangements that are somehow imposed on Hamas or that Hamas accepts willingly.

Finally, in an extreme and relatively unlikely scenario of Hamas' collapse and total Israeli reoccupation, Israel would presumably ask for an international condominium to be established to rule Gaza temporarily and return it eventually to PLO rule. But there would be few volunteers in the international community to replace Israel in fighting the remnants of Hamas and other militant Islamists in Gaza. Nor would the PLO easily be persuaded to take over the Strip in the face of widespread accusations in the Arab world that it was riding on Israel's coattails.

Q. In the middle of last week, there appeared to be a window of opportunity for Israel to cease its bombing campaign in favor of a trial ceasefire. Why did this fail?

A. There was a French initiative in this direction, which Minister of Defense Ehud Barak appeared to be ready to explore. His ministry even floated a "trial balloon" announcement to the effect that a brief unilateral ceasefire might be tried. But within the ruling Israeli trio of PM Ehud Olmert, Barak and FM Tzipi Livni, Barak apparently found himself in the minority, with Olmert even accusing him of going behind the prime minister's back. In any case, there was no positive response from Hamas. Livni was dispatched to Paris on New Year's Day to persuade President Nicolas Sarkozy and FM Bernard Kouchner to delay their initiative for another few days.

This is the only known instance thus far of serious disagreement among Israel's three most senior ministers regarding the course of the war. It was briefly reminiscent of the Second Lebanon War, when it was Livni who (wisely, in retrospect) argued for a ceasefire one week into the war and was brushed aside by Olmert. Still, political and personal tensions among the trio remain high.

Q. Why are there so few Israeli casualties and so many Palestinian civilian casualties?

A. Israelis don't have to apologize that only four people were killed thus far by Hamas rockets and one soldier inside the Strip. It would be a mistake to interpret the Qassam and more recently Grad rockets as just a nuisance, "pinpricks", that don't justify a strong Israeli response. More than 4,000 rockets over the past eight years have made life hell for tens of thousands of Israelis; no self-respecting government can be expected to tolerate these attacks. In the present case, a much-improved civil defense apparatus involving shelters and adequate early warning has done the job and saved civilian lives while wiser IDF tactics and excellent battlefield medicine have saved soldiers' lives.

The highest figure for Palestinian civilian casualties I have seen, from the United Nations, is close to 25 percent of total casualties. The lowest figure is the IDF's, only 12 percent. In either case, given the crowded demography of the Gaza Strip and Hamas' insistence on using civilian apartment houses and mosques for storing explosives and on firing at Israel from the midst of civilian concentrations, this is a remarkably low figure, reflecting a conscious IDF effort to target only combatants--to the unprecedented extent of phoning residents of targeted buildings to warn them to evacuate before bombing begins. Meanwhile, Israel is allowing large quantities of food, fuel and medical aid to enter the Strip while Hamas is playing up humanitarian hardship for all its worth. In one instance, according to Egypt, Hamas refused to transport its wounded for treatment in Egypt via the Rafah crossing.

These details, however, really don't interest most of the world, where graphic TV coverage of Palestinian suffering has sparked widespread anti-Israel protests. In any case, and despite the assurances of the IDF and the Israeli government, as in any wartime situation the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip in undeniably very bad. But apparently the suffering of Gazans is of little interest to Hamas, which knows what it has to do to end the conflict that it precipitated.

Q. Do Arab protests focus solely on Israel?

A. No. Egypt bears much of the brunt of protests by the Arab "street", Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Some of the attacks on the Mubarak regime are without precedent in recent years. Egypt, where the political opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, the "mother" of Hamas, is accused of favoring Israel in this war and keeping the Rafah crossing closed, thereby rendering it difficult for Gazans, including militant Islamists, to swarm into Sinai or for "volunteer" jihadis (Iran claims it has thousands of such volunteers) to enter Gaza. In parallel, Israel has received quiet encouragement from some moderate Sunni Arab sources, who would like to see Hamas and Iran humiliated.

Q. When all is said and done, should Israel regret pulling out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005?

A. Absolutely not. As with the Lebanon pullout of 2000 and the subsequent war in 2006, the Israeli withdrawal legitimized the current Gaza offensive in the eyes of most of the world, including the Arab world. Moreover, it has been much easier militarily to mount the current offensive in the absence of Israeli settlements in Gaza. Nor have the violent events that followed the Israeli pullout from Gaza nullified the demographic benefit for Israel as a Jewish state of eliminating direct Israeli control over 1.5 million Palestinians. Finally, had Israel responded militarily with one-tenth the force it is employing today immediately after the pullout, when the first Qassam rockets were fired, it might have shored up its damaged deterrent image sufficiently to have avoided the current war.

Q. What about Gilad Shalit?

A. To its credit, in launching this operation the Israeli security and political establishments did not allow concern for the welfare of a single captured soldier to influence their judgment. As for Shalit's return--in the unlikely event of a total or near total reoccupation, the IDF would obviously try to rescue Shalit, while Hamas might kill him. More likely, Israel will try to work a prisoner exchange on acceptable conditions into its conditions for negotiating a ceasefire. If neither of these contingencies takes place, we'll be back to square one with prisoner exchange negotiations.

Q. What does the war in Gaza tell us about the future of the Israel-Arab conflict?

A. This war, like the Second Lebanon War in 2006, is a conflict with a militant Islamist non-state actor, supported by Iran and operating out of a heavily-populated sovereign "black hole" from which Israel withdrew unilaterally. Wars like this one, along with a possible missile or air war with Iran, appear to be the face of future conflict for Israel. Israel hasn't fought a classic ground/air/sea war with an Arab state enemy since 1973; today, the Arab states are united in offering Israel full peace and normalization if it can only solve its remaining territorial conflicts with Syria and the Palestinians. Most of the Arab states also feel they face the same militant Islamist non-state enemies, along with Iran, as Israel.

The problem in fighting wars like the present one, which are not seen as "existential" conflicts, is in finding either diplomatic or military solutions. This explains why, after 10 days, Israel is now looking to the international community, including its neighbor Egypt, for a way out. This feature, too, will continue to characterize conflict in the years ahead. And it explains why "victory" in this war will probably be hard to define.