Saturday, December 20, 2008

ANALYSIS / Has the Gaza ceasefire really breathed its last?

By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff


The way things looked yesterday afternoon, the cease-fire hadn't breathed its last. According to Hamas, the official expiration date falls today, December 19. But in fact, resuscitation efforts - by the Israelis, mostly - continue. Paradoxically, it's defense officials regularly accused of warmongering who are trying to prevent renewed fighting.

True, rockets have been hitting communities around Gaza in recent weeks, but senior security officials still feel the time is not yet ripe for a broad ground operation. This is the view not only of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's political bureau, but also of Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, who isn't pressing for action either.

There are myriad arguments against a war in Gaza, but the strongest is the one defense officials can't utter aloud because it has to do with the politicians above them. It would be hard to go into Gaza at the height of an election campaign. When one considers how political battles are already affecting decision making and public statements, it's not difficult to imagine what it would be like to try to run a war in the period leading up to the vote.

So for the time being we can expect turbulent times along the Gaza border, but in the slightly longer run, Israel (and more importantly, perhaps, Hamas) does not have an interest in an all-out confrontation. Even when the pronouncements sound more insistent than ever, it's worth recalling how many times in recent years Israel has found itself in a similar situation - and ultimately decided not to take action. It's quite possible that a major operation will eventually take place, but the decision to go ahead will only be made when there's a genuine sense that there is no other choice.

The Israel Defense Forces recently updated its operational plans for various potential escalation scenarios. It has also formulated different levels of response that fall short of an all-out war. But the chief of staff knows that there's no such thing as a half-war, and that even a limited entry into part of the territory (the logical targets would be the rocket-launching areas in northern Gaza and the smuggling zone in the south) could evolve into something bigger.

And while the military plan is relatively clear, there is still a gaping hole in the political sphere: Just what will Israel do after the IDF occupies the Gaza Strip? The ministers currently pushing for action are liable to find themselves in the position of former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had to admit that the Bush administration did not adequately prepare itself for what would happen after the occupation of Iraq. "Stuff happens," Rumsfeld explained with a shrug when confronted with images of the widespread mayhem in Baghdad.

Amos Gilad has made it clear in media interviews that we saw what happened when we went into Lebanon in 1982 to expel Fatah and ended up creating Hezbollah. We need to take into account that an occupation of the Gaza Strip would require us to feed 1.5 million people, endanger relations with Egypt and Jordan and potentially ignite a firestorm in the Muslim world.

It's hard to say that Israel made the most of the months of the cease-fire. The government approved the budget for upgrading the protection of communities near Gaza only two weeks ago, after six months of pleading from Barak and Ashkenazi. Introduction of the Iron Dome system for rocket interception is not likely to meet the ambitious timetable set by the defense establishment.

A rocket expert familiar with the program says that "Rafael [Advanced Defense Systems] is doing excellent work, but there are still some problems in integrating all the parts. One reason is that Barak did not a appoint someone as a 'czar' holding all the authority, as was done in the past with projects like the Arrow missile." The saga of the flawed handling of the Qassam interception program will soon receive a scathing assessment in a report by the state comptroller.

Early electioneering

The Israeli reporters invited to the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday evening asked him a raft of questions about the upcoming Israeli election. Abbas, with Israeli MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta'al) in attendance, was evasive. "It's an internal Israeli matter. We'll work with any government that is elected in Israel," he said.

When asked about continuing his tenure, he explained almost casually that there will be elections for the Palestinian presidency and parliament next year. Even though Hamas opposes early parliamentary elections, which are currently scheduled for January 2010, Abbas said that if the attempts to renew the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas are not fruitful, he will unilaterally declare early elections. "And what will happen if Hamas refuses to go along? How will you hold elections in Gaza?" he was asked. He didn't have an answer.

Although the likelihood of elections in the territories soon is low, the two organizations were going at it this week as if they were in the throes of a heated campaign. Last Saturday, Hamas held a rally in Gaza marking the 21st anniversary of its founding, and the crowd numbered around 200,000. It was a tremendous show of power, not only because of the event's magnitude (about every seventh Gazan took part), but also because of the exemplary order. A Gazan journalist says the money Hamas spent on the rally could have easily helped several thousand people survive the difficult siege conditions for another month.

Meanwhile, on Monday at the Muqata in Ramallah, there was a reception for the 227 prisoners Israel released as a gesture to Abbas. The crowd here was only in the hundreds, but they waved Fatah and Palestinian flags and cheered loud and long for Abbas when he began to speak. Ironically, while Abbas and Fatah are succeeding where Hamas has so far failed - prisoner releases and improving the economy - Fatah had trouble recruiting a big crowd for its event.

But Hamas has other problems to contend with. The consensus that once prevailed in the organization is cracking. At the beginning of the week, the rifts were hard to obscure, as Khaled Meshal, head of the political bureau in Damascus, announced that the truce was ending, while Hamas spokesmen in Gaza were saying that everything was still open. Within 24 hours, everybody in Damascus and Gaza was touting the new official line: The cease-fire is over, but Hamas will respond only if attacked by Israel.

Like the frog in the pot

The repulsive spectacle about Gilad Shalit staged by Hamas at its Gaza rally once again reflects the deep cultural chasm between the two sides. While the organization follows the Israeli media and many of its leaders are alumni of Israeli prisons, they still don't get us and we don't get them. The show in Gaza was a modern incarnation of an old Islamic practice of publicly scorning an enemy before going out to battle. It's also Hezbollah-type thinking, aimed at the soft underbelly - public consciousness. However, if the hope in Gaza was that such a spectacle would hurt Israeli morale, it mainly evoked disgust at Hamas' disdain for human life. At the same time, it's very possible that the numerous ways Israeli is putting pressure on the people in Gaza is only boosting support for Hamas.

The Shalit affair has become a pretext for political mudslinging, which isn't doing a thing to help secure his release. The organizations calling for his release have become a national movement, headed by a retired brigadier general and with the soldier's picture printed on T-shirts. It's hard to know if any of this is bringing results or only reinforcing Hamas' assessment that it can break Israel's fortitude.

The handling of the Shalit affair will certainly be pored over in the future. The foul-ups, particularly at the start, could well deserve the state comptroller's scrutiny. There were plenty of steps that Israel could have taken early on: declaring the Palestinian prisoners and Shalit prisoners of war, forbidding Red Cross visits to the prisoners, or abducting Hamas members from Gaza to serve as bargaining chips. Each of these ideas has its potential benefits and risks. But any move like this would also have necessitated negotiations that would last even more months, during which the risk of Shalit being harmed or disappearing would increase.

It's unlikely that Shalit will return home during the tenure of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under whom the abduction occurred. Ofer Dekel, the coordinator of the negotiations who has already considered resigning several times, will probably step down around the time Olmert leaves office. The exhausting negotiations before the prisoner swap with Hezbollah placed him in a harsh confrontation with the heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet security service.

The argument between Dekel and Shin Bet chief Diskin has not abated and is particularly charged. It is still going on for two basic reasons: The IDF messed up when it did not thwart the abduction and the Shin Bet messed up when it couldn't locate Shalit.

Throughout the time that has passed since, various operational plans for rescuing Shalit from Gaza have been considered. But they never went ahead because the intelligence wasn't precise enough and the army couldn't come up with a plan with a good chance of rescuing Shalit while getting the rescue force out of Gaza with minimal casualties. The IDF is presuming that Hamas has learned the lessons of the failed Nachshon Wachsman rescue operation, which ended with the soldier being killed by his captors when the Sayeret Matkal burst in to where he was being held. Arab media reports that Shalit is being held somewhere booby-trapped with explosives are being taken as credible.

There are plenty of logical explanations on why Shalit has still not been rescued, more than 900 days since he was abducted, just as there are plenty of excellent reasons not to re-occupy the Gaza Strip. But Israel's dilemma is reminiscent of the fable about the frog that's put into a pot of hot water where the temperature rises one degree at a time. The creature becomes accustomed to the steadily worsening situation without fully appreciating its implications.

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