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Gaza At Crossroads

Israeli leaders consider cost effectiveness of expanding Gaza military operation or accepting ceasefire

IsraCast analysis: Egypt must get serious about blocking arms smuggling into Gaza if Israel can be expected to halt operation

Israeli officials: "Three rockets from South Lebanon are a Palestinian attempt to draw Lebanon into a war with Israel"

IDF soldiers supporting a wounded comrade

Rockets are being launched at Israeli civilians not only from the Gaza Strip but also from Lebanon. However, Israeli officials view the new Lebanese rocketing as a Palestinian attempt to draw Israel into war with Lebanon. IsraCast quotes one Israel source as saying "we have no intension of retaliating or being drawn into a second front, but let's hope Lebanon does not let it become a habit". Meanwhile, Israel has agreed to more three-hour ceasefires to allow Palestinians in Gaza to stock up on food supplies via Israel, while the Israeli leadership considers whether to expand the military operation in light of the continuous Hamas rocketing or to go for a ceasefire.

Israel is now at the crossroads in its 'cast lead' operation into the Gaza Strip to halt the Hamas rocketing and prevent a future repetition. The IDF has dealt the Iranian backed Hamas in Gaza a severe blow, but the rockets keep coming. In order to eliminate this rocketing, the IDF will have to expend its on the ground activities throughout the lengths and depths of the Gaza Strip, to root out the terrorists who are now hunkered down in fortified positions, exploiting the Palestinian population for cover. The death of another IDF soldier, an officer leading his men in an exchange of gunfire with the terrorists, is an indication of how high the cost may be. On the other hand, Hamas, now reeling, is reportedly ready to accept a ceasefire while rejecting a new reality that would prevent a continuation of its arms smuggling from Egyptian controlled Sinai. This would enable Hamas to claim victory. From the Israeli bandage point, a ceasefire would end the current rocketing of one-million civilians in the south but it must be accompanied by a serious Egyptian effort to stem the flow of rockets from Egypt into Gaza. Otherwise, it would pose a defeat for Israel, enabling Hamas to again rocket the Jewish state in the future.

Hamas Terrorists in the Gaza Strip

Before the last ceasefire, Hamas could rocket Israelis within a range of 20 KM. After exploiting the six-month lull, the Hamas rocket range has been doubled to 40 KM, including the city of Beer-Sheva. That is why operation 'cast lead' now hinges on the vital necessity of blocking the rocket flow from Egypt into Gaza. No one really expects any international inspectors to confront Hamas terrorists, only the Egyptians will do that. The Egyptian government, under one guise or another, failed to do this In the past, and in affect bears no little responsibility for the current explosion in Gaza. If Egypt had gotten serious about stopping the smuggling, Hamas would not have been able to rocket the Jewish state at will.

What are the prospects that Egypt might now clamp down on Hamas? Faced with the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalist Hamas on its borders, backed by Egypt's mortal enemy Iran, and with a Hamas link to the Muslim brothers inside Egypt that threatens to topple the Mubarak regime, Cairo now pledges to stop the arms smuggling. Israeli leaders are now waiting to see if President Mubarak means business. The Israeli leadership is now pondering what to do. So far, defense minister Ehud Barak has conducted a step-by-step carefully calibrated campaign, but there are now differences in the cabinet about what orders to now give the IDF.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

An article in the Ha'aretz daily said the defense minister prefers accepting a French-Egyptian ceasefire proposal, rather than expending the military operation, as proposed by several other cabinet ministers. Ha'aretz wrote: "Barak is not a big believer in toppling Hamas, he has learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan and is aware of how a simplistic policy of regime change can lead to strategic failures. Therefore, from the outset, Barak held that the goals of the operation must be limited, defined and achievable. In his view, the goals of 'cast lead' should be no more than improved lull for a lengthy period without interruptions and without arms smuggling. Barak feels that 18 months of quiet in the south would be an achievement and would grant Israel time to cope with far more complex strategic challenges than Hamas. This would also bring Israel closer to finding a technological answer to the rocketing. And even if Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is not brought to his knees, a successful conclusion of the campaign will restore Israel's deterrent image and enhance its regional status."

If this is a true description of the defense minister's position, somewhat dovish compared to the reported views of foreign minster Tzipi Livni and several other cabinet ministers, it also depends on Egypt. And if Barak's position prevails, aside from saving many Israeli and Palestinian lives, it could also lead to further cooperation with other Arab states which also feel threatened by Iran.

Infantry soldiers in ground operation in the Gaza Strip

More details are emerging about the UNWRA School in Jabalia that was hit by IDF fire. An IDF enquiry that was handed yesterday to the Knesset Foreign Affairs And Defense Committee has found that seven people were killed and 30 or 40 as was reported initially. A Hamas rocket team had in fact fired missiles from the schoolyard. The IDF returned fire hitting the Hamas members, setting off quantities of explosives planted in the school which the terrorists have booby trapped in the event of an IDF raid. UNWRA has denied that Hamas had operated out of the school. Unconfirmed reports now say that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and his colleagues have now gone into hiding in bunkers prepared under the 'Shifa' hospital in Gaza city.

One of the Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon sored a direct hit on a elderly peoples home in the town of Nahariya in Western Galilee. The building was severely damaged but miraculously the rocket which exploded near propane gas containers caused only light injuries to three of the residents aged 89, 94 and 104. Down south in Ashkelon, a Hamas rocket also demolished a school gym that was unoccupied at the time.

David Essing

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