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I.D.F Defanging Hamas

IDF Chief Of Staff Ashkenazi: "We have dealt a severe blow to Hamas but there is still work to be done to accomplish our mission"

President Peres: "Israel is not seeking ceasefire, Israel is seeking cease terrorism"

In Cairo, Hamas considers Egyptian proposal for halt to fighting and arms smuggling

IDF forces during ground operation in the Gaza Strip

The IDF continues to close the ring around Hamas guerrillas on land, sea and in the air. However, Israel's political leadership is giving more time for an Egyptian initiative leading to a ceasefire that would prevent future arms smuggling to Hamas leading to another explosion after Hamas regroups. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has made a televised statement from inside his underground bunker, agreeing to cooperate with the Egyptians - but in distant Damascus, his Hamas colleague Haled Mashal is hanging tough. Israel is still on hold awaiting the outcome before deciding how to proceed in the current crisis.

On the 18th day of Israel's 'Cast Lead' operation into Gaza, there are signs that the Hamas terrorists are beginning to break. Under mounting IDF military pressure, Hamas rocket squads are finding it more and more difficult to launch their missiles at Israeli towns and villages across the border. As the IDF closes the circle around Hamas guerillas, driving them back into the city of Gaza and the refugee camps, the rate of rockets launched at Israel has dropped from 80 to about 20 per day. On the ground, thousands of IDF reserve troops have now been sent inside Gaza to link up with the regular infantry and paratroops units which have carried the brunt of the fighting. These ground forces are moving slowly but surely forward to prevent casualties to both the IDF and innocent Palestinians.

Israel's political leadership is awaiting the outcome of diplomatic moves still continuing in Cairo where Egypt now holds the key to the ceasefire

At IDF headquarters, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi gave a closed door briefing to members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Gen. Ashkenazi's snapshot of the situation was of a battered Hamas now on the ropes but still capable of fighting. Hamas was having trouble in producing and launching Qassam rockets, while IDF airstrikes on the underground tunnels from Egypt have restricted the smuggling of more weapons to Hamas. He disclosed that Hamas cynically exploits its own civilians by refusing to allow them to leave battle zones. He also noted that schools, public buildings and even mosques were being used as arsenals and firing positions. One mosque that was destroyed after Hamas guerillas used it to open fire also was used as a cache for anti-aircraft missiles. However, in order to avoid Palestinian casualties, the IDF delayed hitting the mosque until nightfall. The Chief of Staff heaped praise on the troops saying there were on their way to creating a new security reality for Israeli residents in the south. But, he added, there were still 'more work to be done'.

IDF forces during ground operation in the Gaza Strip

So much for the IDF military operation that keeps rooting the guerillas which has yet to enter Gaza city or the refugee camps in force. That is stage three of the campaign, if it is necessary. Israel's political leadership is awaiting the outcome of diplomatic moves still continuing in Cairo where Egypt now holds the key to the ceasefire. It is from Egyptian controlled Sinai that the massive arms supplies have been smuggled into Gaza enabling Hamas to rocket Israeli civilians for eight years. One Israeli intelligence officer has said some of the tunnels are so big you could almost drive a tank through. Israel is insisting there must be a reasonable mechanism in place to prevent any such arms smuggling in the future that would enable Hamas to regroup and again rocket Israel when it deemed fit. 

It appears as if the Israeli Hamas hostilities are now spilling over into the Sunni Arab - Shiite Iranian confrontation

Although Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has appeared on Palestinian television from inside his underground bunker to declare "Hamas is ready to cooperate with any efforts", it is still not clear if this will apply to the arms smuggling. In any case, Haled Mashal, the Hamas leader in Damascus who is safe from Israeli bombardment, is still opposed to the idea of a ceasefire with Israel. In Israel, Israeli leaders are waiting the outcome of the Cairo consultations before sending Gen. Amos Gilad back to Cairo to see if a deal can be struck. On this diplomatic track, President Mubarak is flying to Saudi Arabia apparently to muster more Arab pressure on Hamas to end the fighting.

President Shimon Peres (Photo: Amit Shabi)

It appears as if the Israeli Hamas hostilities are now spilling over into the Sunni Arab - Shiite Iranian confrontation. Again, this development comes against the angry public opinion on the Arab street that Arab leaderships must contain and which is often reflected in their public condemnations in Israel. President Shimon Peres has quipped: "In my private conversations with Arab leaders, I often hear things totally different than their public condemnations of Israel". Peres declared publically: "Israel is not seeking ceasefire, it is seeking cease terrorism".

Politicians both in the government and the opposition as well as ex-generals are contending that this is an historic opportunity to utterly defeat Hamas and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism

It appears that in spite of public protests in Europe and North-America, international leaders understand what's at stake and are working quietly for a solution that will endure. Its not only in Washington where outgoing President George Bush has said a ceasefire means two things - a halt to the Hamas rocketing and a stop to the arms smuggling into Gaza. The foreign ministers of France, Britain, Spain, Germany and Turkey are said to be playing constructive roles. Whether or not a viable ceasefire can be achieved before President Elect Barack Obama takes office in the January 20th is still open.

And so it appears there are several Israeli options at present: if Hamas continues to reject the diplomatic offers being made in Cairo, Israel has the forces in place to launch stage three into Gaza city and the refugee camps, something it prefers not to do. It might also launch an operation to take control of the Philadelfi Corridor that links Gaza to Sinai in order to stop the arms smuggling from Egypt, or it could also decide to call it a day after clobbering Hamas and declare victory. This last option however would be highly controversial in Israel. Politicians both in the government and the opposition as well as ex-generals are contending that this is an historic opportunity to utterly defeat Hamas and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Having come so far this position may carry the day- but the jury is still out.

David Essing

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