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Israel Stuck Between a Rocket and a Hard Place

Jerusalem – The only thing separating Israel from an invasion of Gaza — a full-scale assault that its political leadership does not want to launch and its military commanders are reluctant to wage — is the notorious inaccuracy of the makeshift Qassam rocket.

“If a Qassam falls on a kindergarten, a school or even a family’s home in Sderot and people are killed — the army will be sent en masse into Gaza, no matter what,” one well-placed official admitted. And the fact that this hasn’t happened yet — given the fact that 400 rockets have been launched by Palestinian terrorists this year alone — can only be described as a miracle, the official added.

Israel’s top security heads — Defense Minister Ehud Barak, military Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself — are united in their opposition to a massive Israeli incursion into Gaza. They fear a high casualty rate, and they have no exit strategy. And, while they probably wouldn’t admit it, they are somewhat unsure of themselves and of the army under their command, following the scathing criticism leveled at the Israel Defense Forces by the Winograd Commission investigating the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Israel is also worried that a full-scale invasion of Gaza might precipitate a two-front war. Hezbollah, it is feared, could use the flare-up to launch its own attack against Israel from Lebanese territory, in “retribution” for the assassination last week of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyah, widely ascribed to Israel despite its denials. Although Hezbollah has threatened an “unprecedented” response, Israeli decision-makers are concerned that the organization will nonetheless resort to its usual tactic of raining down rockets on Israel’s northern towns.

Such a costly two-front war, many insiders believe, might exact far too many civilian casualties, depress public morale, upset Israel’s spectacular economic performance and, in the event of failure, seal the fate of Olmert’s beleaguered coalition.

Still, despite all the sound reasoning to the contrary, if a high-casualty Qassam attack takes place, Israel’s political and military leadership might find it hard to resist public pressure to take decisive action. As things stand, there have been no fatalities from Qassam attacks since May 2007, but every new volley of rockets leveled at Sderot and other southern towns, especially when local residents are injured, elicits heightened public outrage, biting criticism from within the government’s own ranks and, perhaps most damaging, the condemnation of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues to hold a commanding lead in public opinion polls.

In an effort to offset the criticism, the government this week undertook an embarrassing about-face in its previously firm opposition to fortifying homes and structures in and around Sderot against Qassam attacks. Only a year ago, the government vigorously opposed any intervention by the Supreme Court in the matter, insisting that “we will not fortify ourselves to death,” in Olmert’s words. This week, however, given its reluctance to commit the military to an invasion, the government backtracked, authorizing a preliminary budget of some $100 million to start buttressing about 3,500 buildings near Gaza. Another 7,000 houses that are theoretically within the Qassam’s range are to be fortified next year. Israel has also invested close to $300 million in developing the so-called Iron Dome anti-missile system, which is intended to shoot down incoming short-range rockets.

Moreover, the Israeli army, encouraged by Barak, has stepped up commando operations inside Gaza, bringing in elite units, such as the fabled Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance group — in which Barak himself once served — to join the battle for the first time. The army has also been given a free hand to carry out what it calls “targeted killings” of military leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups in Gaza. The Hamas political leadership, too, has been put on notice that it will no longer enjoy immunity from assassination if the rocket attacks continue.

Nonetheless, most experts believe that the only assured way to stop the rocket attacks is by direct control of their launching pads. With this in mind, the army has been preparing for an overall reconquest of the Gaza Strip, either in portions or in its entirety. Under Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, training has been boosted for both standing army and reserve units, in line with one of the main lessons drawn from the perceived military failure in the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Additionally, battle doctrines on old-fashioned ground warfare, once the pride of the Israeli military, have been refreshed.

Hamas, for its part, has been preparing for an invasion ever since it was elected to power in January 2006, with foreign experts from Hezbollah and Iran arriving in Gaza to train Hamas troops. The Hamas government apparently has succeeded in importing vast amounts of weapons and armaments through tunnels dug beneath the Egyptian border, as well as overland during the two-week open breach in the border between Gaza and Egypt last month.

The very thought of door-to-door combat in the densely-populated and by now largely booby-trapped corridors of Gaza towns and refugee camps is cause enough for sleepless nights for Israeli commanders. And even after Gaza is reconquered — as it surely will be, in the final analysis — there is no doubt that the longer the army stays there, the more it will become a target of attacks by Palestinian terrorists. And, inevitably, the more casualties mount, the more Israeli public opinion will press for an exit strategy and start to question why the government entered the Gaza morass in the first place.

At present, there are two main schools of thought for extricating the army from Gaza after a possible invasion, and both have serious shortcomings. Within the military, some are contemplating an eventual transfer of at least a part of Gaza’s security control to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which may be reluctant to assume the mantle lest it be perceived as collaborating with Israel. In any case, the authority has yet to prove itself capable of maintaining law and order even in the West Bank, never mind controlling unruly Gaza.

Another avenue gaining support is the stationing of an international force in Gaza following an Israeli troop withdrawal. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has explicitly raised the idea of Nato troops being stationed in the area, along the lines of a proposed international trusteeship first proposed by former American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk in an article published in Foreign Affairs in May 2003. But it is highly unlikely that any foreign government would agree to commit troops that might very well get caught in the ongoing crossfire between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli troops.

In the final analysis, given the pros and mainly cons, it is small wonder that many top officials would rather settle for a continuation of the status quo, bad as it may be, and the continuing slow attrition of Hamas in Gaza. “We have a wealth of bad options to choose from,” was one official’s downbeat assessment of the ongoing stalemate in Gaza.

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