Tempted by Opportunity, Israel Gambles on Force

Times Staff Writer

What began as a pair of hasty military incursions aimed at getting back captured Israeli soldiers has evolved with breathtaking swiftness into a full-blown campaign by Israel against two of its bitterest enemies, the Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

Surprised twice by small-scale border raids less than three weeks apart, Israeli leaders have made a deliberate policy decision to seize the opportunity -- some call it a pretext -- to mount simultaneous large-scale offensives. The goal of each operation is to smash a guerrilla organization that is also deeply entrenched in the business of governance.

In both instances, Israeli and outside analysts say, Israel has embarked on a risky strategy that has two major elements: the use of overwhelming military force to reduce the opponent's power coupled with strikes that hurt the wider civilian economies and populations of the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. The aim of the second part of the strategy is to put pressure on more moderate elements of the Palestinian and Lebanese governments to strip Hamas and Hezbollah of some of their influence and prestige.

In Gaza, the fighting had gone on for roughly a week before it became clear that the goal of the military operation had widened well beyond the efforts to stop Hamas from lobbing crude Kassam rockets into southern Israel and to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a captured 19-year-old tank gunner.

Soon after the offensive began, commentator Roni Shaked wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that Israel had a "golden opportunity." Whether or not the operation succeeded in freeing Shalit, "by crushing the Hamas regime, Israel can accomplish a much greater strategic step, which could have a profound effect on the entire region," he wrote.

Within days, Israeli policymakers were speaking openly of their hopes to use the confrontation to drive Hamas from power.

Israeli leaders were far faster to see the tantalizing glitter of such opportunity in Lebanon.

Hamas has been in power in the Palestinian territories only since March. Hezbollah has dominated southern Lebanon for years, and the Israeli army has long worked on plans for striking it if the right moment presented itself.

Only hours after Hezbollah fighters Wednesday staged a cross-border raid in which they killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two, Israeli leaders began to talk of dealing the militant movement a devastating blow from which it could recover neither politically nor militarily.

From across the Israeli political spectrum, such declarations are now being made on a daily basis.

"We must eliminate, destroy and crush all of Hezbollah's infrastructure," lawmaker Eli Yishai of the religious Shas party said Sunday.

"We intend to break this organization," Defense Minister Amir Peretz of the left-leaning Labor Party told journalists.

But the policy carries several risks.

Israel is uneasily aware that Hamas and Hezbollah now find themselves on common ground -- squarely in Israel's gun sights. That may strengthen ties between the two groups, who, despite common opposition to Israel, have previously been rivals.

The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has spoken of trading all three Israeli captives -- the two that Hezbollah claims to hold and the one held by Hamas-linked militants -- for an unspecified number of prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel has rejected that demand.

In Gaza, masked militants vowed Sunday to aim more rockets at Israel "to show solidarity" with Hezbollah, which they called "the twin of our resistance."

A second major risk involves civilian casualties.

In Lebanon and in Gaza, the Israeli military incursion has dramatically heightened daily hardship, and civilians are keenly aware that they bear the consequences when Islamist fighters choose to aim a blow at powerful Israel.

"When they fire a rocket from my orange grove, I want to ask them, 'Why don't you just aim it at me instead?' " said Bassam Daoud, a farmer in northern Gaza, referring to the Hamas fighters. "I will pay the price for what they do." Daoud's agricultural lands were laid waste earlier this month by Israeli troops seeking to stop Hamas from launching Kassam rockets.

But whatever resentment is directed at the guerrillas pales in comparison with the helpless fury that Gazans and Lebanese feel when confronted by the fierce firepower Israel has brought to bear in their backyards.

"We have to be realistic about what kind of result we are likely to get when we presume to 'engineer' the population's attitudes, trying to make them run to their leaders and cry out for change," said Uri Dromi, an analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute and a former Israeli government spokesman.

"Face it -- we've had a really notable lack of success with that kind of thing in the past."

Israel's attacks in Lebanon and Gaza have backed elected leaders in both places into a corner: Whatever their true feelings about the militants' actions, they risk being seen as dupes of Israel if they speak out against Hezbollah or Hamas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas saw his Fatah movement lose the legislative election to Hamas in January and has watched running gun battles between Fatah and Hamas militants. He would like nothing better than to see Hamas dislodged from its ruling perch.

But he has been forced to issue one statement after another in support of Hamas after Israel rounded up dozens of the group's officials, bombed its government ministries and threatened to assassinate its leaders.

In Lebanon, where Hezbollah is part of a weak and divided government, Nasrallah made the point clear to the Lebanese people in a fiery speech last week: Either follow him into battle or be seen as bowing down to Israel.

Lebanese may relish neither choice, but the glue of solidarity against an old enemy and the sense of national suffering at Israel's hands may strengthen Hezbollah, at least in the short term, many analysts say.

In Israel, even some who have devoted their professional lives to fighting one or the other of the Islamist movements acknowledge a third risk: that Israel may overreach. The nation's leaders should coolly assess their expectations of what might be achieved by measures such as killing the leaders of Hamas or Hezbollah, these analysts say.

Uri Saguy, a former chief of Israeli army intelligence, says his country should set realistic goals for itself with the offensives in both Gaza and Lebanon.

For example, he said, Israel may be able to push Hezbollah back from Lebanon's borders but not disarm the group altogether, nor loosen its grip on political power in Lebanon.

Saguy helped plan Israel's successful assassination of Nasrallah's predecessor, something he has indirectly acknowledged. But he says he does not believe that killing Nasrallah would solve Israel's Hezbollah problem.

"Nasrallah certainly earned our wish to see him dead, but Hezbollah is a complex issue that won't go away by killing its secretary-general," he told Israel Radio.

Shaul Mishal, a Tel Aviv University professor who studies militant Islamic movements, also questioned the benefit Israel would derive from taking its drive against Hezbollah to the bitter end.

"Let's say we crush Hezbollah, and Nasrallah's body is floating in the water," he said. "Are we really sure things will be better, or will Hezbollah simply split into a million pieces, like mercury?"

It might be better, said Mishal, to take advantage of the fact that Hezbollah is a cohesive structure with a clearly defined leadership, which can make commitments and carry them out.

By contrast, Hamas' lines of authority are far more muddled, with no one leader speaking for the movement.

Others believe that with the violence crescendoing, the coming days could leave both sides feeling they have made their point -- if only by having inflicted painful blows on the other.

"Both sides opened with their surprises, recovered and retaliated," said Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, a former Israeli air force commander.

"The end always takes longer than the beginning," he said. "But once stabilization generates a feeling of satiation and exhaustion, perhaps international involvement will begin, and after this, diplomatic contacts."



On two fronts

Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah continued to exchange attacks for a fifth day Sunday. Israeli airstrikes and clashes with Palestinians left at least six dead in the Gaza Strip. Recent developments:


Haifa is hit by rockets a few hours after sunrise, killing eight in a train facility and wounding at least 38. Transportation is halted and events canceled in much of northern Israel as rockets hit coastal towns including Acre and Nahariya. Tel Aviv announces a heightened rocket alert.


Israeli planes bomb the southern, heavily Shiite Muslim suburbs of Beirut. At least nine people are killed during an attack on a civil defense building in Tyre. A United Nations team is trapped in Marwaheen most of the day by an air assault. American security teams arrive to plan the evacuation of U.S. citizens.

Gaza Strip

Tanks and troops push into northern Gaza. Airstrikes and clashes kill at least six Palestinians.

Sources: Times reporting, the Associated Press, Reuters, ESRI, GlobeXplorer (2001)

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