What’s Israel trying to accomplish in Gaza?

Today’s topic: What is Israel’s strategic objective in this operation? Is it merely trying to stop the rocketing, is it trying to eliminate Hamas or is it trying to do something else? And can it work? Previously, Bisharat and Phillips discussed the high Palestinian civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s ambiguity keeps Hamas off-balance
Point: James Phillips

Israel invaded the Gaza Strip to remedy an increasingly intolerable situation: the growing threat that Hamas’ rocket terrorism posed to Israeli civilians.


The Israeli government has remained tight-lipped about its precise strategic goals, in part to keep Hamas in the dark and off-balance. But Israel appears to be focusing in northern Gaza on eliminating Hamas rocket launchers to reduce the threat to Israeli border areas and in southern Gaza on destroying tunnel networks that have facilitated the Hamas military buildup. Jerusalem also seeks to loosen, if not shatter, Hamas’ grip on power. Although the crisis will undoubtedly strengthen Palestinian and Arab political support for Hamas in the short run, over time it could fuel resentment over its harsh rule and callous disregard for the interests of the Palestinian people, which Hamas put at risk by ending the cease-fire.

The vague nature of Israel’s stated military goals gives Israel the flexibility to pursue its most ambitious strategic goal: uprooting Hamas from Gaza. This possibility pressures Hamas to halt its rocket attacks and avert the possibility of a disastrous defeat in which its top leaders are killed or captured.

The studied vagueness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government also indicates that it seeks to avoid the mistake of announcing a goal that it might not be able to accomplish, as it did in 2006 when it proclaimed that it would destroy Hezbollah after the Lebanon-based terrorist group launched a cross-border attack and killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two. Although Israel inflicted major losses, it was unable to destroy Hezbollah as an organization, which fed perceptions that the latter had won a political victory.

Israel’s ambiguity about its military goals also may reflect a lack of consensus among its national security decision-makers: Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Olmert seeks to refurbish his legacy, tarnished by his failure to achieve his announced goal during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, while Barak and Livni are political rivals who will compete in Israel’s Feb. 10 elections. This troika may be weighing a final ground offensive to deal a crushing blow to Hamas and expel it from Gaza. This would raise the costs and potential risks of Israel’s intervention. But all share the determination to reduce the threat posed by Hamas and correct the flaws of the previous cease-fire.

Hamas had used the six-month cease-fire to build up its stocks of rockets and other arms, much of which were smuggled through a tunnel network beneath the Egypt-Gaza border. Hamas seeks to duplicate Hezbollah’s strategy during the 2006 war. It has built a network of underground bunkers and elaborate fortifications in Gaza and hopes to lure the Israeli army into a protracted and bloody campaign of urban warfare. Hamas seeks to outlast, not to outfight, the Israeli army by drawing it into an asymmetric war of attrition.

Hamas remains confident that it can withstand Israel’s superior military capabilities because it is willing to accept the deaths of more Palestinians than it believes Israel is willing to accept. Intoxicated by a fanatic ideology of hatred, Hamas seeks to exploit the Palestinian deaths it has caused through a media propaganda campaign that puts all blame on Israel.

The Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, has posed a growing security threat to Israeli civilians. More than 10,000 rocket and mortar shells have been fired from Gaza since 2001, and the indiscriminate bombardment has escalated since Hamas seized power in a violent coup in 2007. The increasing range and capabilities of Hamas rockets have steadily escalated the threat. Crude, homemade Kassam rockets with a 10-kilometer range have been supplemented by a growing number of Grad rockets with a range of 40 kilometers (about 24 miles). These longer-range weapons -- built with components supplied by Iran, Syria and black-market smugglers who move contraband through cross-border tunnels into Gaza -- have recently exploded in the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Beersheba. Israeli police authorities estimate that these missiles now threaten about 860,000 civilians, more than 12% of Israel’s population.

Israel’s minimal goals are to stop Hamas rocket attacks, destroy the tunnels that Hamas has used to build up its rocket arsenal, and obtain a cease-fire that reduces arms smuggling and prevents Hamas from posing a growing threat to Israeli civilians. But if Hamas continues to refuse to halt its rocket attacks, Israel may choose to expand its military goals to include the obliteration of Hamas power in Gaza.

James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Do Israel’s power elites even want peace?
Counterpoint: George E. Bisharat

James, I agree that Israeli leaders have not been forthright about their ultimate strategic objectives for the Gaza attack, and perhaps for some of the reasons you suggest.

Absolutely, those objectives go far beyond stopping rocket fire into southern Israel. Had that been the sole or primary objective, Israel would have commenced early negotiations with Hamas about renewing the six-month truce that had resulted in one or no (reports differ) Israeli deaths through early November. Yet on Nov. 4, with Americans focused on the presidential election, Israeli troops crossed into Gaza and killed several Hamas men. Israel, in short, broke the truce and triggered its subsequent collapse.

Why did Israel choose blood over diplomacy? Precisely because it could not have achieved its broader strategic aims through talks. Indeed, Israel may have feared that negotiating would enhance Hamas’ image as a responsible interlocutor and one capable of disciplining an effective cease-fire.

In this sense, the attack is very reminiscent of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. From 1980 to ’82, the Palestine Liberation Organization had observed a truce along Israel’s northern border. Israel then used the pretext of the shooting of an Israeli diplomat in London -- by the dissident Abu Nidal group that also murdered PLO officials -- to launch its Lebanon invasion. Now and 26 years ago, Israel attacked not because of violations of the peace, but precisely because of the peace itself.

The reason is simple: When conflict dies down and Palestinians present themselves as organized, responsible citizens of the international community, pressure on Israel to negotiate mounts. Peace would end Israel’s relentless seizures of Palestinian land in Jerusalem and the West Bank, while violence and indeterminacy sustain it.

There are also similarities between the current attack on Gaza and Israel’s rampage through the West Bank in 2002, when Israeli troops trashed the Palestinian Authority’s courts, prisons, police stations, its Ministry of Culture and carted off computers and hard-copy records from the land and motor vehicles registry. The targets in Gaza of Israel’s American-made combat aircraft again include courts, prisons, the Education and Justice ministries, a fruit market, a university, schools and a number of mosques.

Why has Israel consistently pulverized civilian Palestinian infrastructure? Because people who lack collective institutions and are reduced to scrabbling for their very survival are easier to dominate. And in the case of Gaza, Israel will say, “We withdrew from Gaza and all we got was Kassam rockets and anarchy on our borders. How can you expect us now to withdraw from Jerusalem and the West Bank?”

Viewed from this angle, then, the Gaza campaign looks suspiciously like part of a covert campaign to scuttle the U.S.-endorsed “road map” for peace and its call for an independent Palestinian state. Israeli leaders faced an unusual quandary when President Bush, perhaps the most pro-Israeli president ever, announced support for a Palestinian state in 2002. The Israeli political-security-military elites, with very few exceptions, have never been reconciled to the notion of a Palestinian state in the true sense of the word. The may accept a series of territorially disconnected entities (we might call them “Bantustans”) with some degree of local autonomy for Palestinians, perhaps, but a genuine sovereign state -- never. But they were compelled, out of courtesy to their staunch ally and protector, to pay it lip-service.

James, there may be another reason for Israeli leaders’ reticence about their Gaza objectives: Those objectives are illegal under international law. Had even Israel’s claim of self-defense over the rockets been justified, self-defense is a limited right and only authorizes such force as is necessary to redress the harm suffered by the state invoking it. The objectives you outline -- uprooting Hamas, destroying its infrastructure and so on -- are political, not military, objectives and exceed the scope of legitimate self-defense. Armed attacks not justified by self-defense constitute crimes against international peace.

Israel has lots of smart lawyers. One of the most distinguished of them, Theodor Meron, told Israeli leaders 41 years ago that civilian settlement in the Palestinian territories would violate the Geneva Convention. They ignored him and conjured up implausible legal opinions to justify their acts. Israel’s contemporary leaders must have been counseled that their Gaza campaign involves multiple war crimes and violations of international law. Like their predecessors, they are plowing ahead, spewing justifications as they go. But they don’t want to provide evidence in the form of public admissions of their intent, which will come back to haunt them in any future war-crimes tribunals.

George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.