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Jini, Eliyahu Ben Igal/AP
Explosions from Israeli fire are seen over the northern Gaza Strip Sunday, Jan. 4.

Israel Focuses on Goals in Gaza Ground War

January 05, 2009 10:29 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Israeli ground troops are in Gaza and world leaders worry about the escalating violence, but Israel intends to finish the mission for many reasons.

Israel Tries to Explain Objectives of Ground Campaign

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As the ground offensive in Gaza reaches its second full day on Monday, Israel is trying to make its case against mounting world criticism. Although many international leaders, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former British prime minister Tony Blair, are trying to devise a ceasefire, Israel contends that more work needs to be done.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says that while Hamas had “sustained a very heavy blow from us,” the Gaza offensive was not complete. “We have yet to achieve our objective,” he said, according to The New York Times.    

Israel’s primary goal is to prevent Hamas from launching missiles into southern Israel. As Barak says, Israel must “change the reality of security for the south.”

Some say that the Israeli ground offensive is also an effort to minimize civilian casualties by striking more surgically. It is still unclear if Israel intends to bring Hamas’ 18-month rule in Gaza to an end as well.

Israel thoroughly planned the current mission in Gaza in order to avoid the mistakes that characterized the war in Lebanon against Hezbollah from the summer of 2006. Israel emerged from Lebanon with a sullied image, and the mission was not entirely successful—a weak truce has allegedly allowed Hezbollah to rearm, The Economist reports.

Furthermore, in Gaza, Israel has been loath to leak information to the press and the public, unlike the case in Lebanon. But that should change on Tuesday, when a small group of journalists are expected to have access to Gaza.

Israel hopes the current Gaza campaign will stem the rocket attacks into southern Israel, and create an international monitoring force to keep Gaza militants in check. The force could consist of members of the EU, Turkey and the Arab League, as well as Palestinian Authority officials. Israel hopes the recent conflict will increase the PA’s world standing at the expense of Hamas, as Israel considers the PA to be more of a viable diplomatic partner for peace.

In addition, “Israeli officials say Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arabs hope openly that Hamas’s standing will be seriously diminished in the aftermath of the present fighting,” according to The Economist.

Some look at Israeli politics to understand the operation in Gaza. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is concluding a tenure in office marred by corruption and an unsuccessful war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the Chicago Tribune that Olmert "didn't want to go down as a complete and utter failure" and wanted to "rescue some of his legacy."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak are two other leaders directing the Gaza initiative. Barak and Livni are both battling hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu in the election for Olmert’s position, and analysts say they are trying to show they are not soft on Hamas. “They couldn't run an election campaign from late December to early February and just be restrained, letting Hamas end the truce and target the Israeli civilian population," Hazan said, according to the Tribune. "This would have handed the election to Netanyahu."

Background: Israeli ground forces march into Gaza

More than 500 people in Gaza have died after nine days of air strikes, and Israeli soldiers are now battling Hamas gunmen on the ground, Bloomberg reports. Accounts vary as to whether civilians account for 12 percent or 25 percent of the dead.

“The political wing of Hamas has absorbed a serious blow, but the military wing has not been hit as hard as we would like. The goal is to deal a serious blow to the terrorist infrastructure of the Hamas,” Bloomberg reported Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel as saying to reporters on Sunday.

Bloomberg also quoted Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, who told This Week, an ABC show: “If there is somebody who can stop terror with a different strategy, we shall accept it. We will not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire and we shall accept a cease-fire. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Despite a six-month truce, Israelis living near the Gaza border endured “almost daily cross-border rocket and mortar fire,” Israeli leaders told Reuters. That munitions fire intensified at the end of December after Hamas announced it was officially ending the truce.

Israel responded by firing into Gaza through airstrikes that destroyed the main security complex there. In the first 24 hours, the strikes had killed 280 Palestinians and injured 700, Reuters reported.

Militants in Gaza responded by firing dozens more rockets into Israel, killing one man in the town of Netivot and injuring four others. Hamas has continued firing Qassam rockets into Southern Israel since, at the rate of dozens per day.

The airstrikes caused outrage and demonstrations in cities throughout the Middle East, the Associated Press reported. Lawyers in Jordan marched on parliament to encourage the government to expel Israel’s ambassador. Other protests in Mosul, Iraq, and Lebanon turned violent. Protesters in Syria burned Israeli and American flags.

One protester in Jordan told AP that the United States and Israel are responsible for the Middle East’s problems.

“The Israelis kill our people in Gaza and the West Bank. The Americans kill our people in Iraq. We’re refugees, kicked out of our home in Tulkarem in 1967 and we’re still displaced,” said Yassin Abu Taha.

Leaders from the European Union, the United Nations, Russia, Egypt and other nations condemned the Israeli strikes while calling for Hamas stop the rocket attacks. U.S. President George W. Bush put the blame squarely on Hamas and demanded an end to its firing of rockets.

Historical Context: The blockade and truce

Israel began the blockade against Gaza and the West Bank in early 2006 with the support of the United States and the European Union, after Hamas won parliamentary elections, the Los Angeles Times writes. Israel lifted the West Bank blockade in June 2007 when the Palestinian Authority’s power-sharing agreement fell apart, and the secular Fatah group took charge of the area.

Israel then engaged in peace talks with Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, while augmenting the blockade against Gaza. The rocket attacks from Gaza continued, however, and the popularity of Hamas did not fade in the strip.

The Egyptian-mediated truce began on June 19 and both sides consented to observe a “mutual and simultaneous calm.” Israel also agreed to gradually ease the blockade, and the nation did permit “more food, fuel and humanitarian relief supplies into Gaza,” but Hamas said it wasn’t enough, according to the LA Times. The Israeli military claims that Gaza has launched more than 300 rockets and mortar shells into Israel since the Nov. 4 attack into Gaza because of the tunnels.

Israel has recently faced increasing international pressure to lift the Gaza blockade. Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally, expressed such sentiments recently. The European Union, United Nations and Russia have also pushed Israel to remove the blockade, according to Sky News.

Opinion & Analysis: Assessing the casualty reports; how to stop the violence

Regarding the estimates of the number of Palestinian civilians dead, Lorne Gunter, a  columnist writing in the Calgary Herald, doubted that Hamas is accurately reporting the number of casualties. He also questioned the notion of Israel as a “heartless oppressor,” noting that a dozen Palestinians seriously wounded in the recent fighting were taken to and treated at Tel Aviv hospitals.

“If Israel truly were a heartless oppressor, would its hospitals, doctors and medical staffs so willingly treat members of an ‘enemy’ community?” wrote Gunter. He later added, however, that Israel hasn’t been “entirely saintly” in the nine-day offensive.  

“The killing New Year’s Day of Hamas leader Nizar Rayan, along with his four wives and 11 of his children, seems a particularly brutal act, especially when Israel’s army has shown itself capable time and again of targeting only the terrorists it wants to kill and leaving nearby civilians unscathed,” Gunter wrote.

As the violence between the two sides continues to mount, Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations and the head Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative argued in Haaretz that, “the debate in Israel about continuing the cease-fire largely misses the point. Whether or not it’s extended, Israel’s overall approach toward Gaza is dangerously mistaken.” According to Levy, “Israel must do more than extend a cease-fire—Israel must allow Gaza to breathe, to reconnect to the world, to live on more than international handouts, and to reclaim its dignity.”

However, an entry in the national security and terrorism blog Little Green Footballs suggests that giving Hamas its space has not been beneficial: “Hamas is declaring the end of a nonexistent cease-fire, probably because they’ve managed to stockpile enough weapons and ammunition to feel brave again.”
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