Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas Present From Hamas

As a Christmas present to Israel over 80 rockets were launched from Gaza by Hamas and Islamic Jihad within the last 24-hours. 57 Israelis went to the hospitals, most suffering from shock. The rockets landed from the Negev to Ashkelon, some falling in open fields, others punching holes in the rooftops of houses. One rocket landed in the playground of a kindergarten filled with 60 children.

Israeli spokespersons, from Ehud Barak, the Minister of Defense, to Tzip Livni, the Foreign Minister, have said Israel will respond militarily. Military sources have said publicly Israel will soon launch a short limited air and ground offensive.

The Arab press has reported that the Hamas leaders have gone underground as a precaution against Israel reintroducing the strategy of ‘surgical strikes,’ an aphorism for assassinations.

The Arab press has also been reporting Hamas statements that Israel isn’t doing anything to defend its own citizens. These taunts are seemingly meant to invite Israel to invade the Gaza strip.

Hamas went as far as calling on the residents of Sderot to demonstrate against the Israeli government for allowing the rockets to fall on their heads.

Pundits say that clearly if your enemy is encouraging you to do something, in this case, invade Gaze in an attempt to stop the rocket fire, that is the last thing you should do.

The Israeli government has so far been reticent to invade Gaza for a number of valid reasons.

1.) Once the IDF returns to Gaza Israel will be economically responsible for the 1.5 million Palestinians there. In a world wracked by recession Israel is slow to jump at the offer to provide or guarantee food, clothing, shelter and essential welfare to Gaza, where 46 percent of eligible work force is already unemployed.
2.) Returning to Gaza would be a public relations nightmare. Every news cameraman for 2,000 miles would descend on Gaza and film every belch and burp made by the Israeli army. The world’s critics would forget the ruthless and vicious rocket fire on the Israeli citizens and focus rather on the Israeli tanks, soldiers and helicopters trying to stop that rocket fire. Tanks make better TV than crying terrified Israeli babies.
3.) Israel’s enemies would use the reoccupation as a rallying cry for Jihad against Israel. Arab militants would increase the volume of their call for an endless struggle. This might force Hezbollah in the north to again bombard Israel from their Lebanese strongholds. Egypt has said it would allow a short limited invasion of Gaza, but according to press reports no one is sure once the fighting starts how long it will be before Israel can withdraw. Wars and battles are like that, the analysts say. Then there’s the threat of Islamic fundamentalism that has been simmering under the surface in both Egypt and Jordan. The Gaza action might be enough to bring that to a ferocious boil resulting in Islamic states on Israel’s borders.
4.) Some analysts say that Hamas sees this interim period between now and when the new Israeli Prime Minister is chosen in February, and when Barak Obama takes over as President of the USA on January 15, 2009, as a window opportunity for Hamas to wreck havoc on Israel. The two current leaders are essentially powerless to start or stop anything serious. Hamas’ taunting is meant to draw Israel into a fight. President elect Obama would be forced to take a mediating role. The Israeli public, who according to recent polls is not in favor of a massive invasion, already claim that Israeli PM Olmert doesn’t have the mandate to start a war since he is only a caretaker due to end his term in eight weeks.
5.) Some voices in the Israeli military have taken the harsh view that just because the new US President hasn’t taken power yet, this is indeed the right time to go into Gaza and settle scores. However, those voices are muted, and heard only as distant echoes.
6.) According to political analysts, the Politicians in Israel are now forced to make statements about the rocket fire, and do something if they can. The Israeli media reported today that the left-wing Meretz party has called on Israel to take action against the rocket fire. Observers say that Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defense, and leader of the Labor party, is running for his political life. Advertisements on busses and banners hanging from bridges on Israel’s expressways show Barak’s picture with the words, “You don’t have to like him. But he is a leader.” The clear reference is to Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, leader of the Likud. “Bibi” who is ahead of all opponents in the polls with an estimated 32 Knesset seats, but is widely disliked by Israelis. Barak must step through this political minefield very carefully lest he find himself stuck with no place to put his foot without blowing himself out of political life.

Both Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, leader of Kadima, have said that if elected they would topple Hamas. The election has taken on the tint of a war footing, once again. Given the options, the only General on the stage, who was also once Prime Minister, and Chief of Staff, is Ehud Barak. For him,the Hamas as the center of the election campaign, might be the only thing that gets him more than the expected 12 Knesset seats.

Whatever happens, observers say, the politicians have to do something.

At a recent Hannuka party Tamar, a 18-year old soldier serving in the Negev teaching young children who were evacuated from the Jewish settlements of Gush Katif in the Gaza strip several years ago, said that the situation is horrendous. An incoming missile resembles a bird in flight. So looking up in the sky every bird spotted sends shivers of fear down her spine, thinking the bird might be a rocket honing in on her. The now frequent nerve rattling sirens and the strident loudspeaker announcements warning of an incoming rocket attack are emotionally trying on Tamar and the students she teaches, some of whom grew up with these sirens and warnings before being relocated from the Gaza Strip Jewish settlement of Gush Katif.

Israelis are now wondering what the relocation of these settlers was for if the rockets haven’t stopped falling. Sderot residents on Israel radio’s Reshet Bet said this morning that they’ve been under attack for seven years, sometimes more, like now, sometimes less. But always under attack. The right-wing politicians point to the current barrage of rockets as proof that the government erred in giving in to the Hamas demands that Israel evacuate the Gaza settlements. Having given up the settlements, they say, nothing has been gained.

Tamar’s father has another take on the subject. “We should just start firing back at them from Israel, just as they fire at us from Gaza. Point the barrel of the canon up in the air and push the button. Let it fall wherever it does, kill whoever is there. Then maybe they’ll stop firing at Israel. Can you imagine a rocket, just one rocket, falling on New York or Los Angeles, or even Tucson, and the US not responding?”

But pragmatists point out that Israel is morally constrained from simply opening fire into Gaza, the most densely populated region on earth. Israel is also much to conscious of world opinion to take such action. However, in an article running in today’s Haaretz newspaper, one analyst claims that Hamas is firing rockets simply because they belief that Israel only understands force. In that case, perhaps Tamar’s father is right.

Then there’s that other problem with the invasion, either large or small, limited or massive, into Gaza: it is what Hamas has been calling for. Housewives and generals all wonder what traps and ambushes Hamas has in store for Israel’s soldiers.

And the kicker is, in the event of an invasion, and a battle that becomes a war, who would be in charge? The Prime Minister, of course. And who is the Prime Minister? Ehud Olmert, who managed to lose in Lebanon.

Whatever the outcome, the next few weeks will meet the curse of living in interesting times.