May 16, 2007

Hands off Gaza

Don't Take the Gaza Bait

25 Iyar 5767, 13 May 07 01:20

by Zalmi Unsdorfer

Residents of S'derot have had little time to talk politics since the publication of Winograd's interim report on just the first five days of last summer's Lebanon War. Whilst the nation's attention has been on opinion polls, the anxious families of S'derot have had their eyes fixed on the skies above schools and playgrounds. Since the Winograd announcement, the rate of Kassam missiles fired into southern Israel has risen exponentially, and for a very good reason.

For months now, there have been calls within Israel for a new ground offensive into Gaza. The logic has been hard to fault. The success of Operation Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria endures until today in the IDF's effective control of terrorist enclaves and hot-spots. The argument is that if this can be repeated in Gaza, then militias will no longer have the freedom of movement to smuggle or manufacture missiles, or the open space within which to launch them against Israel with impunity.

The latest salvos of Kassams are clearly intended to sway the doubters and taunt the government of Israel into authorizing an immediate land incursion. I strongly feel this would be a very grave mistake.

After the experience of last summer, it is clear that a Gaza incursion will involve heavy casualties. Hizbullah's trial-run of booby traps and fake IDF uniforms may prove even more deadly in the close-quarter combat environment of the Gaza Casbah. The prospect of friendly-fire losses is particularly daunting.

While IDF commanders are not ones to walk a way from a fight, there are good reasons to consider other less dangerous options to achieve the same result. There is no question that Ariel Sharon's targeted assassinations had a dramatic effect on Palestinian terror groups. The liquidation of Ahmed Yassin and Abdulaziz Rantisi earned Israelis a prolonged period of calm, as terrorist leaders cowered in basements and even Mahmoud Abbas feared for his life.

With the improvement of targeting technology and so many new militia leaders to choose from, there is every reason to renew this campaign as a means of cutting off the heads of this terrorist hydra, rather than trying to bleed it to death by a thousand cuts.

Added to this strategy there could be economic sanctions, the European weapon of choice when it suits their own purposes. It is a truism that no insurgency can survive without support on the street. So long as the average Gazan does not have to pay a price for acts committed in his name, the missile attacks and attempted kidnappings will continue. However, if the Gaza trade crossings were shut shown for a week after every Kassam launch, it would not be long before things started to change.

From the very beginning, I said that the best way to secure the release of Gilad Shalit was to lock up the Erez Crossing and give his father the keys.

Beyond the dangers of casbah combat and the alternative option of targeted killings and economic pressure, there are other considerations to be taken into account. The most obvious is that an Israeli ground assault will – at a stroke - end all the internecine fighting between Palestinian factions, gangs and militias. Nothing will unite Hamas and Fatah more quickly than the sight of IDF tanks rolling into Gaza City. Why on earth should we put our soldiers lives at risk in an enterprise that will only leave our enemies more united and empowered? No matter how much damage we may wreak on the terror infrastructure, all of that can - and will - be rebuilt in a matter of months. But it may take years for our enemies to learn to hate each other again. You only have to look at Iraq to see how Sunnis and Shiites are destroying each other. An enemy divided is an enemy that cannot prevail against us.

Residents of S'derot may say that it is easy for a pundit sitting in London to pontificate on the benefits of restraint when they are on the sharp end of the Kassam campaign. And they would be entirely right. But there is one further function in this equation that is perhaps clearer to evaluate from Europe than it may be from southern Israel. It is perhaps the only positive thing to come out of the entire Disengagement process. It is the ability for Israel to point to Gaza and say to the world:

'Take a good look! This is Phase I of the Palestinian State. They have smashed the greenhouses to make bomb factories, dug up orange groves to plant missile launchers and filled school basements with missiles. They have set about a systematic ethnic cleansing of Christians in Bethlehem and kidnapped journalists. Gaza City has descended to a level of lawlessness not seen since Mogadishu under Somalian warlord Mohammad Farrah Aideed. More significant that anything else, they have used the gift of democracy - which George Bush is so keen to export to the Middle East - to elect a gang of terrorists to power.'

Disengaged Gaza has thus become our trophy argument against the European Union's calls to cede even more territory in Judea and Samaria.

The best way of throwing away this trump card is by launching a Gaza incursion right now. The world would say: 'It's all your fault. If only you had left them alone, they could have built a paradise of peace and goodwill to all men.'

All of which brings us back to Winograd and the question of why rocket attacks have increased so sharply in these last few days. The answer is painfully simple. It's Ehud Olmert. He is the only man Hamas can depend on to launch such a self-defeating campaign. Olmert is surrounded from all sides. Within his own party, Tzipi Livni seeks his job; amongst his coalition partners, Shimon Peres is tipped to lead Kadima with the backing of Yossi Beilin's Meretz party; and from the opposition benches, Binyamin Netanyahu senses his time has finally come.

A Gaza adventure would be a gift for Olmert. Not just as a means of diverting public attention from his political position and all the corruption scandals, but to prove that he really can be an effective war leader. However delusional, he has nothing to lose other than war casualties. As things stand, he is on the way out. After a failed campaign, he would also be out, but however doomed such an incursion would be politically, if it succeeded militarily, then Olmert might survive.

The leaders of Hamas and their Iranian handlers know perfectly well that neither Livni nor Peres are likely to launch hostilities in the south. Olmert has every reason to take the bait. He should not be allowed to make that decision.

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