JERUSALEM, January 11, 2009 As of this writing, the IDF (Israel's Defense Force) in Gaza is waiting on political approval to advance to the third stage of Israel's military battle against Hamas.
The first stage, which began on Saturday, December 27, 2008, involved an IAF (Israel Air Force) offensive. The second stage, occurring January 3, 2009, concerned the deployment of Israeli ground forces into Gaza.
The third stage would engage Hamas in urban guerilla warfare in densely populated areas of Gaza City. Collateral damage to Gaza citizens is expected to increase as Israel attempts to root out Hamas.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts towards a truce are developing slowly, with Egypt at the center of the current international struggle to achieve a durable and lasting cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Israel wants to stop illegal smuggling through underground tunnels. The Israeli government hopes to reduce the trafficking of rockets that has been contributing to Hamas' lethal arsenal used to terrorize the daily lives of almost one million people living in the south of the country.
In the past, the U.S. has trained and equipped Egyptian security officials to stop illegal tunnel construction under the Egyptian-Gaza border. Last year, the U.S. Congress put pressure on Egypt to comply with an American request to stop this kind of terrorist activity. Congressional officials specified that some of the annual aid to Egypt would be spent on buying equipment to better help Egyptian forces control the situation. Even then, the Egyptians were unsuccessful or unwilling to stop Hamas from bringing weapons, missiles, explosives, and terrorists into Gaza through the tunnels.
After gaining advances in the current Operation Cast Lead military campaign against Hamas, Israeli leaders do not want to go back to the status quo in which Hamas and other Gaza terrorist groups smuggled Iranian medium-range missile parts through the tunnels in order to create more advanced rockets and use them against residents of Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva. Leaders in Jerusalem are also concerned that Hamas military commanders will be able to get out of Gaza though newly constructed tunnels in order to receive training and money from Iran, returning to Gaza to prepare for another round of fighting with Israel in the future.
These are reasons why Israel wants to change the current security situation in the south.
The Philadelphia Corridor
During the unilateral withdraw from Gaza in 2005, under the direction of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel withdrew its presence from the Philadelphia Corridor, a porous stretch of land between Egypt and Gaza that is about 8 miles long. The IDF removed its troops, despite strong disagreements between Sharon and his army generals. Sharon left the monitoring of that corridor in the hands of the Egyptian government. Not willing to assert control, the Egyptians let the corridor become an area that terrorist groups have exploited since the Gaza withdrawal. Now, without a constant IDF presence there, Israel has no guarantee that terrorist groups will stop their activities, even if an international monitoring force is deployed.
Oded Eran, Director of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, told a group of journalists in Jerusalem, recently, that Israel's military campaign in Gaza exposed some of Egypt's problems. "When you look at the quantities amassed by Hamas in Gaza, it is unbelievable." Referring to the type of missiles Hamas' military wing has in its possession, Eran said the homemade ones are not as important as the Grad missiles, which have reached into Israel's southern cities and towns within a 40 km. range. This has exposed almost 1 million people to rocket fire and threatened population centers close to Tel Aviv. Eran explained how these rockets come into Hamas' possession. "They get to the Egyptian coast, and then travel all the way up to Gaza, smuggled through the Philadelphia access....Either the Egyptians don't know about it, or they allow it. The Egyptians will have to agree to some sort of arrangement which will put an end to the supply of this military equipment."
Complications in Relationships -- Egypt, Hamas, Fatah, and Israel
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has seen a popular surge of Islamic extremism in Egypt threatening his government's power through the political gains of the Moslem Brotherhood, the organization from which Hamas gets its roots. Therefore, Mubarak would like a total separation between Gaza and Egypt to keep the threat of Islamic fundamentalism from further igniting the flames of extremism in his country.
But, it's a delicate balance because Egypt is the main exit for Hamas and other Palestinians through the Rafah border crossing. Gaza's citizens, as well as, some Arab leaders have protested angrily at Mubarak's refusal to open the crossing, even to allow doctors to help treat wounded patients in overcrowded Gaza hospitals. While he did allow a few Gazans through the crossing to receive medical treatment in Egypt, Mubarak has said he will not open the crossing permanently until there are European and Palestinian monitors stationed there. He is adhering to an international agreement that was in place in 2005, before Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and booted out Palestinian Fatah leaders.
To complicate matters, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, along with Hamas, is now unwilling to consider monitors at the crossing until there is reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. But, reconciliation efforts present a problem for Israel. The Jewish State wants to see Hamas weakened, not strengthened by a political arrangement that unifies both Palestinian groups. Israel would prefer that Fatah impose law and order on the Gaza Strip, taking governmental control out of the hands of Hamas.
Furthermore, current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would rather engage diplomatically with Fatah, realizing Palestinian nationalistic goals towards a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli officials don't want to see a permanent Islamic state in Gaza headed up by Hamas, a terrorist entity that doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist; will not stop violence against Israel; and will not comply with previous peace agreements.
All these factors are contributing to a lengthy diplomatic process set to achieve a durable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Monitors in Egypt or Multinational Forces in Gaza?
Referring to the lack of effectiveness in the truce between Israel and Hizb'allah after the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Eran said, "This time, the Israelis will be more careful about the arrangement on the ground." Olmert's government is insisting that the Egyptians either agree to a technical international monitoring group that will watch closely for illegal tunnel development under the Egyptian-Gaza border, or a multinational force deployed on the border. Either way, Egypt has to agree to effectively stop the supply of military equipment to Hamas.
For years, Egypt has argued with Israel that the way to stop the illegal tunnels, or any terrorist infiltration in the south, is for Egypt to deploy 700 more troops in the Sinai. In the meantime, using U.S. military aid, Egypt has built up its weapons arsenal. It has trained and expanded its ground, air, and naval forces, involving its troops in extensive war games.
Israel, threatened by Egypt's military advances despite the "cold" peace between the two nations, does not want to comply with Egypt's request for a troop build-up. Changing the terms of the original peace agreement could mean opening up the treaty to re-negotiations, something Israel refuses to consider. But, it could be that Egypt's demand for more troops along the border, continually refused by Israel for security reasons, has resulted in Egypt's lack of effectiveness or willingness to stop Hamas' smuggling efforts.
The only way to stop Hamas, in Eran's opinion, is to seal the Egyptian side of the Philadelphia Corridor. "If the Egyptians decide this is what they are going to do, there is no way you will see the massive supply that we have seen." If Egypt is not willing to do something to stop Hamas from smuggling in weapons, Eran thinks Israel should step up its military campaign in Gaza.
Attempting to End the Conflict
UN resolution 1860, recently passed by the UN Security Council, binds Israel and Hamas to an immediate cease-fire. This has caused IDF troops to "tread water" waiting on the Olmert government to decide whether to increase pressure on Hamas militarily, or let a diplomatic agreement conclude the current military campaign.
There is pressure on Israel to re-open its border crossings into Gaza for more than humanitarian reasons. But, Israel sees this as a way of Hamas receiving legitimization as a state governing power. Israel does not want Hamas to gain any international recognition after it has been defeated by Israel's strong military might.
Arab Positions on the Gaza War
More obvious now than during the Second Lebanon war, moderate Arab states have showed initial support for Israel's military campaign. They have agreed, not only privately, but publicly, that Hamas' refusal to accept the renewal of an Egyptian-backed cease-fire agreement with Israel is what caused the Jewish state to launch a military offensive against Hamas.
As the Gaza war has continued, however, pressure on these governments caused by citizens rioting on their streets, has entrenched Arab leaders into a more negative position towards Israel. Misunderstandings about why Gazans have been losing their lives in the cross-fire, has caused these same Arab states to publicly take issue with Israel over the continued military campaign. UN humanitarian aid workers have contributed to the anti-Israel rhetoric, as well as to the confusion over just how much water, food, fuel, medicine, and medical help has reached Gazans wounded on the battlefield.
Israel has not yet figured out a mechanism to stop Hamas from launching its rockets against the Israeli people, while at the same time, limiting civilian casualties and suffering in Gaza. It has yet to satisfy the demands of the international community, with Arabs and Europeans now claiming that Israel's military officials should be brought to trial for war crimes. Being coaxed by UN workers who are sympathetic to Hamas, these same leaders are now considering an international law suit against the IDF for intentionally targeting women and children; a claim Israel has vigorously denied. This false claim is a weapon in the hand of Arab and European states, which have put pressure on the Olmert government to comply with an immediate cease-fire supported by the recent UN resolution. It's a cynical attempt to get Israel to go along with their terms for a truce, while trying to weaken Israel's resolve in its victory over Hamas.
Hamas meanwhile welcomes anything that highlights the so-called Israeli military re-occupation of Gaza, and of the human suffering there, because it publicly manipulates emotions in the Arab and European world. This, however, encourages the Islamic extremist position, which is already gaining strength through Shiite influence over Sunni Moslems within moderate Arab countries. Therefore, Arab leaders will only go so far in showing public sympathy for the plight of Gaza's Palestinian population, because they fear the Shiite expansion of power in the Middle East, encouraged by Iran and its terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hizb'allah. For its part, Iran will seek to continue encouraging street riots, threatening the stability of Arab regimes, while antagonizing European governments.
Israel's Achievements in the War
So far, Israel has not reached its goal of stopping terrorist attacks against its population. But, the IDF has caused a severe blow to Hamas' political wing, while still trying to break Hamas' military stronghold over Gaza. Many Hamas political leaders have fled Gaza, but overall direction was and still is coming from Hamas terrorist leader, Khaled Mashaal in Syria. What Israel hopes to achieve is a blow against Hamas in such a way that it sends a signal to Syria and Iran that their terrorist proxy in Gaza can be defeated. This would be a victory for Israel in re-gaining its deterrence capability lost in military failures during the Second Lebanon War. It would also be a victory against this kind of militant Islam that Iran is exploiting in the Middle East.
Israel's weakness because of its vulnerable skies, in that it currently has no way of completely stopping rockets from reaching its populations in the north and south of the country, continues to be a problem for the Jewish State. Every rocket that falls on its population shoots a hole in the IDF's deterrence capability, severely limiting Israel's ability to defend its citizens. What Israel needs now is time to finish the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system; a project set to be completed by 2010 or 2011. This system would prevent a good portion of missiles from reaching cities and towns on Israel's northern and southern borders.
If Israel can achieve a cease-fire agreement, until the Iron Dome is deployed, this would be a successful diplomatic accomplishment. Therefore, while Israel may yield to political pressure to accept a truce with Hamas now, Israeli leaders may see this as a way of biding time until Israeli military experts can provide a more secure environment for Israel's citizens and a more decisive victory over Israel's enemies.
C. Hart is a Jerusalem-based news analyst covering political, diplomatic, and military issues in Israel and the Middle East.