Wed, Dec 31, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Israel’s Gaza exit strategy remains mysterious

Even as Israel’s first salvoes hit the Gaza Strip on Saturday, questions were being asked about what the campaign intended to achieve

By Ian Black  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Unlike the confused and improvised Israeli response as the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon unfolded in 2006, Operation Cast Lead appears to have been carefully prepared over a long period.

Israeli media reports, by usually well-informed correspondents and analysts, alluded on Sunday to six months of intelligence-gathering to pinpoint Hamas targets including bases, weapon silos, training camps and the homes of senior officials. The Cabinet spent five hours discussing the plan in detail on Dec. 19 and left the timing up to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Preparations involved disinformation and deception that kept Israel’s media in the dark. According to Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, that also lulled Hamas into a sense of false security and allowed the initial aerial onslaught to achieve tactical surprise — and kill many of its victims.

Friday’s decision to allow food, fuel and humanitarian supplies into besieged Gaza — ostensibly a gesture in the face of international pressure to relieve the ongoing blockade — was part of this. So was Thursday’s visit to Cairo by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to brief Egyptian officials. The final decision was reportedly made on Friday morning.

Barak said the timing of the operation was dictated by Israel’s patience simply “having running out” in the face of renewed rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel when the shaky six-month ceasefire expired recently.

“Any other sovereign nation would do the same,” is the official Israeli refrain.

Amid the storm of international criticism of Israel’s hugely disproportionate response, it is easy to overlook the domestic pressure faced by the Israeli government over its handling of “Hamastan.”

Homemade rockets and mortars rarely kill but they do terrify and have undermined Israel’s deterrent power as well as keeping 250,000 residents of the south of the country in permanent danger.

But the context now is February’s Israeli elections. The contest that matters is between Livni’s centrist Kadima party and the rightwing Likud under Binyamin Netanyahu, who talks only of “economic peace” with the Palestinians and does not want an independent Palestinian state, as Livni does.

Opinion polls show that it pays to talk tough: Livni’s standing has improved in recent days.

The US political timetable may be as significant. The three weeks before Barack Obama’s inauguration were Israel’s last chance to assume automatic diplomatic support from Washington, as it got from US President George W. Bush over both West Bank settlements and the Lebanon war.

It is hard to imagine an Israeli government testing Obama, whom it views with foreboding because of a sense he has more sympathy for the Palestinians, with a crisis of these dimensions during his first days or weeks in office.

Livni and other Israeli officials have spoken openly of wishing to topple Hamas since the Islamist movement took over from the western-backed, Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in June last year. But this may be something less ambitious.

“The realistic objective of any military operation is not the ousting of Hamas, but rather ... undermining its military effectiveness and weakening its rule,” is the view of Yediot Aharonot analyst Alex Fishman.

Ron Ben-Yishai, another military expert, called it an attempt to “change the rules of the game.”

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