Does Israel Have the Resolve to Vanquish Hamas?

by Jerry Gordon (Jan.2009)

At 11:04 AM on Saturday, December 27th the first of two waves of more than 110 Israeli fighter bombers and helicopters ranged over Gaza in response to Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli towns which had intensified on December 25th. In less than four minutes, the IAF dropped over 100 tons of bombs aimed at destroying more than 100 Hamas targets in what were the opening stanzas of Operation Cast Lead. The Jerusalem Post noted the precise results of this initial aerial assault was reminiscent of the opening moments of the Gulf War in 1991 and Iraqi Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003.

The planes reported “alpha hits,” IAF lingo for direct hits on the targets, which included Hamas bases, training camps, headquarters and offices.

Thirty minutes later, a second wave of 60 jets and helicopters struck at 60 targets, including underground Kassem launchers—placed inside bunkers and missile silos—that had been fitted with timers.

Subsequent sorties on Sunday hit more than 40 tunnels in the South of the Gaza strip used to smuggle weapons, munitions, rockets and commercial goods underneath the blockaded border with Egypt. Two hundred and five Palestinians were killed and several hundred wounded in this initial assault, mainly Hamas security leaders and cadres along with some civilian casualties according to unconfirmed news reports controlled by Hamas. These figures would rise in the succeeding days of continuing aerial operations in Gaza by the IAF. The Israel bombings had wreaked destruction on the Hamas infrastructure causing panic in the Gaza population of 1.4 million. The official office of Hamas political leader, Ismail Haniyeh was destroyed in a raid on the fourth day of this conflict. The main stream media drew attention to the evidence that this was by far the most violent clash in the Israeli Palestinian conflict in more than two decades.

The IAF, by the fourth day of operations, had allegedly killed over 380 and injured 1,400, mostly Hamas security cadre and some civilians, in its surgical air strikes. Hamas has a small, well trained, terrorist army of over 15,000 Jihadis, supplemented by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Resistance Committee militias with perhaps another 5,000 fighters. It is difficult to imagine that even a sustained air war could put a significant dent in the Hamas military force without resort to a selective ground offensive by Israel. Hamas operatives are allegedly champing at the prospect of intense urban warfare. The IDF operations in northern Gaza in March, 2008 , in the wake of Grad rocket attacks on Ashkelon, had indicated the extent of that grueling prospect, which led to plans for the intense air assault phase of Operation Cast Lead.

This conflict in Gaza, fomented by the extremist Hamas Jihadis, is going on in a space no bigger than 360 sq. Kms. with 1.4 million people packed in squalid UNWRA refugee camps and urbanized communities. 

The opening chorus of Operation Cast Lead was an aerial “shock and awe” reaction to the “crescendo” of more than 140 Kassem, Grad or Katyusha rockets and mortars fired on southern Israel and the Western Negev cities, towns and kibbutzim on Christmas Day.  Even the small Gazan Christian community weren’t spared Hamas’s wrath. Hamas hit them with mortar fire as they entered Israel at the Erez crossing to attend Christmas services in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Israel’s actions were taken within days of Hamas unilaterally ending the nearly six month cease fire or “Hudna” brokered by Egypt last June. The IDF had positioned armored units of paratroop and Golani brigades and issued a call up of more than 6,700 reservists for possible duty in the border zone adjoining Gaza.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack indicated in this Ha’aretz report how important this operation was:

The time has come to act. There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting. We didn’t intend to allow this reality in the south to continue.

We will strike a forceful blow to Hamas in order to change the situation from its foundation and to operate so there won’t be rocket fire or other activity from the Strip. I don’t want to delude anyone—this won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.

Nor did Barak leave out the possibility of ground operations in Gaza, despite the possible escalation in both Israeli and Palestinian casualties:

If the goals of the operation will not be achieved by airstrikes, we will have to consider boots on the ground.

The reaction of Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus and embattled Hamas spokesmen in Gaza were what you might expect:

Defiant Hamas leaders threatened revenge. Hamas “will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood,” vowed spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal called on West Bank residents to rise up against Israel in a renewed intifada.

Notwithstanding, the nearly six month ‘lull,’ Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas rocketeers had periodically launched Kassem and longer range Grad rockets against Israeli targets in Israel border areas adjoining Gaza. However, the end of the Hudna followed by the Christmas Day rocket and mortar attacks was what triggered Israel’s decision to go on the offensive.

More than 8,000 rockets had been fired on Israel over seven years since April, 2001, resulting in more deaths, hundreds of wounded, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens traumatized and millions of shekels in property damage. The iconic Israeli town of Sderot and surrounding kibbutzim in the Western Negev bore the brunt of this rain of terror from the skies. Last year Ashkelon, in Israel’s south, became the first major city hit by Grad rockets with a range of more than 40Kms. President-elect Barack Obama when he visited Sderot this past summer during his Presidential campaign had commented:

[He] does not think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens.

If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop them. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.

Obama has deferred to the outgoing Bush Administration and not commented on this current Israeli operation. White House Deputy Press spokesperson, Gordon Johnroe issued this statement over the weekend about the violence in Gaza:

Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop. Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people.

The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.

On the fourth day of the Israeli operations when British, French, Russian and UN Security Council raised increasing demands for an immediate cease fire, Johnroe issued this further statement from President Bush’s Crawford Ranch in Texas:

While the US would like to see an end to the Israeli
offensive in Gaza, Hamas would first have to stop firing rockets at Israel.

The US does not want to see a ceasefire “which isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” but rather a long-term, sustainable truce. He then went on to advise reporters to take the reports coming out of Gaza regarding the numbers of casualties with a grain of salt, adding that numbers aside, both sides know what has to be done to end the conflict. Hamas, he said should stop firing rockets, thereby eliminating Israel’s need to defend its citizens from rocket fire.

Financial Times in an
editorial following these weekend developments in Gaza expressed the view that “Bombing Gaza is not a solution” further suggesting that “Barack Obama should make Israel-Palestine a priority.” The editorial echoed statements from the EU, Russia and the UN when it noted:

The disproportionate scale of Israeli air strikes, in response to the pinprick provocations of the home-made rockets fired from Gaza at southern Israeli is less surprising. It fits the Israeli doctrine of overwhelming force, which on Saturday claimed the highest number of Palestinian lives in a single day since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War.

Clearly, the
Financial Times editorial writers forgot that Israel ended the 38 year ‘occupation’ of Gaza in 2005 and that Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority and Fatah in a coup in June 2007.

In an Israel Project news conference on Monday, December 29th, Mark Regev, International Media Advisor to outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who leaves office after a general election on February 10th, outlined the media strategy of the Israeli government in launching Operation Cast Lead,
“Creating a New Reality of Security in Israel’s South”.  

  • Hamas started the violence on Christmas with the crescendo of rocket, missile and mortar attacks on the South of Israel and Western Negev which left Israel no choice under International Law to defend itself and protect more than 250,000 of its citizens;
  • Hamas  “tore up” the understandings negotiated with Egypt violently ending the ‘hudna’ (period of calm) or cease fire;
  • The people of Gaza are not the enemy, but rather the extremist Hamas leadership seeking to replace the civil order with a Taliban like tyranny;
  • Israel security services briefings have indicated that Gazans do not understand the logic of Hamas leadership in fostering the violence;
  • The Arab world is divided and the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis do not understand the objectives of Hamas perpetrating this eruption of violence. They are concerned that Hamas and Hezbollah have allied themselves as proxies of Iran; 
  • Providing open border crossings and delivery of food and other humanitarian aid demonstrates that Israel does not target Gaza civilians;
  • Hamas’s media strategy is to focus on ‘spin’ that the IDF operations in Gaza are killing 9 civilians for each Hamas security cadre killed. However, there is no way of independently verifying the information given Hamas media control;
  • Israel’s media strategy is to focus on Hamas’s abrogation of the ‘understandings’, that Israel is targeting extremist Hamas leadership and its military machine and creating a new reality of security for Israeli citizens in the South who will not have to live with the daily fear of loss of life;
  • The IDF attacks have demonstrated the ability to effectively target, degrade and weaken the Hamas command and control structure, military machine and security apparatus;
  • Iran’s ‘fingerprints’ are all over the longer range missiles, mortars and other weaponry; and,
  • Hamas has copied Hezbollah vis a vis the fortification of weapons and goods smuggling tunnels bestride the Gaza border with Egypt that were hit hard by the IAF.

Regev’s point about the division of Arab responses on the Gaza violence was amplified by Dan Diker, Foreign Affairs analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in a posting entitled “Friendless in Gaza”-Part II:

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit held a press conference in Cairo yesterday for the Arabic press in which he extended condolences to the Palestinians killed in the attacks but blamed Hamas for ignoring warnings that Israel would attack if rocket fire from Gaza didn’t cease. Aboul Gheit’s comments follow last Thursday’s report in al Quds al Arabi, in which Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman reportedly told Israeli officials that Egypt would not oppose a short operation to topple Hamas.

Suleiman accused “Meshal’s gang” – a reference to the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal – of behaving arrogantly toward Egypt, and added that there was no choice but “to educate the Hamas leadership – even in Damascus.”

Reuters today reported that PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas said that “Palestinians could have avoided the Gaza massacre.” Israel radio this morning also reported Saudi official criticism of Hamas as quoted in the UK based Al Sharq al Awsat. I had noted in my post of December 18 that Iran and Hamas are also scaring the Saudis.

Mohammad Abdallah Al Zulfa, member of the Saudi Shoura Council said on the Alhurra Arabic TV news program on December 17 that “Iran is the big threat in today’s world, supporting all the terrorists from Hamas to Hezbollah to some other terrorists that we don’t know their names yet” and “Iran destabilized the region by supporting all the illegal activities and activists such as Hamas.”

What’s clear to the Egyptians, the Palestinian Fatah leadership, the Saudis and the GCC states is that Israel’s current war to neutralize the Hamas threat also sets back Iran’s aggressive project to reshape the Arab Middle East in its image.

Against this roiling background, Israel began to roll out its media strategy. The IDF took the unusual step of posting videos of operations and commentary on
You Tube. Then Israeli reached out to the so-called “new media’, the bloggers.

I was one of several bloggers and radio talk show hosts, emblematic of the ‘new media’, invited to a conference call with Israeli diplomatic and military officials to be briefed on the IDF Gaza Operation Cast Lead. The conference call was sponsored by American Voices in Israel (AVI) of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (COPMAJO) headed by executive chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein.

We heard from and posed questions to Jeremy Issacharoff, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, and IAF Reserve Brigadier General Relik Shafir who was on the call from Ashkelon, Israel.

After these Israeli diplomatic and military officials and Mr. Hoenlein made their statements, we had an opportunity to ask questions. The blogger community these days is like a network of virtual villages organized by ‘issues’.  When it comes to Israel, the Middle East, the threat of Islamic Jihadism, the virtual internet ‘village’ in this area of interest is small and we know many of our colleagues in the blogosphere. Thus, there were familiar voices on this conference call asking Issacharoff and Shafir to be a bit more forthcoming, not an easy thing to do in a rapidly unfolding conflict that must maintain military censorship.

Ralph Levy, who preceded me, posed a useful question to Shafir. Levy once lived in a kibbutz hard by the Eastern Gaza border with Israel across from Beit Hanoun. Beit Hanoun is a major launching site for Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocketeers, who build and fire the Kassem rockets that have been falling on Western Negev communities like Sderot since April, 2001.  Ironically, the explosives for those Kassem rockets are made using Israeli produced fertilizer purchased on the market in Gaza.  Levy asked Shafir whether Israel could create a buffer zone inside Gaza and push back the range of the crude Kassem rockets?  The General answered, “No”, meaning no ‘boots on the ground’ was being contemplated at the time of the call.

Shafir said that the IAF can identify and shoot the rocketeers before they fire off their rockets.  We surmised that it must be the 24/7 coverage by Israeli UAVs and satellite imagery feed that enables targeting. Shafir noted that it will take some time to complete this mission.

Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs asked pointedly, “was the mission to take out Hamas?”  Issacharoff in response to Geller’s query said,” the mission was to cripple Hamas’s military capability.”   All done, mind you with pin-point accuracy while providing humanitarian aid to Gazan civilians, avoiding collateral damage and achieving another objective, protecting life, limb and property of Israeli citizens. That sounded more like a military Hobson’s choice constrained by diplomacy.

When my turn came to pose a question, I asked Shafir about the IAF success blasting the smuggling tunnels in the south of Gaza by the Egyptian border. He indicated that on the fourth day of operations IAF aircraft had hit another group of tunnels used to smuggle weapons and goods underneath the blockaded Egyptian Gaza frontier. I then asked him how the IAF intended to create ‘dead zones’ to prevent the rocketeers from carrying out their deadly missions?  He noted that the IAF wants to continue the surgical air assaults, scrupulously avoiding collateral damage where possible and hit the rocketeers before they can launch their deadly Kassems, or more serious and devastating Grad rockets. This on a day when several more Israelis were killed by longer range Grad (Katyusha) rockets capable of hitting cities and towns in the Negev and southern Israel. He noted earlier that Israel had sustained 39 hits from Kassem and Grad rockets on the day of the AVI call. A Grad rocket launched from Gaza hit Yavneh, less than 12 miles from Tel Aviv. The longer range Grad rocket threat put nearly 700,000 Israelis at risk. I recalled the debacle of the 2006 Lebanon War when Katyushas came crashing down on northern Israel and displaced more than 1 million Israelis into sweltering, fetid bunkers or to seaside holiday camps for the duration of the 34 day conflict with Hezbollah.

Once Israel uncorked the ‘shock and awe’ air war against Hamas in Gaza, Hamas resorted to the playbook of Hezbollah aided by its patrons Iran and Syria and flung the long range Grads at major cities in Southern Israel. Hamas had used the six month Egyptian brokered “Hudna” to smuggle more lethal rockets. We suspect that as in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah, prior to the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hamas was probably assisted by Iranian military engineers building underground fortified launching areas for the Grad rockets. The Hamas resistance is taking direct orders from political leader Khaled Maashal in Damascus. Ismail Haniyeh  and his local factions in Gaza are preaching to fighters and civilians from the safety of a reinforced bunker.

Alan Nathan of Radio America’s program ‘Battle Lines,’ was concerned about what Hezbollah might do. Shafir responded, “we learned our lessons from 2006.” Nathan ought to know, he was there in 2006. He knew firsthand how much of a debacle it was. Shafir said that if Israel was pushed to fight “we will fight.”  We learned during a radio panel discussion from Jonathan Schanzer of the Jewish Policy Center that senior IDF officers, with whom he had recently spoken, were just waiting for Hezbollah to make a wrong move to demonstrate what the Israeli military had learned from the prior unfinished episode. Shafir noted that Hezbollah Sheik Nasrallah was more pre-occupied in “pouring heat” on Egyptian strongman Mubarek for continuing the blockade of Gaza. Mubarek wanted Palestinian Authority President Abbas to take over the border with Egypt. Schanzer, author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine” made the comment that the possibility of bringing back PA Fatah control to Gaza and its Egyptian ally was tantamount to a failed ‘heart transplant’. Gazans ‘in the street’ would reject PA President Abbas and PM Fayyad as ‘American poodles.’

Back in August 2005, when Israel PM Sharon, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, the big complaint from proponents was that Israel had thousands of IDF troops providing security for upwards of 9,000 settlers ultimately evicted by the IDF.  All Israel got for its bravado and acquiescence to world opinion about ending the ‘occupation’ in Gaza was insecurity. When Hamas toppled Fatah in June 2007 that set the stage for the current imbroglio in Gaza.

After less than a week of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the Olmert government is evaluating possible ground operations. We now have the anxious Brits and French, badgering the Israelis to declare an immediate cease fire and offering to send NATO troops to man the border crossings to ensure that humanitarian aid and medicine get through. All this after Israel has demonstrated its generosity by transferring millions of shekels to Gaza and letting 89 trucks and ambulances from Turkey, pass through the southern Israel Keren Shalom Gaza crossing. Despite the air war, Israel continues to supply electricity from its main power station in Ashkelon, a target of Hamas Grad rockets, to keep the lights on in Gaza.

On the fifth day of operations, Olmert announced a rejection of a 48 hour truce in Gaza. Thus dismissing the EU, and especially French President Sarkozy’s suggestion for an immediate cease fire.  

Note Olmert’s and Security Chief Diskin’s remarks after a closed cabinet meeting as to why they rejected the cease fire proposal:

If conditions ripen to the point that we assess they promise a safer existence in southern Israel, we will consider it. We’re not there yet, Olmert said, according to a participant in the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

The chief of Israel’s internal security services, Yuval Diskin, told Cabinet ministers that Hamas’ ability to rule had been “badly impaired.” Weapons development facilities have been “completely wiped out,” and the network of smuggling tunnels has been badly damaged, a participant in the meeting quoted Diskin as saying.

Underlying the Israeli decision to keep fighting are the more powerful weapons that Hamas has smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels along the border with Egypt.

There is a term in slangy military Hebrew borrowed from the Russian: ‘balagan.’ It means ‘chaos’ or ‘screw up’. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza is being conducted by an incompetent politician, Ehud Olmert, who will be out of office in 41 days given the general election on February 10th. Will Operation Cast Lead become another ‘screw up’ akin to the disastrous Second Lebanon War? We certainly hope that is not the case and that IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and outgoing Defense Minister Barak have their playbook laid out to achieve the mission this time.

Ted Belman, editor of the blog
Israpundit, in the midst of this unfolding conflict, noted that Israel may have to fight two battles with terrorist armies, one in Gaza and the other with Hezbollah in Lebanon. He noted that if Israel succeeded on both fronts it would send a telling message to the Mullahs and President Ahmadinejad in Tehran and President Assad in Damascus that they had best think twice about their nuclear programs.

So, we wait to see how this latest Israeli effort to vanquish Hamas turns out. In the days and weeks ahead, we will see whether Israel’s political and military leaders have learned their lessons well and are better prepared now to ultimately vanquish Hamas.  

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