Without Diplomatic Intervention, Israel Nears Escalation in Gaza

Sunday, January 4, 2009

ISRAEL SAYS that the aim of its offensive in Gaza, which yesterday expanded to a ground invasion, is simple: to end rocket fire aimed at its citizens. That barrage began seven years ago and sporadically continued even during the six-month cease-fire that Hamas refused to extend in December; though the mostly primitive missiles have caused few casualties, they are a threat that no country could be expected to tolerate. The problem is that Israel probably cannot end the rocket fire by military means alone. Nor, without toppling the Hamas government and reoccupying part or all of Gaza, can it unilaterally ensure that Hamas does not rebuild its arsenal once the current fighting ends. To win this mini-war, Israel will have to rely on the United States, Egypt, Turkey or possibly European governments to broker a settlement. By that measure, a victory for Israel still appears uncertain -- and the ground attack may not help its cause.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made his terms for a cease-fire known: He says that international monitors must be deployed to ensure that the rocket fire does not resume. The Bush administration has embraced this agenda; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that "we are working toward a cease-fire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza," and President Bush endorsed a monitoring mechanism yesterday. To obtain such a deal, Israel will almost certainly have to pledge to reopen crossing points in and out of Gaza where it has severely restricted traffic. But this, too, may require the introduction of international observers. Egypt has said that it will not reopen its border with Gaza unless the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, Hamas's rival, takes charge.

None of this can happen without Hamas's agreement -- but so far there is little indication that the Islamic movement is ready to compromise. Its leaders remain defiant; despite the Israeli onslaught, militants continue to fire scores of missiles at Israel daily -- and for the first time are targeting major cities such as Ashdod and Beersheva. The Bush administration, which has no contact with Hamas and shuns its principal sponsors, Syria and Iran, has little leverage. It, too, must depend on intermediaries like Egypt and Turkey. French and other European diplomatic interventions have been showy but, so far, vacuous.

Hamas is unreceptive because it hopes to replicate what it sees as the success of Hezbollah during its 2006 battle with Israel in Lebanon. The Shiite militia gained political power in Lebanon and prestige around the Middle East simply by surviving the Israeli assault. Israel has been drawn into escalating its offensive so as to force Hamas to settle. On Thursday and Friday it began bombing the homes of Hamas leaders, killing one senior figure; yesterday armored columns drove across the border to begin what will likely be a costly battle with entrenched Hamas fighters. While justified by Hamas's continuing attempts to kill Israeli civilians, the invasion heightens the risks that Israel has faced all along. Even a defeat of Hamas on the ground might not end the missile threat, and it could be forced into a full-scale occupation of Gaza. That outcome would be a serious blow to Israel's larger interests -- and those of the United States.

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