Invasion Offers Benefits but Also Risks to Both Sides

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 4, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 3 -- In the first eight days of Israel's battle against Hamas, the conflict was fought from the air, with Israeli fighter jets striking from the skies on targets in Gaza, and with Hamas firing unguided rockets with the hope they would land on Israelis living in cities as far as 25 miles away.

On Saturday, Israel altered that strategy, bringing the war to Hamas's doorstep with a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. In so doing, Israeli leaders run the risk of repeating their disastrous experience in the 2006 Lebanon war, when they suffered high casualties in ground combat with Hezbollah, and they may face political fallout in elections less than two months away.

For Hamas, the Israeli attacks have taken a heavy toll in death and destruction, wiping out not only security and police buildings but also homes, mosques and a university that are all part of its network in the strip. The Hamas goal, analysts say, is not so much to win militarily but rather to exact a psychological victory, in the same way Hezbollah bolstered its legitimacy both inside Lebanon and in the Arab world after its war.

Many believe that the ground invasion could give Hamas, with superior knowledge of Gaza's terrain, an advantage over Israel's troops. "If you enter Gaza by land, a dark fate will await you," top Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal threatened Israel in a televised interview Friday from exile in Damascus, Syria.

Over the past four years, Israel has sought to block the Palestinians from using some of their most devastating, close-range tactics: suicide bombings and small arms in guerrilla-style strikes. Those kinds of attacks were favored by Palestinians during the second intifada, or uprising, earlier this decade, and were effective in killing Israelis. But they are much more difficult to pull off today.

Israel has built fences and walls around the Gaza Strip and the bulk of the West Bank. It has dramatically curtailed movement in both places, setting up internal checkpoints in the West Bank and preventing the vast majority of Gaza's 1.5 million people from leaving the narrow coastal territory. In 2005, Israel pulled its troops and its settlers from Gaza, after which Hamas and its allies turned almost exclusively to rockets -- many of them made in local metalwork shops -- to strike at Israel.

At the same time, Israel has significantly upgraded its air capabilities, adding armed, unmanned aerial vehicles and advanced, precision-guided bombs and missiles.

The result has been a dramatic change in the casualty ratios as the battle moved from the ground to the sky. In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed, compared with about 400 Israelis. In the past eight days of war, more than 460 Palestinians were killed, and four Israelis died by rocket fire. There were no Israeli military casualties in the air campaign.

For Yoav Amit, a school administrative manager in Beersheba, such statistics provided little comfort. On Thursday, he inspected a huge hole in a ninth-grade classroom, where a rocket had torn into the ceiling. "We can't depend only on airstrikes," he said. "We have no choice but to send ground troops into Gaza."

Still, he said, he worried about Israel's soldiers. "It didn't succeed in Lebanon," said Amit, who served in the Israeli air force during the 1973 Mideast war. "The same thing might happen in Gaza."

Echoes of Hezbollah War

In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, fought Israel in 33 days of war. The Israeli military's goal was to end Hezbollah rocket fire into northern Israel and to bring back two soldiers who had been seized in a cross-border raid. But after weeks of airstrikes, the rocket fire continued, with Hezbollah firing thousands of Katyushas over the course of the war.

Israel launched a major ground invasion in the final days of the conflict. In all, nearly 120 Israeli soldiers were killed, along with 43 Israeli civilians and more than 1,100 Lebanese. In the aftermath, much of the Muslim world lauded Hezbollah as victorious; today, the movement partially controls the government.

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