There are two persistent myths about the aim of
Israel's onslaught on Gaza: the first that it is an entirely defensive move,
a way to end the rocket fire of Hamas; and the second that it is designed to
restore the army's credibility after its failure to cow Hezbollah in 2006.
No doubt the Israeli army has been itching to repair its battered image, and
for sure the rocket attacks from Gaza create domestic pressures that are only
too clear to an Israeli government about to face an election.
But it is a gross misunderstanding of what is unfolding in Gaza to believe
Israel's motives are capricious. The politicians and generals have been preparing
for this attack for many months, possibly years – a fact alone that suggests
they have bigger objectives than commonly assumed.
Israel seized this particular moment – with western politicians dozing through
the holidays and a changeover of administrations in Washington – because it
ensured the longest period to implement its plan without diplomatic interference.
The pressure on Israel to reach a political settlement will grow, however,
as the inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan 20 approaches. That explains why,
as the army brings ever greater force to bear on Hamas's urban heartlands, the
outlines of an Israeli plan are starting to become visible.
Despite talk in Israel that a chance to topple Hamas is within reach, that
option does not have to be pursued. Israel's aims can be achieved whether Hamas
stays or falls – as long as it is crushed politically.
Certainly, a permanent reoccupation of the enclave with its 1.5 million inhabitants
is not desired by Israel, which withdrew its settlers and soldiers in 2005 precisely
because the demographic, economic and military costs of directly policing Gaza's
refugee camps were considered too high.
It therefore needs another ceasefire similar to the one that expired on Dec
19. The questions are: who will "sign" it and what will be its terms?
Writing in The Jerusalem Post newspaper this week, Martin Kramer, a
leading Washington neoconservative, suggested that Israel's goal was to forge
an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas and restore his rule in Gaza. "Hamas would
swallow the pill in the name of 'national unity'," he argued.
The idea that Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party can ride into the Gaza Strip on
the back of Israeli tanks may be a fantasy that makes sense to the neocons who
brought us "regime change" in Iraq, but few in the Israeli government
or army seem to believe it is feasible.
In any case, the distinction between Fatah's "rule" over the West Bank ghettoes
Israel has created and Hamas's oversight of the prison that Gaza has become
is one Israel appears keen to maintain. The Israeli vision for the West Bank,
in which significant parts are annexed, depends on its political severance from
Instead, Israel is again pursuing its favorite mode of diplomacy: unilateralism.
According to officials quoted in the local media, it wants a deal that is approved
by the United States and western governments but passes over the heads of Hamas
and the Palestinians.
At a recent cabinet meeting, Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, put it this
way: "There is no intention here of creating a diplomatic agreement with Hamas.
We need diplomatic agreements against Hamas."
According to the latest reports, the ceasefire would require, as before, that
Hamas prevent all rocket fire out of the Strip, but it would also introduce
what officials are vaguely terming a "mechanism" on the only border with Gaza
not under Israel's control.
During its lengthy blockade, Israel has been able to prevent goods, including
food, medicines and fuel, from entering the Gaza Strip through crossing points
on its two land borders while its navy patrols the sea coast. But Gaza also
shares a short southern land border, next to the town of Rafah, with Egypt.
Before the 2005 disengagement, Israel sought to control this fourth border
too by bulldozing swathes of Palestinian homes to create a no-man's land between
Rafah and Egypt. This area, overlooked by military watchtowers, was referred
to as the Philadelphi corridor.
After the withdrawal, Israel hoped the steel wall along the Rafah border and
its oversight of the crossing point into Egypt would ensure that nothing went
in or out without its approval.
However, a small private industry of tunneling under the wall quickly burgeoned,
becoming a lifeline for ordinary Gazans and a route for smuggling in weapons
Egypt had little choice but to turn a blind eye, despite being profoundly uncomfortable
with an Islamic party ruling next door. It faces its own domestic pressures
over the humanitarian catastrophe that has been visibly created in Gaza.
Israel believes the current invasion will have achieved nothing unless this
time it regains absolute control of the Rafah border, undercutting Hamas's claims
to be running the Strip. The "mechanism" therefore requires that technical responsibility
is lifted from Egyptian shoulders.
According to the Israeli plan, it will pass to the Americans, whose expertise
will be called on to stop the tunneling and prevent Hamas from rebuilding its
arsenal after the invasion comes to an end.
Israel may additionally seek the involvement of international forces to diffuse
the censure the Arab publics are likely to direct at Egypt as a result.
Once Hamas has no hope of rearming and cannot take any credit for the Gazans'
welfare, Israel will presumably allow in sufficient supplies of humanitarian
aid to pacify western governments concerned about the images of Gaza's cold
and hungry children.
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst, believes that in this scenario Israel
would probably insist that such supplies come only through the Egyptian crossing,
thereby "fulfilling another strategic aim: that of making Gaza Egypt's
And once the Gazan albatross is lifted from Israel's neck, Mr. Abbas and his
West Bank regime will be more isolated than ever. Undoubtedly, the hope in Israel
is that, with Gaza disposed of, the pressure will grow on the Palestinian Authority
to concede in a "peace" deal yet more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem
and the West Bank.
A version of this article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.