As Israel rejected the terms of the proposed
United Nations cease-fire at the weekend, Israeli military analysts were speculating
on the nature of the next stage of the attack on Gaza, or the "third phase"
of the fighting as it is being referred to.
Having struck thousands of targets from the air in the first phase, followed
by a ground invasion that saw troops push into much of Gaza, a third phase
would involve a significant expansion of these operations.
It would require the deployment of thousands of reserve soldiers, who are
completing their training on bases in the Negev, and the destruction and seizure
of built-up areas closer to the heart of Gaza City, Hamas' key stronghold.
The number of civilian casualties could be expected to rise rapidly.
A fourth phase, the overthrow of Hamas and direct reoccupation of Gaza, is
apparently desired neither by the army nor by Israel's political leadership,
which fears the economic and military costs.
An expansion of "Operation Cast Lead" is expected in the next few
days should Israel decide that negotiations at the UN and elsewhere are not
to its liking. Israeli warplanes have dropped leaflets warning Gaza residents
of an imminent escalation: "Stay safe by following our orders."
Last week, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, warned that the army had still
not exhausted its military options.
Those options have long been in preparation, as the defense minister, Ehud
Barak, admitted early on in the offensive. He said he and the army had been
planning the attack for at least six months. In fact, indications are that
the invasion's blueprint was drawn up much earlier, probably 18 months ago.
It was then that Hamas foiled a coup plot by its chief rival, Fatah, which
is backed by the United States. The flight of many Gazan members of Fatah to
the West Bank convinced Barak that Israel's lengthy blockade of the tiny enclave
alone would not bring Hamas to heel.
Barak began expanding the blockade to include shortages of electricity and
fuel. It was widely assumed that this was designed to pressure the civilian
population of Gaza to rebel against Hamas. However, it may also have been a
central plank of Barak's military strategy: any general knows that it is easier
to fight an army – or in this case a militia – that is tired, cold, and hungry.
More so if the fighters' family and friends are starving too.
A few months later, Barak's loyal deputy, Matan Vilnai, made his now infamous
comment that, should the rocket fire continue, Gazans would face a "shoah"
– the Hebrew word for holocaust.
The shoah remark was quickly disowned, but at the same time Barak and his
team began proposing to the cabinet tactics that could be used in a military
These aggressive measures were designed to "send Gaza decades into the
past," as the head of the army command in Gaza, Yoav Galant, described
Israel's attack on its opening day.
The plan, as the local media noted in March, required directing artillery
fire and air strikes at civilian neighborhoods from which rockets were fired,
despite being a violation of international law. Legal advisers, Barak noted,
were seeking ways to avoid such prohibitions, presumably in the hope the international
community would turn a blind eye.
One early success on this front were the air strikes against police stations
that opened the offensive and killed dozens. In international law, policemen
are regarded as non-combatants – a fact that was almost universally overlooked.
But Israel has also struck a range of patently civilian targets, including
government buildings, universities, mosques, and medical clinics, as well as
schools. It has tried to argue, with less success, that the connection between
these public institutions and Hamas, the enclave's ruler, make them legitimate
A second aspect of the military strategy was to declare areas of Gaza "combat
zones" in which the army would have free rein and from which residents
would be expected to flee. If they did not, they would lose their civilian
status and become legitimate targets.
That policy already appears to have been implemented in the form of aerial
leafleting campaigns warning residents to leave such areas as Rafah and northern
Gaza. In the past few days Israeli commanders have been boasting about the
extreme violence they are using in these locations.
The goal in both Rafah and northern Gaza may be to ensure that they remain
largely unpopulated: in the case of Rafah, to make tunneling to Egypt harder;
and in the northern Strip, from which rockets have been fired at longer ranges,
to ensure they do not reach Tel Aviv.
In a third phase such tactics would probably be significantly extended as
the army pushed onward. Swathes of Gaza might be declared closed military zones,
with their residents effectively herded into the main population centers.
As Barak was unveiling his strategy a year ago, the interior minister, Meir
Sheetrit, suggested that the army "decide on a neighborhood in Gaza and
level it." If a third phase begins, it remains to be seen whether Israel
will pursue such measures.
A version of this article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.