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December 31, 2008

Gaza Becomes a Chessboard for Israeli Leaders


by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israel's devastating bombardment of Gaza, and the mounting death toll continue as Operation Cast Lead entered its fourth day Tuesday.

Despite massive damage to Hamas' infrastructure and the enormous loss of life inflicted on Gaza, the Islamic resistance organization continues to fire rockets at Israel, with three Israelis killed to date.

The Palestinian death toll currently stands at more than 350, with about 1,400 injured. The UN released figures several days ago stating that at a conservative estimate more than 50 of the dead were civilian, and expected the figure to rise within the coming days.

Israel's stated goals that its massive aerial campaign was meant to stop Hamas and its allies launching rockets at Israel have so far failed to materialize.

Although the firing of projectiles at Israel had been problematic, hundreds of rockets caused little damage and no casualties for many months prior to Operation Cast Lead. The rockets were fired mostly in response to Israeli attacks.

Following a six-month cease-fire, Israel launched a cross-border military incursion into Gaza last month, provoking a barrage of missiles.

Analysts, and some politicians, argue that the real motivation behind the military operation is ambitious Israeli politicians and the upcoming Israeli elections due Feb. 10.

During heated debates in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, Israeli-Arab Knesset members (MKs) accused the Israeli government of waging a war for electioneering purposes.

MK Ahmed Tibi told a Knesset gathering, "There are those who are counting bodies and at the same time counting Knesset seats. Bodies for votes, this is done primarily by the Labor Party."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is chairman of the Labor Party and a candidate for premiership. He is the main architect of the Gaza operation and stands the most to gain politically.

"There are those who are profiting from Palestinian blood in order to get elected," added MK Mohammed Barakeh. Both MKs were subsequently evicted from the plenum.

Israel has a history of becoming dangerous and overly militaristic around election time. Many of the country's leaders have been military men who were seen by the Israeli public as strong men who could take care of Israel's security needs.

Israel's Grapes of Wrath campaign into Lebanon in 1996 came during election time. Nearly 150 Lebanese civilians sheltering in a UN base near Qana in the south of Lebanon died as a result of Israeli shelling. It has been hotly disputed whether the shelling was deliberate or accidental.

The outbreak of the second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, in 2000 followed a controversial visit to al-Aqsa Mosque by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, despite warnings from his own security advisers and the Jerusalem police. He became prime minister the following year after campaigning on an al-Aqsa uprising platform.

"Two months after Ehud Olmert was elected Israel's prime minister, the Second Lebanon War broke out in 2006. Two months before Olmert departs, the military campaign in the south breaks out," commented Israeli analyst and journalist Yossi Verter in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

The Israeli government's failure to stop the rockets and negotiate the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 have become big election issues, especially for Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Both Barak and Livni are running for prime minister. They were under heavy pressure from opposition leader and poster-boy of the right-wing, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is leading in opinion polls, to take tough military action against the Palestinians.

"It would be political suicide for an incumbent government to sit back while rockets are raining down, and restrain themselves," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert from Tel Aviv's Interdisciplinary Center.

Barak's political career had hitherto been going nowhere fast, and he had become the laughingstock of the Israeli public.

To remind the public of his existence, he appeared on satirical TV shows making fun of himself, and he plastered posters of himself in Israeli neighborhoods. As the early days of the Gaza campaign appear to be going Israel's way, his popularity is growing.

Netanyahu, who could well become Israel's next prime minister, has been milking photo-ops for scoring political points. Standing beside homes damaged by Qassam rockets and looking appropriately stern and concerned, he is making the most of an Israeli political tradition which sees right-wingers win big during times of political and military conflict.

Livni, who won chairmanship of the ruling Kadima Party several months ago, has ambitions of becoming the second female prime minister after Golda Meir (1969-74). Her lack of military experience and the fact that she is a woman, drawbacks in Israel's macho society, has meant she has been forced to up the war rhetoric to stay in the running.

Meanwhile, disgraced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was forced to resign amid a corruption scandal and will step down in the new year, is concerned about his legacy and hoping to win some redeeming credit for any successful Gaza campaign.

But Israel would not have taken on Gaza without the support of neighboring Arab regimes. Shortly before the aerial assault, Livni visited Cairo and explained to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the need for the forthcoming attack.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all regard Hamas as an ally of Iran, and they fear that the spread of Iranian influence in the region could topple their unpopular regimes, which are engaged in battles with their own Islamists.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have stymied efforts by the Arab League to convene a meeting on Gaza to take appropriate action. Both countries appear happy for Hamas to be weakened before further negotiations.

The hapless president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas, a bitter foe of Gaza's Hamas, despite the requisite displays of grief on TV, has placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Hamas.

Issues of proportionality, the suffering of the civilian population, and the fact that the cycle of violence actually started a month ago when Israel carried out a cross-border incursion into Gaza have not registered.

Should Israel carry out a threatened ground incursion into Gaza, Israel's politicos-on-the-make could face a different scenario, as Hamas may inflict significant casualties.

Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar wrote in Ha'aretz, "Israeli planes and tanks cannot replace any Arab government. The only way to kick Hamas out of Gaza is to put the enclave under IDF martial law and a civil administration. In other words, to disengage from the disengagement."

(Inter Press Service)

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Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.

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