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Gaza Powder Keg Set to Explode

Israel won't sit on its hands as the Gaza threat escalates.

by
Michael Sharnoff

Bio

November 23, 2008 - 12:00 am

At least 90 rockets have been launched from the Gaza Strip, including 35 on November 5, since the June 19 tahdiyeh (calm) was announced between Hamas and Israel. According to recent analysis, terror groups in Gaza have undergone a massive buildup in training and arms, and have expanded their tunnel networks for smuggling.

One representative for the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees told the London newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that terrorists have used the tahdiyeh “to train in the abduction of [Israeli] soldiers and martial arts,” and he threatened Israel with “unpleasant surprises.”

Israeli authorities have no illusions about the tahdiyeh. They understand that Hamas is practicing the Islamic concept of sabr (patience), which permits and even recommends Muslims to suspend jihad until they are in a position of strength. As Hamas leader Khaled Mashal told one al-Jazeera journalist, “The tahdiyeh is a tactical means. It is a step within the resistance. … It is a process of ebb and flow, going up and down. This is how you run a battle.”

Hamas is now believed to have stockpiled thousands of rockets and to have trained some 20,000 fighters. It also possesses sophisticated anti-tank devices and roadside bombs to target Israeli vehicles. So, as renewed conflict draws nearer, Israel is analyzing the threat Hamas poses and evaluating three options.

Iron Dome: Israel may soon deploy a defensive missile shield. Last December, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak surmised that a new and sophisticated anti-rocket system, Iron Dome, could stop Qassam rockets and other short-range Palestinian missiles. Barak claimed that the defense shield would cost Israel over $200 million but would not be deployed until late 2009.

Last year, however, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lamented that Iron Dome could not successfully defend Sderot from Qassams. Olmert told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the system was “effective against rockets fired from more than four kilometers away, but not against those fired from closer range.” Thus, Iron Dome would protect major cities including Ashkelon and Ashdod, but not Sderot. Sderot is approximately four miles from Beit Hanoun, an area in Gaza where rockets are regularly launched.

Over the summer, the Israeli Air Force announced further setbacks. Officials stated that Iron Dome would not be ready until the first half of 2010. However, it is now unclear if Jerusalem will continue to develop the system if it can only serve as a temporary relief for Israelis living beyond a four-mile radius, and not even defend the 24,000 citizens of Sderot who bear the brunt of rocket attacks.

Extending the tahdiyeh: Israel could also attempt to extend the ceasefire after it officially expires on December 19. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently stated, “We have an interest in perpetuating the calm.” His deputy, Matan Vilnai, also stated on Israeli radio, “We hope the truce can again be applied.”

However, an extension of the ceasefire, much like the development and deployment of Iron Dome, would only provide temporary security and would not end Israel’s rocket problem.

Gaza operations: The third option is for Israel to launch a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. This option would be very unpopular among the Israeli public, as it would be dangerous and almost certainly result in many casualties.

Public sentiment notwithstanding, Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, argues that a military offensive in Gaza should be undertaken if rocket fire persists. Even Israeli political leaders, who typically agree on virtually nothing, can agree on this point. Likud leader Yuval Steinitz surmised earlier this year, “The only way to eliminate rocket attacks is for Israel to launch a military operation.” He added that because Gazans elected Hamas, this gives Israel “the full right and duty to react.” In May, Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer agreed, stating that Israel has “no choice but to destroy all the nests of terror.”

In the end, it must be underscored that Hamas’ raison d’être is to destroy the Jewish state. This is repeatedly called for in the Islamist group’s speeches and sermons. It is also articulated in Hamas’ charter. It is an undeniable fact that Hamas sees its struggle with Israel as a zero-sum conflict. Thus, Israel can employ the first two options to temporarily protect civilians living in the south, but the attacks will almost certainly continue. While it is the least appealing, the third option will ultimately be necessary for Israel to experience a lasting quiet on the Gaza border.

Michael Sharnoff is a research associate at the Jewish Policy Center.
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