Israel’s high-value air strikes against Hamas continued Friday morning as the IAF hit 20 targets including a mosque in the Jebaliya refugee camp that served many functions other than worship: a storehouse for Grad and Qassam rockets, a meeting place for operatives, and a control center for terror attacks. On Thursday an Israeli warplane killed top Hamas leader Nizar Rayan, responsible among other things for a 2004 suicide bombing in the port of Ashdod that killed 10 Israelis, and apparently among the few Hamas chiefs who hadn’t already taken shelter in an underground bunker.
Despite the drubbing, though, that Hamas has taken from the IAF since last Saturday, it was also clear on Friday morning that it was still far from discouraged or deterred, as the terror organization fired 10 rockets at southern Israel that wounded two Israelis in Ashkelon (another port slightly south of Ashdod) and one in the much-battered, Gaza-bordering town of Sderot. In the preceding days Hamas had been widening the scope of its rocket attacks to strike unprecedented targets like the major southern city of Beersheba and the town of Yavne on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
And although Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s General Security Service, told the security cabinet on Wednesday that Hamas had been dealt a “serious blow,” almost all of its fighting force and the majority of its rockets are still intact — along with the dense tunnel network, antitank weapons, and explosive-laden traps it has been amassing against a possible Israeli ground incursion.
The issue of whether Israel will mount such an incursion, and with what goals, has taken center stage as the number of aerial targets diminishes and the early shock value of Operation Cast Lead wears off. Those of us concerned about the resolve of the triumvirate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, especially in the face of the mounting international pressures for a ceasefire, have a hard time being optimistic.
By Tuesday Barak was already prepared to consider a French ceasefire proposal, and on Thursday Olmert said in Beersheba that “We have no interest in a long war; we do not desire a broad campaign.” Although he added that “We want calm and a normal existence for the residents of the South,” he didn’t explain how he expected to achieve the one without the other, and his disavowal of any ambitious military designs can only have strengthened Hamas’s belief that Israel will eventually wilt and desist as it did against Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago.
Livni, for her part, was in Paris Thursday trying to deflect the pressure for a ceasefire by telling Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that “this war with the extremists is necessary in order to move the diplomatic process forward toward a two-state solution” — reinforcing the very mindset from which the ceasefire demands stem, namely the idea that Israel is anyhow on the brink of peace instead of facing an Iranian-led effort to annihilate it.
Even more disturbing are reports that Israel’s leaders are open to the idea of a truce enforced by international monitors. It seems the experience with European monitors who were stationed at the Rafah border crossing in late 2005 but were ludicrously ineffective in stopping the smuggling from Sinai into Gaza (they reacted to Hamas’s June 2007 takeover of the Strip by fleeing), along with the purported UNIFIL monitors in southern Lebanon under whose watchful eyes Hezbollah has tripled its rocket capacity since 2006, would have put paid to that notion.
Having withdrawn all its forces from Gaza in August 2005, and allowed Hamas to build itself up there for so long, Israel, to be sure, faces no easy or pleasant options. A ground operation to depose Hamas, apart from the losses entailed, would face the dilemma of who is supposed to replace it. Israel is largely allergic to the idea of a long-term reoccupation, and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah (apart from the acute question of its desirability) is considered too weak. A ground operation that does not depose Hamas faces the problem of what is supposed to prevent the organization from recuperating and launching new aggression.
The answer to the questions, though, may well lie in Hamas itself. What unites the international delusions about an enforceable truce and the dithering of Olmert, Barak, and Livni is a failure to come to grips with Hamas’s nature: the purity and totality of its determination to keep killing as many Israelis as possible and eventually destroy the Jewish state. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, Hamas can only be neutralized by a counterforce that is not only technologically superior but also no less total in its resolve — something that does not characterize the Olmert government either in its 2006 or 2008 edition, let alone the West that reliably pressures it to cave.
Yet by continuing and expanding its ruthless bombardment of Israeli civilians, Hamas appears to have fostered in that population the will to elect a more tough-minded government — just what Israel so desperately needs