What's the endgame for Israel and Hamas in Gaza?
Israeli troops moved deeper into Gaza City Sunday and pounded Rafah from the air. Hamas rejected plans for international peacekeepers in Gaza.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As the rockets and missiles fill the skies over Gaza and southern Israel, it sharpens the question: What are the goals – and exit strategies, if any – of each side?
Within the Israeli public, there is a debate about whether the intent of the Israeli military – having already sent large numbers of tanks and ground troops into the Gaza Strip for the first time – is to occupy southern Gaza to prevent smuggling or "go all the way" and topple the Hamas government. Rule of the Gaza Strip might then be turned over to Fatah, the Palestinian party that was ousted in a Hamas military coup some 18 months ago and supports a two-state solution to the conflict.
For Hamas, there appears to be an ideal by which – as part of a cease-fire – the Palestinian militant group will be able to declare itself victorious in reaching all of its demands, including an opening of all crossings into Gaza and an end to the economic blockade enforced by Israel and others in the international community.
The distant likelihood of any of those goals being met is one of the obstacles standing in the way of either side moving with alacrity toward a cease-fire, say analysts. Both sides daily tout their achievements.
After a cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised the troops for reaching "impressive goals ... against terror organizations in Gaza." Israelis have the patience and will to press on, he said.
Similarly, Syria-based Hamas Politburo chief Khaled Mashaal insisted that Israel's losses were much heavier than they have let on. Some 870 Palestinians have been killed since the offensive began – Israel says about 300 of them were Hamas militants. Israel has lost 13 people, 10 of them soldiers and three of them civilians.
"The resistance organizations are still at full strength – they took a beating during the first two days, but have since taken the initiative," Mr. Mashaal said following a meeting in Cairo on Saturday night. "The enemy has failed – it has not achieved its goals. The enemy is hiding its true losses. For this reason it is preventing journalists and reporters from entering the Strip."
Maj. Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland, a former director of Israel's National Security Council, says that Israel might seek a middle option, which would be to take the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, and thereby prevent smuggling of new weapons from Egypt.
"It is possible that Israel will occupy all of Gaza and create a situation in which the regime cannot function," says General Eiland. "The question is whether it's possible and whether we're ready to pay the price. There are two possible goals: one is to obtain a cease-fire, two, the more ambitious of them, is the collapse of Hamas.
"Or there is something in between," he adds. "If we want to make sure that there is no smuggling of weapons [from Egypt into Gaza], we can reoccupy the city of Rafah and its neighborhoods ... since the [Israeli] army doesn't trust the Egyptians to stop that."
Israel continued to bombard Gaza over the weekend, attacking 60 targets on Saturday alone that the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) said were connected to Hamas, including the home of its military commander, Ahmed Jabri. On Sunday, Israeli forces moved south toward Gaza City, the Strip's most densely populated area, killing at least 27 Palestinians, according to Palestinian medical sources.
It's unclear whether Israel is ramping up the Gaza campaign and moving into what was predicted to be a third and final phase, or that this is a continuation of the same lethal force it has been using since it began the offensive on Dec. 27 with the stated goal of ending Hamas's rocket attacks.