For Israel, costs and benefits of striking Gaza

Israel assassinated a senior Hamas militant, Ahmed Jabari, today. How much further will the Gaza strikes go?

By , Staff writer

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Nov. 14. Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday, killing the military commander of Hamas in an airstrike.
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(Since this story was published on November 14, a lot has happened. Some of the Monitor's latest stories include a consideration of the effectiveness of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, Israeli preparations for a possible ground assault on Gaza, a look at the propaganda war, an analysis of the costs and benefits of escalation for both Israel and Hamas, and sympathy for Gazans and doubts about a ground war from Israel's south, the region of the country most vulnerable to rocket fire.)

Israel's assassination of senior Hamas militant Ahmed Jabari on Wednesday appears to be just the start of the farthest-reaching offensive on Gaza for years. Various Israeli officials had been agitating for days for serious retaliation to rocket fire from Gaza, never mind Hamas promising to stop the rockets on Tuesday. Today, those officials' wish was granted.

But how serious will the retaliation be? That is the question that has yet to be answered. There have been at least two dozen airstrikes in Gaza so far today, and there are unconfirmed reports coming out of the territory that other senior Hamas officials have been targeted.

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Will there be a ground incursion? Israeli Home Defense Minister Avi Dichter seemed to call for one when he said Tuesday: "There is no precedent in history of destroying terror by air power alone. It hasn't happened and it won't happen. Thus it is necessary to reformat Gaza altogether."

Or will the guns soon go silent, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refocusing on his country's January election, having bolstered his "tough on terror" credentials without a messy and uncertain ground action?

Israeli spokesmen say more than 750 rockets fired from Gaza have hit southern Israel this year. The rockets sow real and deep terror in Israeli communities. But that's about all they can do. The vast majority of the rockets from Gaza are like C-minus high school science fair projects, carry limited amounts of explosive, and are impossible to aim. For all that rocket fire, not a single Israeli has been killed by one this year.

Israel's overwhelming military superiority to all the armed groups in Gaza (Hamas may be the biggest, but it's not the one that usually fires the rockets) means that when it retaliates, lives are lost on the Palestinian side of the fence and substantial damage is done to the enclave's infrastructure. That's what happened in the last major assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, which ran for three weeks starting in late December 2008. The toll was more than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, along with devastation of Gaza's electricity system and other basic infrastructure.

Then, as now, the precipitating issue was the firing of rockets from Gaza. And then, as now, there are potential costs for Israel in an aggressive response to the Gaza militants. Hamas has an arsenal of Fajr rockets from Iran, that have much longer ranges than the rockets typically fired from Gaza. Israel says it has been targeting launch sites for the rockets in the attacks today, but has it gotten them all? Unlikely. Will Hamas decide to unleash the weapons on Israel in retaliation? Possibly.

Impact on Israel-Egypt ties?

Egypt, now led by the Muslim Brotherhood, was already edging away from its longstanding cold peace with Israel. A major offensive in Gaza will accelerate that process, and perhaps cause the Egyptian government to rethink its cooperation with Israel in sealing up Gaza's borders. State TV in Egypt is reporting that the country has recalled its ambassador from Israel. 

Cast Lead's extensive civilian casualties delivered a major blow to Israel's standing, and a repeat of 2008 will likely drain additional international sympathy for the Israeli side of the conflict with the Palestinians.

And an Israeli assault in Gaza will make it much more politically costly for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to back off his promised push for Palestine to be given the status of nonmember observer state at the United Nations. He would look like an appeaser of Israel while the true Palestinian "resistance" in Gaza was suffering under Israeli weapons. (For more on the Palestinian bid at the UN, see the Monitor's briefing today.)

Causing Mr. Abbas to harden his UN stance is clearly not what Israel wants. Reuters reported today on a proposed policy document from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's office that suggested driving Mr. Abbas from power and "dismantling the Palestinian Authority" as a possible response to a successful UN bid.

Empowering hard-liners

Would Israel really do that? Well, all things are possible. But events in Gaza suggest why that's not a very attractive option for Israel, either. The government of Mr. Netanyahu may not be happy with Abbas and the Fatah party he represents, but the Palestinian government in the West Bank has largely given up armed struggle and Abbas has been committed to the creation of a Palestinian state through negotiation. Taking him out would leave his rivals in Hamas, with whom Fatah fought and lost a brief civil war in Gaza in 2007.

Hamas, of course, takes a much harder line toward Israel than Fatah, and it now has rivals of its own in Gaza like the Islamic Jihad, who are more militant still. In the 1980s, Israel viewed the rise of Hamas as a rival to Fatah with some favor. Today, Israeli military spokesmen were calling Hamas an "Iranian proxy" on social media sites. The odds of any group that replaces Fatah being more favorable for Israel look poor.

To be sure, if Israel believes it can stop or seriously diminish the threat of rockets from Gaza, perhaps by frightening surviving Hamas leaders into suppressing rocket fire, that's a benefit that would outweigh all potential costs. But Hamas, for its own prestige, will feel the need to strike back.

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