With Strikes, Israel Reminds Foes It Has Teeth

Published: December 28, 2008

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military operation in Gaza is aimed primarily at forcing Hamas to end its rocket barrages and military buildup. But it has another goal as well: to expunge the ghost of its flawed 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and re-establish Israeli deterrence.

On the second day of the offensive, which has already killed hundreds and is devastating Hamas’s resources, Israeli commanders on Sunday were lining up tanks and troops at the border. But they were also insisting that they did not intend to reoccupy the coastal strip of 1.5 million Palestinians or to overthrow the Hamas government there.

This is because whatever might replace Hamas — anarchy, for example — could in fact be worse for Israel’s security. So the goal, as stated by a senior military official, is “to stop the firing against our civilians in the south and shape a different and new security situation there.”

This means another peace treaty with Hamas, but one that has more specific terms than the one that ended 10 days ago. Such a concrete goal, however, should not obscure the fact that Israel has a larger concern — it worries that its enemies are less afraid of it than they once were, or should be. Israeli leaders are calculating that a display of power in Gaza could fix that.

“In the cabinet room today there was an energy, a feeling that after so long of showing restraint we had finally acted,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking of the weekly government meeting that he attended.

Mark Heller, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that that energy reflected the deep feeling among average Israelis that the country had to regain its deterrent capacity.

“There has been a nagging sense of uncertainty in the last couple years of whether anyone is really afraid of Israel anymore,” he said. “The concern is that in the past — perhaps a mythical past — people didn’t mess with Israel because they were afraid of the consequences. Now the region is filled with provocative rhetoric about Israel the paper tiger. This operation is an attempt to re-establish the perception that if you provoke or attack you are going to pay a disproportionate price.”

Numerous commentators on Sunday, both in Israel and in the Arab world, noted that the shadow of the 2006 Lebanon war was hanging over the attack on Gaza. Then, Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Islamist group, was lobbing deadly rockets into Israel with apparent impunity and had captured an Israeli soldier in a crossborder raid.

Israel invaded southern Lebanon and for 34 days carried out air, sea and land assaults before a truce was negotiated. But Hezbollah, by successfully shooting thousands of rockets into Israel while under attack and sounding defiant to the end, won a great deal of credit among Arabs across the region and used its prestige to grab a decisive role in the Lebanese government.

The risk to Israel in Gaza seems of a parallel nature — that if the operation fails or leaves Hamas in the position of scrappy survivor or even somehow perceived victor, it could then dominate Palestinian politics over the more conciliatory and pro-Western Fatah movement for years to come. Since Hamas, like Hezbollah, is committed to Israel’s destruction, that could pose a formidable strategic challenge.

And despite unwavering expressions of support for Israel from President-elect Barack Obama during his campaign, Israel is also gambling that its aggressive military posture will not alienate the new administration.

There are internal complications as well. At Sunday’s government meeting, Mr. Olmert portrayed the Lebanon war, which he led, not as a failure but as something of a model for the current operation, since the northern border has been completely quiet ever since. But most Israelis disagree.

Israel began that war vowing to decimate Hezbollah without fully realizing the extent of its military infrastructure, underground bunkers and rocket arsenals. And while many in Lebanon and overseas considered Israel’s military activities to be excessive, in Israel the opposite conclusion was reached — that it had been too restrained, too careful about distinguishing between Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon.

“We were not decisive enough, and that will not happen again,” a senior military officer said in reference to that war, speaking on condition of anonymity, some weeks ago. He added, “I have flown over Gaza thousands of times and we know how to hit something within two meters.”

The current operation started only after preparation and intelligence work, military commanders said, leading to a true surprise attack on Saturday and the instant deaths of scores of Hamas men. The Israeli military had mapped out Hamas bases, training camps and missile storehouses and systematically hit them simultaneously in an Israeli version of “shock and awe,” the sudden delivery of overwhelming force.

It was Ehud Barak, the defense minister, who directed the preparations, and politically it is Mr. Barak who stands to gain or lose most. As chairman of the Labor Party, he is running for prime minister in the February elections and polls show him to be a distant third to the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

But if Hamas is driven to a kind of cease-fire and towns in Israel’s south no longer live in fear of constant rocket fire, he will certainly be seen as the kind of leader this country needs. If, on the other hand, the operation takes a disastrous turn or leads to a regional conflagration, his political future seems bleak and he will have given Hamas the kind of prestige it has long sought.

Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran military correspondent who writes for Yediot Aharonot, said that Mr. Barak had phoned him shortly after the 2006 Lebanon war and said it had been an enormous error. Israel should have waited and prepared before reacting to Hezbollah, choosing its moment and circumstances, he said.

And that, Mr. Ben-Yishai said, is what Mr. Barak did, not only behind the scenes but through a subtle public disinformation campaign. On Friday night, after having decided to launch the operation, he appeared on a satirical television program. An attack seemed at least several days away and Hamas, which had been holding its breath, relaxed. The next day, the Jewish Sabbath and the first day of the Arab workweek, Israel struck.

There is palpable satisfaction at the moment in the Israeli government and the military because the operation so far is seen as a success. Few have focused on the fact that at this stage in the 2006 Lebanon war, there was the same satisfaction — before things turned disastrous.

Source : New York Times.

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