Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Goals of Operation "Cast Lead"

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Update from AIJAC

January 5, 2009
Number 01/09 #01


Updates are back after an eventful hiatus. There is a great deal of significant  information, analysis and opinion available on the current Israel-Hamas military clashes in and around Gaza, and not all of it, unfortunately, can appear in this Update. So, as a starting point, this Update will focus on the goals of Israel's military offensive, codenamed "Cast Lead", (after the customary material used to make Hanukkah dreidels - a traditional form of top).

We open with the always insightful Barry Rubin's take on realistic goals for Israel in the ground offensive Israel launched on Saturday, after a week of air operations against Hamas military targets. Rubin cites the officially declared Israeli goals in Gaza, and stresses the difficulty in trying to remove Hamas or govern Gaza. He argues that while there is no military solution to Hamas, there appears to be no diplomatic solution either, but there is a way for Israel to prevail, sort of. For Rubin's complete argument on what can and cannot be accomplished in Gaza, CLICK HERE. Other good general statements about what Israel can hope to accomplish in Gaza come from Israeli strategist Ephraim Inbar, and security journalists Amos Harel & Avi Issacharoff.

Next up is top Middle East expert Martin Kramer, who explores what he believes is Israel's ultimate strategy in Gaza. He argues that the key fact is that "Hamas rule in Gaza is a bone in the throat of the 'peace process'—one Israel is determined to remove." While he does not think Israel intends to topple Hamas in the current operation, it does want to weaken it to facilitate peace, and will do so by looking for new ceasefire arrangements on Israel's terms which re-insert Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority into Gaza, at least at the crossing points. Kramer also discusses various ways in which Israeli strategy can go wrong, and to read his full discussion, CLICK HERE. Some more pessimistic views of the prospects of weakening Hamas come from former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens and Israeli commentator Amotz Asa-El.

Finally, Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren, both noted authors associated with Israel's Shalem Institute, deal with another possible implication of the Gaza fighting which probably did not play a significant role in Israel's calculation, but is worth considering by other international actors. Specifically, they argue that Israel's operation has the potential to deal a regional setback to Iran's regional efforts, as Hamas is a key Iranian proxy (as Hezbollah was during the 2006 Lebanon war). They argue that as the incoming US Obama Administration is determined to confront Iran diplomatically, if it wants to do so effectively, the world has an interest in not allowing the Gaza operation to end in a way that can be presented regionally as another Iranian victory. For an interesting alternative view of one implication of the Gaza operation, CLICK HERE.

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On the ground in Gaza

From Barry Rubin

Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) blog, Jan 3rd, 2009

Israel didn’t want to attack the Gaza Strip from the ground or from the air. Hamas, which had long broken the ceasefire, canceled it altogether. Then it began large-scale attacks on Israel. This is a war of defense. And it is being conducted just 30 miles from Tel Aviv, Israel’s main city.

According to the just-released Israeli government statement on the offensive:

The objective of this stage is to destroy the terrorist infrastructure of the Hamas in the area of operation, while taking control of some of rocket launching area used by the Hamas, in order to greatly reduce the quantity of rockets fired at Israel and Israeli civilians.

The operation will… strike a direct and hard blow against the Hamas while increasing the deterrent strength of the Israel Defense Forces, in order to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of southern Israel over the long term.

Even as the 2006 war was continuing, the Israel Defense Forces were evaluating the mistakes made in Lebanon—helicopters needed better short-range munitions, improved air-ground coordination, care in using tanks unsupported by infantry, and so on.

But contrary to the insistence of armchair strategists now, it would not be easy to seize control of all the Gaza Strip and govern it for an extended period of time. Hamas is not going to go away. International support for Israel is limited. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority will not react strongly to try to take Gaza back for itself. There are about one million people in the Gaza Strip and Hamas will make every attempt to ensure there are civilian casualties—and pretend there are even more.

So “total victory” is not easy, if it is even possible. The irony is that Israeli policy is based on the idea that there is no military solution to these issues. But since there is no diplomatic solution either, force must be used to protect Israel and its citizens.

It should be remembered that Israel withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip, dismantled all settlements, and wished the Palestinians good luck. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was not up to the challenge. It could and would not change its corrupt and incompetent ways. U.S. policy insisted that Hamas be allowed to run in the elections, even though it did not meet the standard of accepting the 1993 Israel-PLO agreement. Hamas won.

But Hamas invoked the radical Islamist policy of “one man, one vote, one time.” It staged a coup and kicked out its PA and Fatah rivals. Rather than focusing on economic development or even maintaining peace to build up its own power, Hamas pursued its strategy of permanent war against Israel.

Children’s programs taught the kiddies that they should grow up to be suicide bombers and kill Jews. Hamas soldiers, or their junior allies, fired rockets and mortars at Israel. And of course Hamas staged a cross-border raid and kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

In spite of this, many in the West think Israel has some kind of choice in this matter, that diplomacy was an option, that Hamas could be reasoned with. Those people have clearly never heard a Hamas leader speak or read anything on the group’s Arabic-language websites. In a real sense, Hamas is more extreme than Osama bin Laden, who periodically offers his enemy the chance to repent. Hamas’s goal is genocidal.

This has nothing to do with being dovish or hawkish, left or right. For those who are the biggest peaceniks—and this is true in Israel—know that Hamas must be defeated if Israel is ever to make peace with the PA. Even the PA knows it, and that’s what they say in private, no matter what they say in public.

The offensive is only going to last so long. It would be nice to believe that Hamas will be overthrown, less extreme Palestinians will take over, or Israel will just sit in the Gaza Strip for months or even years to come without any major problem. These are not real options.

Hamas wants nothing more than to be able to organize an underground to launch daily attacks on Israeli patrols going through the center of refugee camps. It should be remembered that, for better or worse, it was the Israeli military—not the politicians—who wanted to withdraw from the Gaza Strip for tactical reasons. It was easier to hold a defensive line in strength than to play into Hamas’s strong points by trying to control all the territory.

Clearly, this didn’t take into account the rockets but it is easy to think that if Israeli forces had been in the Gaza Strip every day since the withdrawal, Israeli casualties would have been a lot higher while Fatah and Hamas would be fighting side to side against Israel, and international diplomacy would have been far more hostile to Israel.

No one should have any illusions that this conflict is going to go away. The peace process era, 1993-2000, taught us that Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and radical Islamist groups meant what they said. They will never accept peace with Israel. Israel will be involved in a struggle with these extremist groups for decades.

Yet that does not mean Israel cannot—and does not—prevail. It prevails by maintaining good lives for its citizens, developing its economy, and raising living standards, progressing in technology and science and medicine.

In this context, Israel will not listen to those many who counsel it to commit suicide, but it also has no illusions of a victory, of a war that will end all wars. And in a real sense that is Israel’s true strength: it is not naïve about either concessions or force. If you have realistic expectations, if you aren’t disappointed, then you never give up.

Often, nowadays, it seems as if all history is being rewritten when it comes to Israel. In World War Two, allied air forces carpet-bombed cities even though there were no military bases in civilian areas. In France alone, tens of thousands of civilians were killed by allied bombs that fell on their intended targets.

Even the Nazis didn’t put ammunition dumps in houses and use human shields. And up until now the blame for doing so would fall on those who deliberately and cynically sought to create civilian casualties in order to gain support for themselves. Up until now, a country whose neighbor fired across the border at its people and even staged cross-border raids had the right of self-defense. Up until now, there has been a capability of understanding which group is inciting hatred, trying to turn children into robotic terrorists, calling for the extermination of another people, and committing aggression.

Many people, many journalists, many governments, and even many intellectuals still understand the most basic principles of right and wrong as well as of the real world. Unfortunately, too many don’t or at least don’t when Israel is the target.

Finally, it is of the greatest importance to understand that this is not an issue of Gaza or of Israel alone. The great issue of our era, of our remaining lifetimes, is the battle between radical Islamism—whether using the tactic of terrorism or not—and the rest of the world. To isolate this question as merely something about Israel is to misunderstand everything important about the world today.

Martin Kramer is Adelson Institute Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Olin Institute Senior Fellow at Harvard University.

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Israel's Gaza strategy

Martin Kramer

Sandbox blog, Sunday, 4 January 2009

In the fog of war, it isn't just the truth that falls casualty. So does common sense. Quite a few pundits seem to think that Israel lacks a strategy in Gaza. But unlike the Lebanon war of 2006, this war has been planned in advance, and every stage has been war-gamed. Here is my read of Israel's strategic plan, which lies behind "Operation Cast Lead."

Israel's long-term strategic goal is the elimination of Hamas control of Gaza. This is especially the goal of the Kadima and Labor parties, which are distinguished by their commitment to a negotiated final status agreement with the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. The Hamas takeover in Gaza reduced Abbas to a provincial governor, who no longer represents effective authority in all the areas destined for a future Palestinian state. Hamas rule in Gaza is a bone in the throat of the "peace process"—one Israel is determined to remove.

Struggle over Sanctions. But how? After the Hamas takeover in June 2007, Israel imposed a regime of economic sanctions on Gaza, by constricting the flow of goods and materials into Gaza via its crossings to Israel. The idea was gradually to undermine the popularity of Hamas in Gaza, while at the same time bolstering Abbas. Israel enjoyed considerable success in this approach. While the diplomatic "peace process" with Abbas didn't move very far, the West Bank enjoyed an economic boomlet, as Israel removed checkpoints and facilitated the movement of capital, goods, workers, and foreign tourists. So while Gaza languished under sanctions, with zero growth, the West Bank visibly prospered—reinforcing the message that "Islamic resistance" is a dead end.

Hamas in power, from the outset, sought to break out of what it has called the Israeli "siege" by firing rockets into Israel. Its quid pro quo was an end to Hamas rocket fire in exchange for a lifting of the Israeli "siege." When Israel and Hamas reached an agreement for "calm" last June, Hamas hoped the sanctions would be lifted as well, and Israel did increase the flow through the crossing points, by about 50 percent. Fuel supplies were restored to previous levels. But Hamas was fully aware that sanctions were slowly eroding its base and contradicting its narrative that “resistance” pays. This is why it refused to renew the "calm" agreement after its six-month expiration, and renewed rocket fire.

Were Israel to lift the economic sanctions, it would transform Hamas control of Gaza into a permanent fact, solidify the division of the West Bank and Gaza, and undermine both Israel and Abbas by showing that violent "resistance" to Israel produces better results than peaceful compromise and cooperation. Rewarding "resistance" just produces more of it. So Israel's war aim is very straightforward, and it is not simply a total cease-fire. At the very least, it is a total cease-fire that also leaves the sanctions against Hamas in place. This would place Israel in an advantageous position to bring about the collapse of Hamas rule sometime in the future—its long-term objective.

Cease-Fire on Israel's Terms. The Israeli operation is meant to impress on Hamas that there is something far worse than the sanctions—that Israel is capable of hunting Hamas on air, sea, and land, at tremendous cost to Hamas and minimal cost to Israel, while much of the world stands by, and parts of it (including some Arabs) quietly applaud. Israel's aim is not to bring down Hamas at this stage, but to compel it to accept a cease-fire on Israel's terms—terms that leave the sanctions in place.

Many Western and Arab governments see the logic of this. They would like to see Abbas and the Palestinian Authority back in authority over Gaza, thus restoring credibility to the "peace process." Because they wish to see Hamas contained if not diminished, they have moved slowly or not at all to respond to calls for action to stop the fighting. The question now is how Israel turns its military moves into political moves that achieve the shared objectives of this coalition of convenience.

A hint of the solution Israel envisions comes from a senior Israeli diplomatic source: "Israel cannot agree that the only party responsible for implementing and regulating the cease-fire be Hamas." Israel's objective is to put another player on the ground in Gaza, which over time would be positioned to undermine Hamas. And since the objective is gradually restoring Gaza to control by Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, it seems logical to assume that this mechanism will be designed to enforce Hamas submission to that authority. Hamas would swallow the pill in the name of "national unity," but it would become beholden to the PA.

It is the PA, for example, which could be reinserted at the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah (as already demanded by Egypt). It is the PA that could be given exclusive control of reconstruction budgets to repair damaged and destroyed ministries, mosques, and homes. (In the eventual reconstruction boom, Israel will hold all the cards: Gaza has no construction materials, and gravel, aggregate, and cement must be trucked in from Israel.) The premise is that if economic sanctions are to be lifted—and post-war Gaza will be desperately in need of all material things—it must only be through the agency of the PA. Finally, PA security forces could be reintroduced in a police capacity, as part of the "national" reconciliation. An envelope for this restoration of the PA could be provided by the international community.

It isn't impossible that Israel would go beyond its declared aims and bring Hamas down if Hamas appeared sufficiently damaged by initial ground operations. If Israeli forces are positioned to do this, and Hamas begins to unravel, the impetus to finish the job would be strong. This could make for a much quicker handoff to the PA, via some internationalized body. Israeli disavowals of interest in this outcome, at this time, should be taken with a grain of salt. Israel won't miss an opportunity if it presents itself.

Possible Complications. What could go wrong with this scenario? A lot. Hamas assumes (probably correctly) that its Palestinian opponents fed Israel with much of the intelligence it needed to wage precision warfare against Hamas. There is likely to be a vicious settling of scores as soon as a cease-fire is in place, if not before, and which could approximate a civil war. This could open space for small groups like Islamic Jihad and other gangs, which could shoot off rockets at their own initiative (or that of Iran). If something can go wrong in Gaza, there is a good chance it will. Much of the aftermath will have to be improvised, and much will depend on how thoroughly Israel has degraded the capabilities of Hamas.

If Hamas remains a player, the biggest risk to Israel is that the mechanism created through diplomacy to "implement and regulate" ends up legitimating Hamas. The temptation to "engage" Hamas has grown in Europe, and even among some Americans, ever since the Hamas victory in the 2006 legislative council elections. As diplomats work to put together a cease-fire mechanism, Hamas will work hard to tempt governments to talk to it, persuading them to skirt the Quartet's insistence that Hamas not be "engaged" until it accepts past PA-Israel agreements, recognizes Israel, and renounces armed struggle.

Legitimation of Hamas could seal the fate of the "peace process," and give "resistance" the reputation of a truly winning strategy. The United States will have to assure that all contact with Hamas runs exclusively through the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Turks, and above all, the PA. Europe and the United States must stay well out of the diplomatic reach of Hamas, until it meets the Quartet conditions—a highly improbable prospect.

Politics Will Return. As with any multi-stage plan, Israel's appears clearer at the outset and fuzzier in the later stages, where consensus dissipates. In particular, the opposition Likud has less confidence in Abbas and the "peace process" as presently configured. While it is adamant about ending Hamas rule in Gaza, it would be much less concerned with restoring the unity of the Palestinians. As Israel achieves its military aims, underlying political differences, now suppressed, are bound to surface, especially as elections are only a month away.

But for now, Israel is united in pursuing its war of demolition against Hamas. Its aim is not only to stop the rockets from falling in southern Israel, but to move a long stride forward toward a change of regime in Gaza.

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In Gaza, the real enemy is Iran

Israeli attacks must not stop until Iran's proxy, Hamas, is defeated.

By Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren

Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2009

Reporting from Jerusalem -- The images from the fighting in Gaza are harrowing but ultimately deceptive. They portray a mighty invading army, one equipped with F-16 jets that have bombed a civilian population defended by a few thousand fighters armed with primitive rockets. But widen the lens and the true nature of this conflict emerges. Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a proxy for the real enemy Israel is confronting: Iran. And Israel's current operation against Hamas represents a unique chance to deal a strategic blow to Iranian expansionism.

Until now, the Iranian revolution has appeared unstoppable. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s ended with Iranian troops occupying Iraqi territory. Iranian influence then spread to Saudi Arabia's heavily Shiite and oil-rich Eastern province, and to Lebanon through Hezbollah. Since the fall of their long-standing enemy, Saddam Hussein, Iranians have deeply infiltrated Iraq. Syria has been drawn into Iran's sphere, and even the Sunni sheikdoms of the gulf now defer to Iran, dispatching foreign ministers to Tehran and defying international sanctions against it. Iran has co-opted Hamas, a Sunni organization closely linked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a jihad against the Jewish state. But Iran's boldest achievement has been to thwart world pressure and approach the nuclear threshold. Once fortified with nuclear weapons, Iranian hegemony in the Middle East would be complete.

All of which helps explain the public statements from moderate Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, who have blamed the end of the tenuous Israel-Hamas cease-fire on Hamas. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has even called on the Arab world to stop using the U.N. as a forum for blaming Israel alone for the fighting, surely a first. Those leaders understand what many in the West have yet to grasp: The Middle East conflict is no longer just about creating a Palestinian state but about preventing the region's takeover by radical Islam. Indeed, Palestinian statehood is impossible without neutralizing the extremists who oppose any negotiated solution.

If Israel successfully overthrows Hamas in Gaza, it would strengthen anti-Iranian forces throughout the Mideast and signal the region that Iranian momentum can be reversed. The Israeli military operation could begin the process that topples a terrorist regime that seized power in the Gaza Stripin 2007 and has fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells into Israeli neighborhoods.

And whether or not Hamas is ultimately overthrown, Israel can achieve substantial goals. The first is an absolute cease-fire. Previous cease-fires allowed Hamas to launch two or three rockets a week into Israel and to smuggle weapons into Gaza through tunnels. To obtain a cease-fire now, the international community should recognize Israel's right to respond to any aggression over its international border and monitor the closure of Hamas' weapons-smuggling tunnels.

Above all, the goal is to ensure that Hamas is unable to proclaim victory and thereby enhance Iranian prestige in the Arab world.

Yet even those limited goals are far from guaranteed. An earlier opportunity to check Iran -- during Israel's war against Hezbollah in 2006 -- was squandered through a combination of Israeli incompetence and international pressure. Hezbollah manipulated the Western media by grossly inflating the number of civilian casualties and even "recycling" corpses from one bombed site to another.

The international community responded by imposing a cease-fire before Israel could achieve its goals and installing a peacekeeping force that has since allowed Hezbollah to more than double its prewar arsenal. Though the Israeli army killed a quarter of Hezbollah's troops and destroyed its headquarters, Israel was widely perceived as the loser. The winner was Iran.

Israel learned the bitter lesson of Lebanon. For the last two years, the Israeli army has gone back to basics, rigorously training and restoring its fighting spirit. Israeli leaders drew on that spirit to attack Hamas bases in one of the most impressive airstrikes since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Yet the question remains whether the international community has learned its Lebanon lesson, or will once again allow the jihadists to win.

Hamas is attempting to portray the Israeli invasion as a war against the Palestinian people. Television viewers are being presented with heartbreaking images of dead and injured children and supposedly indiscriminate devastation. Palestinian doctors claim that Israel has blocked the supply of vital medicines, and humanitarian organizations warn of imminent starvation. In fact, many of those claims are exaggerated.

Though civilians have, tragically, been hurt, about three-quarters of the 400 Palestinians killed so far have been gunmen -- an impressive achievement given that Hamas fires rockets from apartments, mosques and schools and uses hospitals as hide-outs.

Israel has recently allowed nearly 200 truckloads of food and medicine to enter Gaza, even under shellfire. It is in Israel's urgent interest to minimize civilian suffering and forestall international criticism. For that same reason, Hamas welcomes the suffering of Palestinian civilians. According to a BBC report on Dec. 30, dozens of ambulances were dispatched by Egypt to its border with Gaza, only to remain empty because, according to Egyptian authorities, Hamas wasn't allowing wounded Palestinians to leave.

The international community must not be duped again. If Hamas is successful in manipulating world opinion into the imposition of a premature cease-fire, it will proclaim victory and continue to stockpile long-range missiles for the next round of fighting. That would mean another triumph for Iran.

No less crucially, the international community must not allow the Gaza crisis to divert its attention from the imminent -- and ultimate -- threat of a nuclear Iran. Intelligence sources now measure that threat in months rather than years.

President-elect Barack Obama has declared his intention to confront Iran through diplomacy. Ideally, that process should begin in the aftermath of an Iranian defeat. If Israel is allowed to achieve its goals in Gaza, the Obama administration will be better poised to achieve its goals in Iran.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Michael B. Oren is a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center and a professor at the foreign service school of Georgetown University.

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