ANALYSIS / Israel preparing for Iran bid to rearm Hamas in Gaza
Intel assessments state that Iran will seek to equip its Palestinian satellite with rockets that can hit Tel Aviv.
A long column of Israel Defense Forces infantrymen on Sunday morning made its way back to Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip. The soldiers marched about 10 kilometers, along the same route that they had taken in the opposite direction during the warfare over the past two weeks. A number of the officers remembered a similar march that took place in August 2006, from southwest Lebanon back to Israel.
The paratroopers held Israeli flags this time too. But the difference in mood was inconceivable: Feelings not of bitterness or of missed opportunities, but of satisfaction. From the IDF's point of view, as is stressed by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and also by the battle-tested army privates, it fulfilled its mission. Should the government have ordered the IDF to conquer the entire Strip, it would have fulfilled this mission too.
In the field, a minimal number of ground forces has been left behind to maintain control the key positions, until the final order is given to completely pull out of Gaza. This apparently will not take much time. Hamas also understands this: Its announcement Sunday, stating that it would agree to an immediate cease-fire if the IDF finishes its withdrawal within a week, was coordinated in advance with Egypt. Cairo forced the Palestinian Islamist organization to make the announcement, promising in return that by the end of the week there would be no more Israeli soldiers on Palestinian territory.
The IDF, however, will continue to amass conscript troops along the Gaza-Israel border, as a threat. Some of the reservists will be released from duty in the coming days, if the rocket fire against Israel does indeed diminish. On Sunday evening, the IDF General Staff believed that the smaller Palestinian militant groups in Gaza were responsible for the last rockets launched into Israel, and that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are currently interested in stabilizing the cease-fire. If substantial rocket fire does continue, though, Israel will respond harshly, in a totally disproportionate manner. The targets for attack have already been drawn up, but it does not appear that ground forces will be ordered to carry out this mission.
Hamas regime only partially functioning
With the withdrawal of IDF troops from their posts within Gaza City, their positions have been taken by Hamas police, whose members have been sent out onto the streets. The deployment of the police, dozens of whom were killed in the Israel Air Force bombing of a cadets' graduation ceremony on the first day of the offensive, was meant to show that the Hamas movement has survived the Israeli assault. But this claim is far from the truth. The capabilities of Hamas are limited and its regime is only partially functioning. On the other hand, the group's military wing still has enough armed men to deter the rival Fatah movement from attempting a coup in the coastal territory.
The real condition of Hamas will soon become clear. Khaled Meshal, the group's Damascus-based politburo chief, admitted over the weekend that it had suffered "a harsh blow," but also claimed that "the resistance has not been defeated." It will now take a week to estimate the quality of Israeli deterrence against Hamas. In the organization's announcement Sunday, Hamas said it expected Gaza's border crossings to be opened for the flow of humanitarian goods. This is a critical point for Hamas, over which it torpedoed a truce agreement exactly one month ago.
The problem is even more pressing since Israel has seemingly disabled a large number of the smuggling tunnels running through the Gaza-Egypt border. The tunnels were not only used for the smuggling of weapons, but also of basic goods - such as petrol, food and cigarettes. In light of the economic hardship in the Strip, Hamas is still likely to renew the rocket fire next week if the crossings are not opened. Israel is aware of this and the defense establishment is hinting that that there may be a more lenient policy toward the crossings, if total quiet is indeed enforced in Gaza.
When Hamas estimates the balance of gains and losses in the warfare, it can still chalk up one or two achievements. On a military level, it did not succeed in causing substantial losses to the IDF, despite its threats, but it did preserve a certain capability to launch rockets until the last day of the campaign. On the international plane, it received significant public support from Arab states. European recognition of the Hamas regime is continuing to be established, and the Italian foreign minister is expected to visit Gaza. The Palestinian representative at the Arab summit at Doha was Khaled Meshal, and not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Split in the Arab world
The war in Gaza and the Doha summit on it, however, demonstrated the internal division in the Arab world. The alliance of moderates - Egypt, Saudi Arabis, Jordan and the PA - leads the strategic line against Hamas. This pragmatic Arab camp knows that the real battle is being fought against Iran, which wishes to undermine stability in the Middle East and to weaken the moderate regimes. In this fight, Tehran does not intend to neglect its Palestinian project, even if it encountered the most serious threat to its existence in recent weeks.
All of the intelligence assessments in Israel point to the fact that Iran seeks to rearm Hamas with the rockets that it lost, and will aspire to widen their range so as to be able to hit Tel Aviv. Egypt, whose President Hosni Mubarak has already defined a Hamas state in Gaza as an Iranian satellite that has grown on its doorstep, has a considerable interest in preventing the groups rearmament. Is Cairo's stated desire and the new Israel-U.S. agreement enough to curb the smuggling and prevent another escalation? Opinion in Israel is split, but this will be the key question in light of which the Gaza campaign's success will be determined.