Can the First Gaza War be stopped before it starts?
Can Israel accept the fact of Hamas rule, and ease, rather than tighten, the Israeli chokehold on Gaza?
Doing nothing is no longer an option.
The week began with Palestinian rockets slamming into the Negev an average of nearly once an hour, around the clock.
"There's a moral problem here," says Brigadier General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, former commander of the IDF's Gaza Division.
"The basic obligation of a nation is to see to the security of its citizens. The factual situation is that the state of Israel is not doing so, where the residents of the south are concerned."
Zakai told Army Radio this week that Israel's real options are down to three. The first is the option that many have taken routinely to call unavoidable: a broad military offensive.
The IDF station began its central morning newscast with an unnamed security source saying that Israel's three top leaders had decided to end the policy of military restraint, and that "the Hamas organization will be surprised by the might of Israel's response."
The scope of rocket attacks, their increasing range, and the fact that there are potential launch sites from Beit Lehiya in northern Gaza to Rafah in the south - coupled with an intensive Hamas effort to arm, booby trap, and fortify entire regions, especially areas where civilian populations and military units are congruent - all but mandates that if Israeli troops launch an offensive, the result will be a war in which then IDF invades and progressively reconquers the entire length of the Strip, at a horrible cost in civilian and military casualties to both sides.
That old familiar cringe has hit the air, the unmistakable feel of the slope turning slippery.
Is it already too late to stop the First Gaza War?
It already has a name, courtesy of cabinet minister and ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter. It already has goals, which are as well defined as they are unrealizable. It has already had its tactics publicly spelled out and thus undermined before the fact.
Still, there are signs that the coming war, which has come to routinely be termed unavoidable, can be halted before it starts.
The most startling of these signs may be realism.
The Israeli military is certainly capable of a Gaza conquest, and at any given time, Zakai, once Israel's top soldier in the Strip, said on the army-run station. "But the question that we must ask ourselves is this: 'Okay, we've conquered Gaza - what now?' We're ruling over a million and a half Palestinians. Israel's economic situation is known to everyone. Will Israel's tax revenues now be used for rehabilitating the sewage and education of a million and a half Palestinians? What, exactly, will this give us?
"In recent years, we've made every effort to separate ourselves from the Palestinians. Are we now going to take a step that will bring us back a million and a half Palestinians to rule over? This lacks all sense. "
Zakai believes Israel should take a different approach, essentially combining two other options with a fundamental reappraisal of how Israelis should regard Hamas.
At heart, he says, "The state of Israel must understand that Hamas rule in Gaza is a fact, and it is with that government that we must reach a situation of calm."
Israel must also understand that Hamas is a pragmatic organization, Zakai continues. "The moment that the organization understands that Qassam fire is contrary to its interests, it will stop the fire.
"We need to work in an integrated manner. The situation is a complex one. There is no kuntz [trick], no patent [gimmick] that you can just turn on, in order to end Qassam fire.
"An integrated approach, on the one hand, includes demonstration of military might, a demonstration of the heavy price Hamas would have to pay if the firing continues, and on the other hand, also using a carrot, to cause Hamas to understand that refraining from firing exactly serves their interests.
In Zakai's view, Israel's central error during the tahadiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce that formally ended on Friday, was failing to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip.
He believes that Hamas would have - and still would - accept a bargain in which Hamas, the only power who holds sway over the multiplicity racketeers and gunmen of Gaza's many armed groups, would halt the fire in exchange for easing of the many ways in which Israeli policies have kept a choke hold on the economy of the Strip.
"We could have eased the siege over the Gaza Strip, in such a way that the Palestinians, Hamas, would understand that holding their fire served their interests. But when you create a tahadiyeh, and the economic pressure on the Strip continues, it's obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahadiyeh, and that their way to achieve this, is resumed Qassam fire.
"The carrot is improvement of the economic situation in the Gaza Strip. You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they're in, and to expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing. That's something that's simply unrealistic."
In the end, Israel must realize that "we can't impose regimes on the Palestinians. We can't cause the Palestinians [to decide] who will rule over them. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. This is a fact. I do not believe that the state of Israel should cause another ruler to come to power in Gaza borne on the bayonets of the IDF. "
"It's just like after the disengagement. We left Gaza and we thought that with that troubles were over. Did we really think that a million and a half people living in that kind of poverty were going to mount the rooftops and begin singing the Beitar hymn? That is illogical."
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