Analysis The IDF Has Started to Look for a Ladder

The massive IDF presence in northern Gaza has resulted in a number of impressive tactical successes in an area where the army has been finding it difficult to prove success: striking at Qassam launch teams.

The massive Israel Defense Forces presence in northern Gaza has resulted in a number of impressive tactical successes, in an area where the army has been finding it difficult to prove success: striking at Qassam launch teams.

According to IDF data, seven such cells were wiped out in the first five days of Operation Days of Penitence. In addition, more than 10 cells were hit operating land mines and antitank rockets against the Israeli forces in the Jabalya-Beit Hanun area. The main explanation for the improved results is not only the depth of the incursion into the areas, but the increased use of the air force.

Since the operation began, there has been an almost permanent presence of combat aircraft over the Strip during the day. At the same time, the use of unmanned drones and other technological means has been stepped up. The ability to quickly "close the circuit" (identify a cell and aim efficient, accurate fire at it) means cells are shut down.

Suddenly, after the children were killed in Sderot, all the means that until now were meted out meagerly became available on demand. For example, the "Achzarit" armored cars used by Givati soldiers was something combat soldiers could only dream about a few months ago. Using these weapons is very costly, but apparently nobody is counting beans right now.

The proliferation of means and soldiers does not really provide a total solution to the Qassam problem, as the continuing fire from northern Gaza (albeit less frequently) proved yesterday. Givati's Reconnaissance Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ofer, admits as much. "Our goal is to reduce the Qassam fire, because apparently it is impossible to completely stop it," he said yesterday.

The strikes against armed cells took place while they were in movement in the civilian population. Foreign television footage from inside Jabalya continues to document armed men surrounded by large crowds. The mix of armed fighters and civilians leads to more casualties among the innocent and it forced the military wing of Hamas to issue a call that apparently seems to be only lip service, for Palestinian parents to keep their children at home.

On the other hand, Israel is also paying lip service on the issue of civilian casualties. To a certain extent, the large number of Palestinian casualties serves Israel's hidden interest because it could speed up civilian pressure on Hamas to at least temporarily suspend the rocket fire.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians, especially the armed groups, are demonstrating determination and resilience. The Givati battalion commander said yesterday there has been a significant improvement in their fighting capabilities. "They don't come straight at us, like they used to," he said. "They try to read our moves."

Hamas prepared well this time for the IDF incursion. Rockets were distributed to a large number of cells, to enable rocket fire while the incursion took place. The big question yesterday was how many Qassam cells remain active and equipped with rockets. But it is clear that the wide-scale offensive against Hamas - with 40 armed men, almost all from Hamas, killed - might be the reason for the decline in the number of rocket launch attempts.

The politicians and some officers in Israel continue to declare the operation is not limited in time, but quietly both sides are looking for ladders to climb down. The Palestinian security services have made some initial moves looking for a new set of understandings, while in the army, there are those who doubt the army's ability to sustain the efficacy of the operation if it lasts much longer than the week that has already passed.

Along with hunting Qassam cells, the army is demolishing houses and groves in the east Jabalya area, trying to create better conditions for observing future Qassam cells on the ground. Already, the army is careful not to go deep into the camp and its actual troop presence is limited to a "combat presence," meaning short-term capture of houses on the edge of the camp, accompanied by tanks and other armored vehicles. A prolonged stay will increase the risk to the troops, so it is possible there will be a little withdrawal, with an emphasis the operation is not over.

There is not a large force being deployed for the entire operation. The politicians love threatening Operation Defensive Shield Two, but the deaths of two children in Sderot is not the same as the deaths of 331 Israelis throughout the country during the terrible month of March 2002, which preceded that operation. There won't be any decision for a renewed occupation of all of the Gaza Strip - or even most of it - without a broad national consensus, and certainly not if it involves a major call up of reservists. In other words, Israel's maneuverability is limited.

Seemingly, conditions are ripe for a new understanding, with winks if not an agreement, to guarantee an Israeli withdrawal in exchange for a reduction in the Qassam fire. But there is still a difficulty, resulting from Israeli declarations about the desire to strike at the Palestinians "until they call uncle." This time, it seems Sharon and Mofaz both want to see the Palestinians crawl before Israeli withdrawals. And there's another trap: Assuming there is some arrangement, doesn't that clash with Sharon's claim that there is no Palestinian partner so the disengagement has to be unilateral?