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Senior Israel Defense Forces officers expressed doubt over whether military efforts alone could bring regime change in the Gaza Strip, and said the army is far from achieving optimal conditions in the Strip to implement an exit strategy.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has instructed the army to prepare for action in Gaza since March 2007, shortly after he entered the post. That month, military programs were authorized that were eventually put into action as Operation Cast Lead.

The meetings dealt with the situation Israel seeks to see in the Strip after military operations are complete. An official present said the optimal situation would include several elements: steep reduction in rocket fire; neutralization of terror infrastructure; weakening of Hamas' position and organization, as well as its removal from power; creation of a "deterrent balance"; and reducing public support for the militant movement. In addition, Israel should not be viewed as being responsible for the Palestinian population, but the role should go to a central Palestinian establishment created in Gaza, led by moderate, pragmatic officials.

The officials said the IDF understands "there is a discrepancy between our interests and the ability to implement these through the use of force alone."

Physically gaining control of the entire Strip or large portions of it, they said, will lead to Israel's taking responsibility for the area's civilian population, and Israel's international legitimacy would weaken.

Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, head of the General Staff's Operations Directorate, said, "The Israeli use of force is likely to improve combat against terror, but, alongside this, [it] usually leads to radicals' becoming strengthened. It's doubtful if it is possible to bring about regime change in the Gaza Strip solely by force."

"We are far from the ability to implement the optimal exit strategy from the Gaza Strip. This places a complicated dilemma before the government," he said, adding that the IDF should in any case prepare for the possibility of either a large-scale operation or a comprehensive security arrangement with Hamas.

Russo also added, according to the official, that "when we look at the expectations of the operation and the ultimate situation in terms of cost and benefits, the conclusion will be not to embark on an operation before we look at the conditions for exit."

The official said at the same meetings, IDF intelligence officials examined what they called the "crumbling" of central authority in the Palestinian territories, and the possibility that the Palestinian Authority could turn into an Islamist regime run by Hamas.

The intelligence officials appraised that another military operation could be called for should a terror attack be committed causing heavy casualties, or if Hamas' power grows to such an extent that it could "break" a lull in fighting.

They also examined scenarios in which Israel's legitimacy for continuing the operation could be compromised: if, for example, a comprehensive cease-fire were attained with the Palestinians, or an agreement reached between Hamas and Fatah (an unlikely scenario, in the army's estimation), or if the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is so weakened that Israel is pressured from outside to restrain its use of force.

According to the intelligence officials, Abbas is viewed as a positive, moderate leader, one who stands behind the Israeli interest of achieving a lull in the fighting. However, they do not believe he is capable of forcibly maintaining control of the internal Palestinian political arena, and it is plausible that Hamas could use force to neutralize his authority.

They also said there is no outside actor, regional or international, that will take upon itself what they termed the Gaza "swamp," and certainly not by its own choice. The officials said an agreement with Hamas could improve prospects for a long-term lull in the fighting, but that reaching such an agreement would be inconsistent with both Israeli and international policies against negotiating with the militant group.