In a side drawer at the Defense Ministry, there is an old photo from 1988. In the picture are Yitzhak Rabin and Mahmoud al-Zahar. It is a little hard to believe, but defense minister Rabin met, at that time, four persons from the Gaza Strip, among them Dr. al-Zahar - before it turned out that he was one of the leaders of Hamas. The doctor and his friends, who had avoided terrorism and focused on religious, ideological and social activities, were at the time considered moderate compared to Fatah. The defense establishment was keen on preventing terrorism and ignored the rise of extremist Islam in the territories, and especially in the Gaza Strip.
Just a week ago, the headlines were dedicated to Operation Iron Bonds, which was geared to counter the march of thousands of Palestinians toward the border fence. Even though the escalation in recent days has overtaken that episode, there are concerns about its implications. Blocking the civilian onslaught was a success only on the surface. In spite of a vigilant military presence, dozens of youths snuck up to the Erez crossing, a trial run for the next time.
Had thousands crossed the fence, the police would have contained them, detained them, and would have also given them food and drink inside Israel, just like it did with the opponents of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 - superior force would have been used, it would have contained and drained them, until they dispersed or retreated.
Repeating that method is no coincidence. The commander of the southern police district in 2005, Uri Bar-Lev, is still in the post, with one major difference: That evacuation was a one-time event, while dealings with Hamas constantly change shapes and forms, and will not end any time soon, if at all.
The evacuation of the Gaza Strip worked and the disengagement failed. Israel checkmated itself in three steps - the elections that brought Hamas to power, the Hamas military takeover of the Gaza Strip and now the Grad, or Katyusha-type, rocket menace against hundreds of thousands living in the south.
This is the '08 war: It is the number both for the year and the area code the missiles are hitting. It is a war that cannot end in six days, as it ended after the Red Sheet order was issued in June 1967. There is neither "keep moving forward" nor an end; Mostly there is the helplessness of Color Red, readying the citizens to absorb the missile strike.
Hamas is faced with a difficult dilemma: rule the Gaza Strip, or fight Israel. The decision so far: both. To rule without governing. The pretensions of a state, but the caprice of an underground organization.
Israel, who would have put up with Hamas rule over half of Palestine, including its rearmament toward another round of fighting in exchange for avoiding attacks, cannot reconcile itself with the use of the Gaza Strip as a constant base for challenges.
Last June, Hamas woke from its delirious celebrations over its victory against Fatah, into the need to deal with day to day problems, from crime to garbage disposal. Practical persons like Ismail Haniyeh argued that claimed the right to manifest their responsibility toward the population, and by extension suggested coexistence with Israel. Extremists, like al-Zahar and the commanders of the military wing of Hamas, like Ahmed Jabari and Mohammed Def, pushed for continuing the fighting, and won out - because there is no one to control them.
On the local front, Israel has put up a unified and well-trained team. The heads of the three main bodies in the battle - GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant, the Shin Bet commander in the south, G., and Major General Bar-Lev - have been at their posts for more than two years, coordinate their activities and radiate to those below them a team spirit. In charge of liaison activities, formerly the Civil Administration in Gaza, is Colonel Nir Peres.
What is especially impressive is the intelligence capabilities of the Shin Bet. According to a reliable source, a soldier deep inside the Strip operates in a "Shin Bet cloud of information" capable of providing him with data on where danger lurks.
Translating this capability into significant military gains can only be achieved with time and casualties, and with clear political directives, which have still not been put forth. A short and superficial operation, including a rushed withdrawal, will leave Hamas with too much power. Excessive IDF force will crush the Gaza Strip into fragments. Either way, the operation needs a clear goal.
The question now is not whether Israel is talking with Hams, but how much the political leadership talks with the defense establishment, which is recommending that a decision should first be made on what kind of Palestine they would like to shape - Gaza and West Bank, together or apart - and shape the military operation from that supreme goal. When the Olmert-Barak government still does not know where it is headed, it is not surprising that the IDF does not know how to get there.
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