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A group of middle-aged visitors in civilian dress but with military crew cuts that gave away their profession toured the Gaza border one day this past week. Participants in an advanced U.S. Army course, many of them are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Having gazed toward the dense urban concentration and listened to an overview of current and anticipated events there, they wondered, "Why aren't you clearing the outskirts of Gaza?"

A senior Israeli officer in the sector smiled upon hearing the question. Gaza City and environs are home to about half of the Gaza Strip's 1.4 million Palestinians. With 700,000 residents, it is the most populous city in greater Israel, larger than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When, by way of demonstration, the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command intelligence officer overlays a map of Gaza on a map of the Dan region, Gaza City stretches from Hayarkon Park in northern Tel Aviv (of which Arcadi Gaydamak is so fond) all the way to Jaffa, the birthplace of GOC Southern Command Major General Yoav Galant. Clear out what, exactly? What outskirts? Who will go in? How will they come out?

The day after the Americans' visit, Galant decided that until the end of Independence Day, this past Tuesday evening, the Gaza Division would maintain a state of very high alert in anticipation of a major operation by Hamas. Galant was acting only on general information, an assortment of indicators that were not quite sufficient to label as preparation for a terror attack, or to issue a warning of such. Had he wanted to convince a judge to issue a restraining order against Hamas on the basis of such fragmentary evidence, he would have gotten nowhere; what was at play here was just his knowledge of the field and the combined savvy of the Southern Command, the division, the brigades and the Shin Bet security service. The strong sense that something was up was borne out Tuesday morning when a barrage of shells and rockets (50 to 60 by Israeli reckoning, 100 according to a Palestinian statement) was unleashed on the Negev.

Under cover of the rocket fire, Palestinian forces gathered with the aim of attacking one of the IDF patrols. The Israeli response, from the ground and with the aid of combat helicopters, thwarted the attack, but left the initiative in Hamas' hands. Galant, considered the highest-ranking advocate in the IDF for a military offensive in Gaza, succeeded too well on the defensive. Had he not succeeded, public pressure would have increased on the echelons above him to approve an offensive operation. However, since the incident did not alter the basic trends, sooner or later an attack will succeed and the transition to an offensive posture will follow.

On Sunday, the eve of Memorial Day, Galant and other officers set out to tour the Gaza Strip border, from north to south. Driving the Jeep was the commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Moshe (Chico) Tamir, former commander of the Egoz Unit and of the Golani Brigade. He has spent most of his adult life as a soldier in Lebanon. Two years ago, he was passed over for commander of his home sector, Division 91. Tamir did not hide his frustration; last summer he had to watch from afar and did not get to Lebanon.

As things stand now, however, if someone cannot get to Lebanon, Lebanon comes to him, in the form of Hezbollah, or Iran. And since the struggle in Gaza is no longer between Israel and the Palestinians but between Israel and Iran, which is prepared to fight until the very last Palestinian, the story is a lot more complicated than just "occupation" and "resistance" and "Oslo" and "negotiations on a final-status arrangement."

The risk involved

On Israel's southern border, within rocket range of Ashkelon, Sderot, Or Haner, Be'eri and Nir Am, a hostile militia is digging in. The number of people bearing arms in Gaza is estimated at about 70,000. Less than half of them are organized within the competing Fatah and Hamas frameworks, which are somewhere between a militia and a gang. But in the event of an IDF incursion, they will all unite. The risk involved in letting the current situation continue is very great. The risk involved in an incursion into the entire Gaza Strip, and especially into Gaza City, is even greater. Everything points to the likelihood of a limited IDF operation.

The Hamas election victory last year inaugurated an accelerated push to build up strength in anticipation of a major clash. The Iranian aid, the porous Egyptian border and the internal ability to build infrastructure unhindered has led Hamas to go within a year "from zero to seven, on a scale of 10," in the estimation of the Southern Command.

Last November, Galant did not support a cease-fire with Hamas. He believed that military pressure stood a good chance of bringing results. The government, under pressure from the United States and still reeling from the battles in Lebanon, thought otherwise. Galant followed orders and overnight withdrew his forces from their forward positions. Almost six months later, everyone agrees that this attempt was a failure. There is no cease-fire; instead, there is a persistent testing of the thin line beyond which Hamas knows that Israel will decide to take action. For the most part, Hamas is staying well clear of that line, with Qassam rocket barrages whose cumulative damage is not yet enough to tip the balance.

Galant, who served as military secretary to prime minister Ariel Sharon, does not seek to put himself in the place of the political leaders: He does not want to use military means to steer the government into making a decision that it does not want to make, but at the same time he is wary of internalizing its considerations so well that he is precluded from making military proposals.

The principle of reciprocity between Israel and the Palestinians can be seen here as well. On the Palestinian side, too, there is a political-military division, but with looser relations of authority. Hamas military commander Ahmed Ja'abari does not do the bidding of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Within the military chain of command, reports are credible and discipline is maintained, but toward the outside - and the PA government is "outside" - everyone lies and feigns ignorance.

All along the border's dozens of double-fenced kilometers, the attacker has a clear advantage in the choice of place, time and means. Faced with the initiative, cunning and surprise of the offense, the defense line will always be breached; and when the objective is not the advance of armored formations, but rather a quick strike to inflict casualties and snatch hostages before beating a rapid retreat, the difference between success and failure is measured in minutes and seconds. Sometimes, as on Tuesday, the attack is foiled, but for the most part this does not deter the attacker. Instead, it prompts him to learn from the experience and to improve his performance the next time.

The report by the committee headed by Giora Eiland on the failure to foil last summer's attack on the Kerem Shalom outpost that culminated in the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit pointed out the self-paralysis that arises from viewing the border as impassable, a paralysis that derived primarily from a policy failed to acknowledge the new reality that emerged with Hamas' ascent to power. It took the horror of the Shalit abduction to dispel that paralysis. Between late July and November, an offensive policy was adopted, but the cease-fire caused it to wither. In recent weeks, Galant convinced Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the political leadership to permit the Gaza Division a little offensive leeway: To fire upon gunmen who get close to the fence, to comb sites suspected to be used as openings for tunnels and to clear out vegetation in which sniper cells or bombers could hide.

Until the storm rolls by

The use of air assaults is certainly preferable when terror cells surround themselves with civilians and even install their weapons launchers on the roofs of multi-story apartment buildings. The problem of separating the terrorists from the rest of the population is further hampered by the fact that causing civilians to flee their homes can be considered a violation of international law. Ultimately, it would also have no benefit: The uprooted would build camps for the 2007 refugees alongside those of the 1948 refugees, and Israel would be responsible for them. No one wants a return of the military administration, of the economic burden and of the sight of women, old people and children thronging the aid distribution trucks of an American church or the UN agencies.

Israel cannot influence the internal Palestinian discourse. Talks with moderates could lead to actions by extremists. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was recently reminded of a similar situation that he experienced personally: On November 1, 1979, Gates, then the assistant to CIA chief Stansfield Turner, attended a meeting with the prime minister of Revolutionary Iran, Mehdi Bazargan, in Algiers. The atmosphere at the meeting was positive and hopes were stirred. That same day, the deposed and ailing shah was admitted to an American hospital. On November 4th, a zealous mob charged the American embassy in Tehran and took 54 staff members hostage; their captivity would last 444 days. Bazargan, the overly moderate revolutionary, was pushed aside by more rigid revolutionaries. If you like, just substitute Mahmoud Abbas for the shah and Haniyeh for Bazargan.

No less important than the military preparations for an operation is the building of the diplomatic infrastructure for an exit from it. On Wednesday evening, on the lawn of the Defense Ministry, Defense Amir Peretz was the guest of honor at his own political funeral. Among the guests was U.S. Army Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, in uniform. As security coordinator, he will be charged with the task of helping to extricate the IDF from Gaza. He will be the one charged with leading the multinational force. The ranks above the Southern Command are deterred by the knowledge that without adequate preparation for the next exit from Gaza, the price of entering it will be too high; that, and the desire to lay low until the storm of the Winograd Committee, the state comptroller, the attorney general and the police investigators passes.