ANALYSIS / What Are Israel's Options in the Gaza Strip?

As Operation Cast Lead enters its sixth day, Israel must weigh the pros and cons of various military and diplomatic actions.

Paradoxically, the longer the war in Gaza goes on, the greater Israel's range of options. When Israel's military or political leadership decided to launch the attack six days ago, it was largely dealing with two major options aimed at outlining scenarios for the end of the war. One was a limited attack by the air force at the end of which, and after Hamas would have sent barrages of rockets in response, an understanding or tacit agreement would be reached that would bring about a truce and quiet. The second scenario assessed that a prolonged attack by the air force and the heavy damage its bombs would inflict on the Hamas regime would defeat the organization.

But as the days go by it appears that the stamina of Hamas and its operational ability are greater than had been assessed by Israel.

Nevertheless, Israel still has a large range of options, as follows (not necessarily in order of Israel's priorities). Each option has advantages and disadvantages, and each is also a derivative of international circumstances - of reactions in the Arab world and the world at large, and public opinion abroad and in Israel.

1. A continuation of the status quo. That is, the air force will continue to pound Hamas targets from the air and in response Hamas will continue to launch rockets. The advantage of this option is that it will ensure that the number of casualties in Israel will continue to be small. The disadvantage is that it is already clear that this will not lead to a decisive victory and the end of the crisis, rather will only prolong it and drag both sides into a war of attrition along the lines of "more of the same."

2. Sending ground forces into Gaza in a limited fashion, in the form of repeated incursions to selected targets and withdrawal back to Israeli territory. The advantage in this scenario is that Israel would show that it is determined in its desire to strike at Hamas, does not content itself with attacks from the air and is not deterred from direct and frontal confrontation with Hamas fighters. Using this option would increase the pressure on the Hamas leadership and have a negative effect on its stamina. The disadvantage is that this is liable to increase the number of casualties on the Israeli side and bring into the battle arena wider circles of the Palestinian population. This option, too, does not necessarily advance the chances of achieving an arrangement that would end the crisis.

3. A ground attack of large dimensions with the aim of occupying the Gaza Strip. This option is least preferred by the Israeli leadership, because it entails the risk of many casualties on both sides and increased friction with the local population. It would also impose on Israel on "the day after" the responsibility of administering Gaza again, and all the attendant ills.

4. A unilateral declaration by Israel of a limited or permanent cease-fire. There is no need to justify this with talk of the need for "humanitarian" aid, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak has suggested. It need only be declared without any need to apologize, explain or justify. Implementing this option would afford Israel a great deal of sympathy and admiration in the world, would distance it from a situation in which the world turns its back on Israel - there are already signs of this - and would transfer "the burden of proof" to Hamas. It would depict Israel as a country that is not eager for war and vengeance, and would enable the international community, the Arab world and Palestinian public opinion, including that in Gaza, to pressurize the Hamas leadership to requite it with a similar declaration. The outstanding disadvantage of this possibility is that it would be possible to argue that apart from bloodshed, Israel achieved no diplomatic aim in its decision to go to war. And the German thinker and military leader Carl von Clausewitz pointed out long ago that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means.

5. A truce agreed upon by both sides, to be achieved by international mediation. This should be the option preferred by the Israeli leadership, which should aim to achieve it as quickly as possible. The president of France will be coming to the region with the aim of mediation. Israel must help and encourage him, and any other fair mediator who has a chance of breaking through the dead-end that is developing. However, Israel must insist that any such agreement be as broad as possible and include a number of issues that the tahadiya - the previous truce - ignored. The agreement must be valid for as long a period as possible - a year and more. It must bring about the release of Gilad Shalit, even at the price of the release from prisons of hundreds of terrorists, including murderers. Inevitably, the agreement would compel Israel to open the crossing points and lift the embargo it is imposing on Gaza.

The advantages of a cease-fire agreement signed by both sides are obvious. It would, of course, first of all put an end to the bloodshed - and this is already a good reason that should be welcomed. It would bring Israel Shalit's release and possibly with its help the "internationalization" of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, by introducing international forces as a wedge between the Gaza Strip and the Israeli border, in a format similar to that on the Lebanese border that helped end the war with Hezbollah two-and-a-half years ago. The disadvantage of a truce agreement is that Israel would not have achieved a victory, even though it would be able to claim that it had struck a hard and painful blow at the organization. Another disadvantage is that the status of Hamas would not be weakened and perhaps might even be strengthened, and it would be able to depict itself as having held up, not broken, and forced Israel and the international community to agree to a truce in which it achieved its aims - the opening of the crossing points and the end of the embargo - and thus entrench its control in Gaza.

6. Stopping the fighting while taking renewed control of the Philadephi route. In this way Israel would control all the entrances and exits to and from Gaza, be able to continue the embargo with the aim of "drying up" the provisioning of fighting materiel to Hamas and the transfer of the funds needed for this, and weaken the organization. However, from this option too Israel would come out looking as though it had not achieved most of the aims for which it had gone to war.

7. Entering into negotiations with Hamas on a diplomatic agreement and security arrangements, including of course the release of Gilad Shalit. In this way Israel would be changing its policy entirely. It would have to admit that it had failed in its aim of bringing Hamas to its knees and was granting it recognition, knocking out any moral or legal basis for its contention that Hamas is a terror organization and thereby leading many countries to recognize it and enter into a dialogue with it, weakening Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, which would prefer to see Israel victorious and the total defeat of Hamas.

An agreement with Israel would strengthen Hamas and its patrons in Iran and Syria, and enable them to gain power and arm themselves for the next conflict. However, it would also bring quiet and calm for a long period to the inhabitants of the south, and enable Israel to consider its relations with the Palestinian Authority in an entirely different light and hone its understanding that it must make far-reaching concessions in order to strengthen itself. A strong Palestinian Authority that wins the enthusiasm of the population is Israel's best guarantee in its struggle against Hamas.