"No side has an interest in going to war in Gaza," says a member of the security cabinet. "Hamas knows it will lose in a confrontation, Israel knows it will pay a price in casualties, and Palestinians not affiliated with Hamas understand that it will thrust them into a difficult period. If a conference were to be held in Madrid, or in Hebron, all sides would agree on this."
In the absence of such a conference, Israel and Hamas are conducting the dialogue between them by means of Qassam rockets and airborne assassinations. This is how it will continue, the security cabinet member says, until both sides get tired. There will be a respite until the next round of violence. "Until we have established an atmosphere of deterrence in Gaza, this is how we will live, from one round to the next," the minister sums up.
His working assumption is also accepted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The two security cabinet meetings Olmert held on the situation in Gaza, and the security consultations he convened indicated that he is not eager for escalation. He is trying to exert controlled pressure on Hamas, which is meant to lead to a reduction in the firing of Qassam rockets. "There is no immediate solution to the Qassams, and there is no absolute solution, either," Olmert told the residents of Sderot when he visited there on Monday this week. Give him relative quiet, such as existed before Independence Day, and Olmert will make do with that.
The aerial assassinations in Gaza are perceived as signals to Hamas, not as a comprehensive answer to terrorism. Sometimes the raids are successful: On Monday morning, Olmert authorized the Israel Defense Forces to kill four members of Islamic Jihad, and a few hours later they were hit in their car near Beit Lahiya. The four were among the top ranks of the Qassam operators.
The public threat of the "drastic measures" Israel will adopt if the situation worsens suggest that there is no enthusiasm among Israel's senior echelons for a prolonged incursion into Gaza. No one in the security cabinet supports such an operation, and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has not recommended it. Contrary to the impression created in the media, the situation assessment is not dichotomous - as if the choice is between occupation of the Gaza Strip or doing nothing. A security cabinet member speaks of "graded escalation": deploying forces in the northern Gaza Strip to distance the Qassam threat; declaring a broad section along the fence as a killing zone, in which movement of Palestinian vehicles will be forbidden; and stepping up the pressure on Beit Hanun, in the Strip's northeast corner. "It's as though Beit Hanun, which is isolated from the rest of the Palestinian urban communities, was created specifically to exert such pressure. You go in with forces, and residents begin to flee, which increases the pressure on Beit Lahiya and Gaza City, and you make arrests, which will also become assets for returning [abducted soldier] Gilad Shalit. And we haven't yet said anything about the water and the electricity in Gaza," the cabinet minister notes.
There are other possibilities as well, none of them pleasant for the Palestinians, which do not involve calling up reserve divisions and sending them into the heart of the Gaza Strip. Underlying all the options is the assumption that putting pressure on the population will translate into an end to the Qassam rockets. The problem is that there are no quick fixes here. Spring 2002's Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, which in retrospect was perceived as a miracle drug to eradicate terrorism, was no such thing. Before the operation, 450 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks - but another 450 were killed after the operation. And we must not forget the 34 soldiers who were killed in battles in Palestinian cities. Calm did not return to the West Bank until the end of 2003, more than a year and a half after the army entered its cities, and it has not left them since.
If the Qassam barrages are stopped, Sderot will return to normal life and the southern front will disappear from the headlines for a while. But this will not stop Hamas' military buildup in the Gaza Strip, which continues unabated, aided by arms smuggling through tunnels dug under the Philadelphi strip in Rafah and compounded by terror activists undergoing training outside the Gaza Strip. The arms smuggling presents Israel with a "catastrophe dilemma": As long as relative quiet prevails above the ground, there is no domestic or international legitimacy for forceful preventive operations. But when acts of terrorism and rocket firing occur, the focus is on dealing with the immediate threat, and the subterranean smuggling is left aside.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was raised in a Revisionist home, remembers the line "quiet is garbage" from the anthem of the Beitar movement. She describes the strengthening of Hamas as the source of all the troubles: the weakening of the moderate Palestinian camp, the rise of the extremists, the firing of the rockets. A cease-fire will only aggravate the problem, by giving Hamas time to organize and engage in more smuggling, using the cover of the truce.
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