Sunday, December 28, 2008

On the Gaza Air Raid

Israel hit Gaza--hard--for the second straight day today in an air raid. Short of decisive, the attacks are looking ugly, pulling Israel into a mess that they may not be willing to deal with. But diplomatic pressure remains low.

300 Gazans are dead--Hamas reports 180 of their own and the rest civilians, the Israelis, of course, claim more. 700 are wounded. Hospitals are flooded. The place is a mess. Okay, now what?

If the Israelis were trying to strike a crippling blow to Hamas, and keep them from operating, then fine. It might be worth the PR problems that are being generated, and it might be worth the resentment of their Palestinian neighbors. Any raid like this has huge political costs. But Livni has openly declared that there won't be a ground invasion, and this will not be the crippling blow to Hamas. Then what is it? What's the benefit?

This campaign looks like a deterrence/punishment operation, from its nature. It's an attempt to tell Hamas, "hurt us a little, and we'll hurt you a lot." Hamas and Israel don't recognize each other as legitimate, and Hamas isn't participating in talks with Fatah, Israel, or even an Egyptian mediator. There's little talking that can be done to Hamas.

But this mayhem may not be what Israel wants. Mayhem should be an unfortunate byproduct of a bigger operation--eliminating Hamas' rocket capabilities, or decapitating the leadership. But neither of those are happening. Israel probably won't seriously hamper Hamas' ability to throw rockets into Israel, and it's certainly unlikely to break Hamas' will--martyrdom is encouraged and sought-after among Hamas' members, and civilian deaths are an infuriating motivator in any bombing campaign (think of the London Blitz).

So Israel seems to be failing to really make a blow to Hamas' capability or will with this air raid. There is a possibility that this raid is actually a signal to Fatah and its leader, Abbas, that Israel's grievances must be taken seriously by the PA if the PA is going to be able to govern itself. Fair enough. If anyone is getting the signal that Gaza needs to be put under control, it's Mr. Abbas.

What this assault won't do is strike a blow to Hamas' popularity--if anything, its base is likely to be energized. If Israel hoped to convince Hamas supporters that their party's irresponsible behavior was the cause of the attack, they've failed.

But, Israel's options remain open. They're really not taking much in the way of diplomatic fire--the UN, EU, and Arab states are calling for "restraint" and an end of hostilities--but there's very little condemnation coming out of the region, the EU, or the UN. Obviously, the US is expressing its hope for a peaceful resolution, but has openly told the Palestinians that they had it coming.

Abbas has sent an official condemnation, but that was to be expected. Arabs throughout the region are protesting in the streets, burning Israeli flags and whatnot, but their governments are not responding strongly. International politics is trumping domestic politics in the region. It's a sign that the Israelis--particularly their Foreign Minister Livni--have prepared the diplomatic battlefield. It means that they've got options in the bag, and it means that they have, over time, earned the acceptance of their regional community. But unless they can start thinking about a new approach, and focus on what their political goals in this operation might be, the diplomatic maneuvering might all be for naught.
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