After Lebanon fiasco, Israel talks down Gaza aims

http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE50435V20090105

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent – Analysis

 

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israel, pursuing ground attacks in the Gaza Strip to inflict maximum damage on Hamas before any ceasefire, has avoided setting over-ambitious goals, making it harder for its Palestinian foe to claim survival as a victory.

 

Hamas wants to emulate Hezbollah’s robust showing in the 2006 Lebanon war when it held off Israel’s military might for 34 days. But it lacks the strategic depth, arsenal and capabilities of the Shi’ite Islamist guerrillas, security analysts say.

 

But whatever its military weakness, the Islamist movement will not vanish. It will seek to fight another day, portraying its struggle to Arabs and Muslims as a beacon for resistance.

 

Israel’s challenge is to convert its military superiority into political and long-term security gains — without getting sucked into gritty street fighting that would risk significant military losses as well as more carnage among hapless civilians.

 

“The fundamental objective is to change the reality of security in the south,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday, referring to Israeli towns targeted by Hamas rockets.

 

A senior Israeli military official on Sunday talked of a prolonged operation “to hit Hamas infrastructure as much as we can (and) decrease the number of rockets.”

 

Israeli leaders have refrained from promising an end to all rocket fire from Gaza or the overthrow of Hamas rule there.

 

Yezid Sayigh, a Palestinian analyst at Kings College London, said Israeli leaders were avoiding the mistakes of the Lebanon war when grandiose stated objectives to destroy Hezbollah and eliminate its rocket arsenal set them up for failure.

 

“This doesn’t mean they won’t be flexible,” he said. “They might have a range of objectives. Depending on how things unfold, they could go for the top or the bottom of the range.

 

However, without a full-scale invasion of Gaza, Israel was tacitly accepting that Hamas would stay in place, Sayigh added.

 

Israel has said it has no intention to reoccupy the Gaza Strip. It withdrew its troops and settlers in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, but kept tight control of the enclave’s borders. Hamas drove its Fatah rivals out in June 2007.

 

“The Israelis want to divide Gaza into slices, cut communications between them and then go for search and destroy missions, without really engaging in all-out urban warfare,” said Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based academic and former adviser to U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon.

 

“STARK CHOICE”

 

Israeli warplanes and gunships pounded the Gaza Strip for eight days — possibly running out of pre-determined targets — before the ground incursions against Hamas. A six-month ceasefire with the Islamist movement had expired on December 19.

 

Sayigh said the ground troops could occupy open areas and destroy any Hamas tunnels or weapons caches there, but would have to probe into built-up areas to pursue trained fighters.

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