ANALYSIS / Political infighting delaying Israel response to Gaza rockets
By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff - Haaretz
Israel's response, at least to date, has been limited and measured. On Sunday night, the air force attacked tunnels used for smuggling and an empty police station. Yesterday it struck a team of militants firing mortars, killing one. This is not the threat of a disproportionate response that Israel issued after the IDF pulled out of the Strip, and which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reiterated Sunday. Even though there are operational considerations that are delaying more extensive action (and which was authorized last week), it seems the character of the action now is directly affected by disagreement among the Olmert-Livni-Barak troika.
In the background, political recriminations abound. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni "babbles" and "has never held a weapon;" Defense Minister Ehud Barak "is paralyzed by fear and does nothing."
But the dilemma is real and urgent even without any election considerations. Continued Israeli restraint may destroy the gains of the war - which leads senior officers in Southern Command, as well as among those who took active part in the fighting, to support a harsh response. On the other hand, a more heavy-handed retaliation, such as an assassination of a senior Hamas figure, may lead to renewed fighting, to the point that the residents of Ashdod and Ashkelon will have to vote on 10 February during the breaks between rocket attack sirens.
In theory, Israel is hoping Egypt will find a solution in two or three days. Cairo has asked for the time to cobble together a deal with Hamas by Thursday. If this also leads to a longer cease-fire agreement, of 12-18 months, then harsh military steps will become unnecessary.
This is what Barak seems to be hoping for, as he describes the latest Palestinian attacks as "spasmodic" actions of "ephemeral factions."
However, Olmert and Livni rejected this argument from the first week of the operation. Livni especially feels that the ideal way to end this round of fighting is with sufficiently powerful Israeli deterrent actions to prevent Palestinian attacks, even without any agreements, verbal or written.
As late as Monday night, there was still uncertainty as to whether Hamas intended to respond positively to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. At the conclusion of the fighting two weeks ago, it appeared that the Egyptian proposal was Hamas' surrender to Israel, mostly since the group had agreed to immediately halt fire, even without the IDF completing its withdrawal from the Strip. In the meantime, Israeli troops left Palestinian territory but the rocket attacks have been stepped up. The reason for which Israel embarked on a military operation in the Strip, changing the rules of the game, appear to be simply unrealistic.
But Hamas is also not getting what it wants from the Egyptian initiative. The formula that was put forth in recent days - only for a partial reopening of the crossings, restrictions on the importation of many products and the closing of the Rafah crossing until a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is achieved - is essentially a return to the tahadiyeh (lull) achieved in June 2008. From the point of view of Hamas, the most important part of the deal revolves around the types of items they will be allowed to import into the Strip. Israel is opposed to them being allowed to have cement and iron, arguing that it will be used for military purposes (fortifications and rockets). But a Gaza-based analyst made it clear yesterday that, "without cement and iron there will be no tahadiyeh."
As expected, the Egyptian initiative is causing a great deal of disagreements within Hamas. The group's leadership, and especially Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, is tired of the long stay in bunkers. Haniyeh and his aides are willing to compromise and agree to a partial opening of the crossings, if they are guaranteed that these will be fully open in the future.
On the other hand, the senior Hamas figures from Damascus who visited Tehran Sunday are demanding the complete lifting of the siege on the Strip. Meanwhile the rocket and mortar attacks continue against Israel, although these are being carried out by minor factions. Even though Major General Amos Yadlin may be right in his assessment that Hamas is not involved, the group is also making little effort to stop it, perhaps in the hope that the continued, albeit moderate pressure on Israel will result in the acceptance of Hamas' terms for a cease-fire.