- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel’s major retaliatory air assault against Gaza strategically is intended to weaken Hamas significantly and to warn its adversaries that it can maintain its deterrent capabilities following its pounding by Hezbollah in 2006, Middle East analysts said Monday.

It was doubtful whether Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, would try to open a second front against Israel, they said.

Israel launched air strikes against major Hamas targets in Gaza for the third consecutive day in what Defense Minister Ehud Barak termed a war to the bitter end, killing at least 364 people and wounding another 1,400. At least 62 of the dead were civilians, the U.N. said, and medics identified another eight dead as children under the age of 17.

Israeli forces moved tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military equipment to its border with Gaza amid a call-up of 6,500 reserve soldiers authorized by the Cabinet in what has been Israels biggest offensive in decades against the Palestinian territory that it occupied from 1967 until 2005.

The offensive was launched in retaliation for repeated rocket attacks against Israeli towns and the southern city of Ashkelon, which is on the Mediterranean Sea, where an Israeli Arab construction worker was killed. About 150 rockets were fired at Israel and Israeli warplanes struck more than 300 targets since the offensive began Saturday.

“It backfired,” said David Makovsky, director of a Middle East peace project at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of the rocket attacks.

“When 140 rockets fall on Israel in two days, there’s got to be consequences,” he said.

“They overplayed their hand,” Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, explained in an e-mail of Hamas.

“Israel warned repeatedly for the past several weeks of the likelihood of a major assault in response to the increased rocket fire, and Hamas did not take heed. The danger of brinksmanship is that sometimes you end up going over the brink.”

The size and scope of the Israeli retaliatory strikes indicated that their purpose was to weaken Hamas significantly, at least temporarily, and to reaffirm its posture as a regional superpower and prove that it can deter its enemies from attacking Israelis following its disastrous offensive against Hezbollah in August 2006.

“The scale of the operation shows that its not intended just to negotiate another cease-fire,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. “The strategy is more intended to weaken Hamas significantly — to weaken it before the Israeli election and the expiration of Mahmoud Abbas term in January.”

Israel will hold elections Feb. 10. Mr. Barak, the Labor Party candidate for prime minister, is lagging behind Likuds Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, and Kadimas Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister. Mahmoud Abbas is president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Hamas took control of Gaza from the PA after Israel withdrew.

The offensive also demonstrated Israels military prowess.

“There’s a deeper strategic notion that Israel lost its deterrence capabilities in 2006 and that this will finish the job [and show] that Israel can use force,” said Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, based in Washington.

But, he said, Israels offensive is “faulty thinking” because “it’s not going to defeat Hamas or spare the Israelis from further attacks.”

On the contrary, Mr. Wilcox said, “it will make it more difficult to restore peace talks. This is a futile, cruel and dangerous policy for Israel.”

Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed.

“This was not a very constructive policy because there isn’t any chance that they [the Israelis] would defeat Hamas,” she said. There will be other radical groups that will emerge.”

An Egyptian-brokered cease-fire expired Dec. 19. Hamas sought to renew the cease-fire under better conditions, chiefly to open humanitarian and commercial traffic between Gaza and Israel,” Ms. Wittes wrote in an e-mail.

“So they escalated their attacks to demonstrate the value of a new cease-fire,” she wrote.

If Israel launches a ground operation into Gaza, it probably will be limited, possibly to go after tunnels that have been dug to smuggle weapons into the coastal strip of territory from neighboring Egypt.

“I can’t imagine they would want to reoccupy it,” Mr. Telhami said.

“If they want to expand to a land incursion,” Mr. Makovsky said, “you can’t rule out that they would try to take over Rafah at the Gaza-Egyptian border. There could be a ground offensive to plug up these tunnels.”

Ms. Wittes, of Brookings, wrote that the only “compelling reason” Israel would have to launch a major ground operation in Gaza would be if it believes that its forces can rescue Gilad Shalit, the soldier who was captured more than two years ago.

“Israel knows this operation, whether it includes ground movement or not, will not solve its ‘Hamas problem’ but will provide a respite from rocket attacks and reduce the effectiveness of Hamas’ local military leadership,” she wrote.

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