- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

ASHKELON, Israel — Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak vowed to stop Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, and the army continued to mass forces at the border on the third day of an air offensive on Hamas targets in the coastal strip.

But despite the tough words, Israeli leaders are trying not to repeat the mistakes of the ill-fated 2006 invasion of Lebanon against Hezbollah, which was regarded as a fiasco and fodder for taunting from Arab enemies.

Hamas upped the ante by shooting more than 60 rockets into southern Israel on Wednesday, demonstrating that the onslaught had yet to degrade its ability to disrupt life on the other side of the Gaza border.

Israel will have to drastically cut Palestinian rocket fire by the end of the war if it wants to claim victory this time around.

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“[Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert has been chastened by the Lebanon experience,” said Michael Oren, a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem who authored a book on the 1967 war. “He talked about toppling Hezbollah and disarming Hezbollah. There are far more modest objectives for this operation — an improved status quo ante.”

Knowing that reconquering the Gaza Strip is not a long-term strategic option, Israel has been avoiding what is considered a problematic offensive ever since Hamas overran the Gaza Strip in 2007. Like in Lebanon in 2006, Israel wants to degrade Hamas’ arsenal and military machine.

But eventually it will have to withdraw to the border because it doesn’t want to take responsibility for the 1.5 million impoverished Gazans in the coastal enclove.

Israel wants to “create a new reality on the ground, a new security environment. We want to try to neutralize the threat that Hamas poses,” Israeli spokesman Mark Regev told reporters. “We didn’t pull out of Gaza in 2005 just to go back in 2008.

That may mean revisiting the informal cease-fire that Israel and Hamas reached through Egyptian mediation in June and that expired on Dec. 19.

Though the terms for the “calm” between the sides was a halt to military activity, it didn’t snuff out the rocket fire that has embarrassed Israeli governments and undermined Israel’s deterrence posture.

As part of the cease-fire, Israel is hoping to force Hamas into a prisoner swap for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006.

International parties including the United States, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the United Nations have all called on both sides to halt the violence and restart talks toward a cease-fire.

In the three days of fighting, the Palestinian casualty toll includes more than 320 dead and hundreds more injured. One Israeli has been killed by rocket fire.

The United Nations said today that at least 50 to those dead were Palestinian civilians.

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