- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ASHKELON, Israel

Israel bombarded Gaza for a third day Monday and massed forces at the border of the coastal strip in an onslaught that appeared aimed in part at restoring a six-month truce on more advantageous terms.

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

So far, the offensive has created havoc in the crowded enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians without ending the rocket attacks on Israeli towns that provoked the offensive on Saturday. Hamas upped the ante on Monday, sending dozens of rockets into Israel and killing three Israelis - the highest one-day toll from Gaza missiles.

The carnage remained disproportionate, however.

Four Israelis have died since the offensive began, while the Palestinian death toll exceeds 360, said Palestinian medical officials quoted by the Associated Press. The United Nations said at least 62 civilians have died, and Palestinian medics said the dead included eight children. More than 1,400 people have been wounded.

The reaction of top U.S. leaders Monday did not change: near-unanimous support for the Jewish state and blame for Hamas for the fighting.

“The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters at President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The nation’s top elected Democrat currently in office, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, spoke similarly, saying, “I strongly support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza.”

However, President-elect Barack Obama remained silent on the matter, despite having been briefed over the weekend by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

On Monday, Israel demolished more buildings associated with the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza, including a five-story building in the women’s wing at Gaza’s Islamic University. Black smoke blew over the coastal strip, and Palestinians hunkered down amid the sound of explosions and drone aircraft.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel would use “every means” to stop Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. But despite the tough words, Israelis and Middle East specialists said, Israel was trying to avoid the mistakes of an ill-fated 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which wound up strengthening the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “has been chastened by the Lebanon experience,” said Michael Oren, a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and author of numerous books, including one on the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel captured Gaza among other territories. “He [in 2006] talked about toppling Hezbollah and disarming Hezbollah. There are far more modest objectives for this operation: an improved status quo ante.”

Like the situation in Lebanon in 2006, Israel wants to degrade Hamas’ arsenal and military infrastructure. But reconquering Gaza is not a long-term option, because Israel does not want to rule the Palestinians there again.

Israel has been avoiding an offensive ever since Hamas overran the Gaza Strip in 2007 and overturned the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which is now confined to the West Bank.

The current flare-up, however, is liable to draw Israeli ground troops into Gaza at least for the short term.

“You cannot eliminate these launchers from the air,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator and author of “The Much Too Promised Land.”

“The Israelis will want to kill operatives and eliminate infrastructure. But I don’t think this is an effort to demolish Hamas and reoccupy Gaza.”

Foreign parties including the United States, Britain and the United Nations have called on both sides to halt the violence and restart talks toward a new cease-fire.

Arab foreign ministers were due to meet in Cairo on Wednesday to discuss the crisis as anti-Israel demonstrations spread through the Arab world and in parts of Europe.

The Bush administration blamed Hamas for starting the crisis. But State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said, “We are encouraging all the nations in the region to take an active part in rebuilding the cease-fire so that we can return to the relative calm that was enjoyed in the region over the past six months.”

The endgame may entail changing the terms of the truce that Israel and Hamas reached through Egyptian mediation in June and that expired on Dec. 19.

The so-called “calm” called for a halt to military activity but didn’t snuff out the rocket fire, which has embarrassed Israeli governments and undermined Israel’s deterrence posture.

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

Hamas, which was also unhappy with the cease-fire, wants to force Israel to open border passages to allow commercial goods into Gaza, ending an economic siege.

There is also an element of domestic politics for Israel.

Israel holds elections in February, and the offensive has boosted Mr. Barak in the polls even though his Labor Party is running far behind the ruling Kadima and the opposition Likud parties.

Polls also suggest that center-left parties could control a majority of the parliament, a shift that would make Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the leader of Kadima, prime minister.

In previous weeks, polls indicated that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu easily would be able to form a majority right-wing government.

If, however, the fighting ends inconclusively as it did in Lebanon, Mrs. Livni and Kadima are likely to lose support.

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