- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

If Israel wants to live up to its publicly suggested goal of eliminating Hamas, it will have little alternative but to invade the Gaza Strip on the ground.

Even that might not work, and it could backfire by strengthening Hamas’ hold on the tiny strip on Israel’s southern border, Middle East specialists say.

It is clear from five days of aerial assaults against Gaza with F-16s and helicopters that Israel is weakening Hamas by destroying its infrastructure, striking buildings housing at least five government ministries and hitting as many Hamas targets as possible.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Israel will fight a war against the Palestinian group until “the bitter end.”

Israel launched the air bombardment Saturday in one of the deadliest operations against Gaza ever. It marked a concerted effort to end rocket fire aimed at Israeli cities and towns as far away as Beersheba, capital of the Negev, and coastal Ashkelon and Ashdod.

The Israeli offensive comes at a time when the Jewish state feels pressured militarily from multiple sources — from Hamas in the south and from Hezbollah, which also has Iranian backing, to its north. In addition, Israel has been contemplating striking Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.

Hezbollah, which launched hundreds of rockets and missiles into northern Israel during the 2006 campaign, possesses missiles that can hit Tel Aviv and, if launched from the Lebanon-Israel border, as far south as the Negev city of Dimona, home to Israel’s own prized nuclear facilities.

Hamas’ attacks by rockets, some homemade, some smuggled in through tunnels dug to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, have penetrated deeper into Israel than in the past.

So far, rocket fire has diminished little despite the Israeli bombardments.

“Israel’s use of air power limits Hamas’ ability to respond but also limits the scope of damage Israel can inflict,” wrote Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency for 34 years.

Israel has called up at least 6,500 reserve soldiers and has sent Merkava tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops to its border with Gaza, which it occupied from 1967 — when it captured the strip from Egypt — until it unilaterally withdrew in 2005. In 2007, Hamas took over the territory from the Palestinian Authority.

Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, said in a telephone interview that Israel’s offensive was intended to do more than merely stop the Palestinian missiles. He said Israel’s intention seems to be to “rearrange the situation on the ground.”

Matthew Levitt, another analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Israeli assault appeared to have two primary goals: to destroy Hamas’ ability to fire rockets at Israel and to “undermine Hamas’ ability to successfully govern.”

Israel, he said, “is really trying to demonstrate that Hamas is incapable of controlling, let alone running, Gaza.”

Many analysts claim that an Israeli ground incursion would fail to eliminate Hamas and could even strengthen the militant group.

Fawaz Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, said by e-mail that Israel cannot defeat Hamas or solve its conflict with the Palestinians militarily.

“Israel cannot eliminate Hamas without killing half a million Palestinians. Even if Israel succeeds in eliminating most of Hamas’ leaders, that would not mean the end of Hamas. A younger, more militant generation would replace the current one,” he said.

Melvin A. Goodman, who was a CIA analyst for 25 years and is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, another Washington policy group, took an even wider view of the risks involved in an Israeli ground offensive into Gaza.

“Israel never learns,” he said by e-mail. “[Israel’s] 1982 invasion [of Lebanon] led to the creation of Hezbollah, the 2006 invasion made Hezbollah a more important political force and the 2008 Gaza tragedy will give new life to Hamas.”

Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also suggested that Hamas is too deeply entrenched in Gaza to be wiped out.

“Certainly, they are going to weaken it for the time being. But they won’t eliminate Hamas from Gaza,” she said.

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