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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009

Israel’s Shifting Strategy in Gaza Strip

Monday 26 January 2009, by Sujata Ashwarya Cheema


With the beginning of the ground offensive in Gaza Strip, the objective of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ appears to have shifted subtly. Though the primary aim of the operation, as reiterated by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, is to force Hamas to cease targeting the civilian population in Israel, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni harbours more ambitious designs. She wants to create a ‘new security environment’ in southern Israel. Does this mean ‘uprooting’ the Hamas Government and reoccupation of Gaza? While rockets are still being fired into Israel, it is possible to argue that Israel is pursuing its fundamental objective. However, a prominent Israeli newspaper reported that there are deep differences between Barak and Livni over the way to end the war in the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, since the ‘Cast Lead’ began, senior Israeli leaders have refrained from announcing far-reaching political goals, although Ehud Olmert’s deputy, Haim Ramon, spoke of the need to “topple Hamas”, while Israel’s ambassador to London, Ron Prosor, told a news channel: “Without Hamas….we will be able to reach out to the ones on both sides….who are willing to move forward.”

In its refusal to extend the ceasefire and by increasing rocket attacks on southern Israel, Hamas has achieved the exact opposite of its purported objectives: namely, to have greater freedom of action against Israel and to remove the partial siege on Gaza. Its freedom to act against Israel has now been severely curtailed by relentless IDF bombardments and the siege on Gaza is total. While it is fallacious to assume that Hamas does not recognise the dispropor-tionate advantage Israel has in military terms, it still chose to fight Israel cynically invoking the ideology of resistance in which civilian deaths are seen as supreme sacrifice. The main goal of Hamas is to remain in power in Gaza and this is why Israel’s primary aim remains eminently attainable. If the Israeli military operation threatens Hamas’ rule, the organisation would be dissuaded from launching attacks from Gaza. It appears Israel has gained the support of the international community and several Arab states to deliver a crushing blow to Hamas by demolishing its military infrastructure.

THE emerging political goal of ‘regime change’ in Gaza is beyond Israel’s power. Installing a new government in Gaza is the responsibility of the Palestinians; it is not Israel’s wont. People of the region are far more resilient to outside intervention than what is usually understood. The failure of the United States in Iraq testifies to the fact that military might does not guarantee the success of political engineering. Islamist forces have become well entrenched in Palestinian society, especially with the failure of the secular Palestinian Authority to grapple with the challenges of building a state. They have an impressive record of providing social services to people and this constitutes the basis of their political power. Therefore, Hamas is here to stay till a viable alternative emerges from the secular camp.

In the light of this reality, the aim of Israel’s strategy in the Gaza Strip should be moderate. Though a world without Hamas is certainly a situation most Israelis would welcome, Israel should refrain from trying to change societies that are bitterly opposed to it. Major General Uzi Dayan, the former Chairman of the Israeli National Security Council, may want an escalation of the Israeli offensive to “dismantle” the Hamas regime and prefer a “vacuum” there, but the possibility of even more extreme elements entering the equation cannot be ruled out. In the current scenario, Israel should use its military and diplomatic resources toward achieving the primary goal of preventing further Hamas attacks. While this is the only realistic goal for Israel in the short term, a long-term goal, which addresses cessation of economic siege on Gaza and withdrawal from occupied Palestinian lands, remains the only definite way to usher in real security not only for the south but also for the whole country.

Dr Sujata Ashwarya Cheema is an Assistant Professor, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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