December 31, 2008


Is Israel repeating mistakes of the past?: Israel has promised a "war to the bitter end." Yet history shows that battling an organization like Hamas is almost futile. (Yassin Musharbash, Dec. 31, 2008, Der Spiegel)

Armies and governments prefer to avoid such conflicts. They often end without a clear victor; nobody capitulates, there is no white flag waved, no peace treaties signed. Other rules apply. One of them is the following: If the militarily inferior rebel group manages to survive, it is seen as the victor.

Two years ago, the truth of this rule was brought home to Israel after its summer war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The Israeli army attacked with the goal of ending the Hezbollah threat after the terror group kidnapped two Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese border. But the war, pitting the ultra-modern Israeli force against a few thousand irregulars from Hezbollah, dragged on for weeks. Now the war is seen as a disaster in Israel, and Hezbollah came away seen as the victors, and its image in the Middle East was only strengthened.

Nevertheless, Israeli officials are once again resorting to the all-or-nothing rhetoric heard in 2006. This time around, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has spoken of a "war to the bitter end" and of an "all-out war." This time, the opponent is Hamas.

Israel's anger is understandable. On Dec. 19, Hamas elected not to renew a fragile six-month-long cease-fire with Israel and began once again lobbing explosives at random across the border into Israel. Those rockets have killed four people this week. But the question remains: Is a vast military offensive of the kind we have seen this week the best way for Israel to proceed?

It is certainly risky. Most experts on asymmetrical warfare warn that it is virtually impossible to eliminate a group like Hamas -- with its military and social components -- merely with superior firepower. Furthermore, the offensive strains Israel's relations with its neighbors Jordan and Egypt -- bonds that have never been very tight. It also weakens the positions of those Palestinians who were in favor of a negotiated peace with Israel.

The last five days of Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which have seen over 350 Palestinians killed and many more wounded, have highlighted the problems inherent in such an asymmetrical operation. Planes have targeted mosques because Israel thinks they are being used to cache weapons; apartment blocks where high-ranking Hamas members live have been destroyed, almost guaranteeing civilian casualties. The university was destroyed because it espoused the Hamas ideology. Each one of these targets presents a dilemma -- and the images they create are unhelpful to Israel. Indeed, the only targets that make sense are the smuggler tunnels under the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

It is also unclear that the offensive brings Israel a single step closer to its ultimate goal of eliminating Hamas entirely. Indeed, the more intense the Israeli bombing campaign has become, the more Palestinian rockets have flown across the border into Israel. Hamas may be briefly weakened as its commanders are knocked off and its weapons depots destroyed. But, in the long run, it is difficult to see Hamas not benefiting the same way Hezbollah benefited from the 2006 war. Their aura as resistance fighters can only be strengthened.

Looked at objectively, one would have to conclude that Israel feared Hamas was becoming too weak politically and needed to be boosted.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 31, 2008 2:10 PM
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