FACTBOX-Israel’s options on Gaza

Author : Mircea Birca | Saturday, March 1, 2008

Israel killed 33 Palestinians on Saturday in one of its deepest and deadliest incursions into the Gaza Strip since pulling out in 2005, stoking fears of a broader conflict that could derail renewed U.S.-backed peace talks.Here are some of the choices Israeli leaders face:

ALL-OUT INVASION:

PROS:

– The best-equipped army in the Middle East, with total control of the air, could overwhelm Hamas guerrillas and their allies, who may number around 35,000.

– It might quiet critics who demand action after a rocket killed an Israeli near the border town of Sderot on Wednesday and longer-range Katyushas hit the bigger city of Ashkelon.

CONS:

– Despite a massive superiority in firepower, taking and holding the urban jungle of Gaza’s Palestinian refugee camps would certainly cost Israeli lives, even if lessons have been learned from the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah, when 114 Israeli troops were killed in a month of fighting. Hamas might also kill Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom it captured in 2006.

- However angry Israelis are at rockets fired from Gaza, these have killed three only Israelis in the past year. The outcry over the Lebanon war has made Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his team wary of public reaction to Israeli casualties.

– Heavy fighting would cause casualties among Gaza’s 1.5 million civilians, half of whom are children. In Lebanon, 900 civilians died compared to 300 Hezbollah fighters. Israel risks condemnation abroad, and possibly sanctions.

– Though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shuns Hamas, a bloodbath in Gaza would put Abbas under huge domestic pressure to break off new, U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations.

– Retaking Gaza would leave the problem of whether Israel would resume the occupation it ended in 2005 after 38 years. It has vowed not to. But withdrawing after an invasion might see more hostilities from even more embittered Gazans. There has been talk of foreign peacekeepers, as in Lebanon — but few nations have much appetite for taking on Gaza’s problems.

LIMITED FORCE:

PROS:

– Some Israeli officials speak of a swift move into parts of the 45 km (30-mile) long strip of coast, notably into the relatively thinly populated “Philadelphi Corridor” in the south that would cut Hamas off from supply tunnels from Egypt and into northern areas from which rockets are hitting Israel.

– Such a move, officials say, could be accompanied by air strikes and commando operations to kill the Hamas leadership and let Abbas’s Fatah loyalists take control of the enclave.

– Domestic politics may play a part. Some believe Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and senior general newly returned to politics as leader of Olmert’s main coalition ally Labor, could use a successful strike against Hamas to enhance his standing before a possible early election.

CONS:

– Even a limited operation risks casualties, both Israeli and civilian Palestinian, and their consequences.

– It is unclear how hard it may be to dislodge Hamas even without senior leaders, and the rocket fire might continue.

– Although Fatah has hundreds of thousands of supporters in Gaza, Hamas routed its forces in June. Hamas has pushed hard a message that Abbas is collaborating with Israel. And Hamas’s 2006 election win confirmed its popularity in Gaza.

SANCTIONS AND DIALOGUE:

PROS:

– Israeli judges, not always helpful to the military, have ruled it lawful to cut energy and other supplies to Gaza. Israel has shown it can seal off Gaza quite easily.

– By pushing Gazans to make a connection between hardship and Hamas rule at a time when aid money is flowing into the Fatah-run West Bank, Israel, its Western allies — and Abbas — hope Palestinians in Gaza will turn against the Islamists.

– A poll this week showed most Israelis favor dialogue.

CONS:

– Sanctions so far have had little obvious effect on Hamas. And while both sides say they are open to dialogue, they begin poles apart. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and wants it to halt all military activity in the West Bank or Gaza and end the blockade before it would talk. Israel and its Western allies say Hamas must accept Israel’s right to exist and end all violence.

– Sanctions have drawn international condemnation and accusations Israel is breaking the Geneva Conventions because it is still effectively the occupying power. Hamas scored points with many when it forced open Gaza’s Egypt border last month.

– The embargo has hit Israeli businesses which long sold into Gaza and bought Gaza’s fruit, flowers and other goods.

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