BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel, pursuing ground attacks in the Gaza Strip to inflict maximum damage on Hamas before any ceasefire, has avoided setting over-ambitious goals, making it harder for its Palestinian foe to claim survival as a victory.
Hamas wants to emulate Hezbollah’s robust showing in the 2006 Lebanon war when it held off Israel’s military might for 34 days. But it lacks the strategic depth, arsenal and capabilities of the Shi’ite Islamist guerrillas, security analysts say.
But whatever its military weakness, the Islamist movement will not vanish. It will seek to fight another day, portraying its struggle to Arabs and Muslims as a beacon for resistance.
Israel’s challenge is to convert its military superiority into political and long-term security gains — without getting sucked into gritty street fighting that would risk significant military losses as well as more carnage among hapless civilians.
“The fundamental objective is to change the reality of security in the south,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday, referring to Israeli towns targeted by Hamas rockets.
A senior Israeli military official on Sunday talked of a prolonged operation “to hit Hamas infrastructure as much as we can (and) decrease the number of rockets.”
Israeli leaders have refrained from promising an end to all rocket fire from Gaza or the overthrow of Hamas rule there.
Yezid Sayigh, a Palestinian analyst at Kings College London, said Israeli leaders were avoiding the mistakes of the Lebanon war when grandiose stated objectives to destroy Hezbollah and eliminate its rocket arsenal set them up for failure.
“This doesn’t mean they won’t be flexible,” he said. “They might have a range of objectives. Depending on how things unfold, they could go for the top or the bottom of the range.
However, without a full-scale invasion of Gaza, Israel was tacitly accepting that Hamas would stay in place, Sayigh added.
Israel has said it has no intention to reoccupy the Gaza Strip. It withdrew its troops and settlers in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, but kept tight control of the enclave’s borders. Hamas drove its Fatah rivals out in June 2007.
“The Israelis want to divide Gaza into slices, cut communications between them and then go for search and destroy missions, without really engaging in all-out urban warfare,” said Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based academic and former adviser to U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon.
Israeli warplanes and gunships pounded the Gaza Strip for eight days — possibly running out of pre-determined targets — before the ground incursions against Hamas. A six-month ceasefire with the Islamist movement had expired on December 19.
Sayigh said the ground troops could occupy open areas and destroy any Hamas tunnels or weapons caches there, but would have to probe into built-up areas to pursue trained fighters.
“They are faced with a stark choice,” he said, recalling Israel’s siege of Beirut during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
“They must either go in, or settle down for attrition, which takes time and then they would come under international pressure to let aid in, let civilians out and avoid medieval warfare.”
The Israeli assault has already killed around 540 Palestinians, while Hamas rockets have killed four Israelis.
“Hamas is very much on the defensive militarily as well as politically,” said Riad Kahwaji, director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
Even if Hamas keeps control of Gaza after an eventual U.N. ceasefire, it would be much weakened and its administration would still lack international recognition — it is at odds with most Arab governments and its main allies are Iran and Syria.
“Who is going to be able to rebuild and compensate the people of Gaza after the fighting is over?” Kahwaji asked, citing the global recession and Iran’s reduced oil income.
Hamas’s militant outlook has thrived in Gaza, many of whose 1.5 million people are the families of refugees forced from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war — their plight is a reminder that military action offers no permanent solution.
Hamas is defying Israel’s stated goal of eroding its will to fight and, if it is able to fire even a handful of rockets at the end of the conflict, will claim some kind of victory.
“They will say this anyway,” Goksel said. “But their rocket fire is very ineffective. They don’t have the same arsenal as Hezbollah. They have to be careful with everything they fire.”
One of Israel’s main aims is to prevent Hamas from rearming via the tunnels dug under Gaza’s border with Egypt. These tunnels have also become a lifeline for civilians since Israel tightened its blockade after Hamas’s 2006 election victory.
Sayigh said Hamas had tried to gain leverage to break the siege when it let the truce elapse amid mutual recriminations.
“But they are in a strategic predicament, trapped in this tiny place. To keep the Egyptians happy they would have had to talk to Fatah on terms they didn’t want,” he said referring to Hamas’s spurning of reconciliation talks in Cairo in November.
“They have a poor set of cards, whose impact they try to maximize, but they only work by being negative,” Sayigh added.
Hamas had made past tactical gains by firing rockets or seizing Gaza from Fatah, but such actions — and its rejection of Israel’s right to exist — had painted it into a corner.
“Hamas has never been willing to make the steps that would alter its options, in terms of recognizing Israel,” he said.
But that ideological refusal is part of Hamas’s appeal as an alternative to what it sees as Fatah’s acquiescence in futile peace negotiations — and may burnish Hamas’s defiant image among Arabs and Muslims enraged by the Gaza onslaught.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul