Today, the other shoe dropped. After a week of vicious air assaults on Gaza, the IDF sent in 10,000 troops for the long-expected ground assault. Apparently there have been fierce firefights in which Israel claims dozens of Hamas fighters have been killed. Hamas claims IDF forces have been killed though the IDF refuses to confirm the charge. Haaretz reports that 30 soldiers have been wounded, two seriously.
The Gaza death count is at least 460 with 2,000 wounded. Over 100 of the dead were women or children. 25% were civilians. Besides the Hamas fighters killed today, Israel bombed a northern Gaza mosque during prayers and killed 13 worshippers. This will no doubt foster positive relations with the world’s Muslim population.
In what is the finest piece Ethan Bronner has written since becoming the N.Y. Times Israel correspondent (and I have written critically of his reporting here before), he summarizes the dangers inherent in this invasion. Most importantly, he raises the red flag question: what is Israel’s ultimate goal?
As Israel’s tanks and troops poured into Gaza on Saturday…a question hung over the operation: can the rockets really be stopped for any length of time while Hamas remains in power in Gaza? And if the answer is determined to be no, then is the real aim of the operation to remove Hamas entirely, no matter the cost?
He goes on to quote two of Israel’s most senior ministers as advocating precisely this view:
“There is no doubt that as long as Hamas controls Gaza, it is a problem for Israel, a problem for the Palestinians and a problem for the entire region.”
Vice Premier Haim Ramon went even further Friday night in an interview on Israeli television, saying Israel must not end this operation with Hamas in charge of Gaza.
“What I think we need to do is to reach a situation in which we do not allow Hamas to govern,” Mr. Ramon said on Channel One. “That is the most important thing.”
Is Israel going for regime change? It is a chilling question for those of us who are critical of this operation. Again, Bronner poses the concerns quite acutely:
…While it may sound decisive to speak of taking Hamas out of power, almost no one familiar with Gaza and Palestinian politics considers it realistic. Hamas legislators won a democratic majority in elections four years ago, and the group has 15,000 to 20,000 men under arms. It has consolidated its rule in the past 18 months since pushing out its rivals loyal to the more Western-oriented and moderate Fatah party…
And while there are plenty of Gazans who would prefer Fatah, they seem hardly organized or strong enough to become the new rulers. [And even if they were] they would never be willing to ride into Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank. In fact, the longer Israel pounds Gaza, the weaker Fatah is likely to become because it will be seen as collaborating.
The likelier result of a destruction of the Hamas infrastructure, then, would be chaos, anathema not only to the people of Gaza but also to those hoping for peace in southern Israel.
Here Bronner presents another distressing possibility that must be seriously considered given the failures of the 2006 Lebanon war and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, whose goal was to topple Saddam Hussein–which were characterized by similarly unrealistic expectations:
…Even if Israel intends to hold back from completely overthrowing Hamas, its choice of assault tactics could head that way anyway. And the Israelis may already be facing a kind of mission creep: after all, if enough of Hamas’s infrastructure is destroyed, the prospect of governing Gaza, a densely populated, refugee-filled area whose weak economy has been devastated by the Israeli-led boycott, will be exceedingly difficult.
You’ll recall that Dan Halutz, Amir Peretz and Ehud Olmert confidently predicted the elimination of Hezbollah as a potent force in 2006. You’ll also recall that Don Rumsfeld predicted Iraqis would welcome U.S. forces as liberators. Neither prediction came remotely true. So what happens if Israel gets its wish and Hamas is either eliminated from, or falls from power?
What will take its place? Fatah? Hardly. Fatah was despised in Gaza BEFORE Hamas toppled it. Even if Fatah were willing to do Israel’s dirty work and assume control, the party would be so hated it couldn’t possibly govern effectively. If Israel does reoccupy Gaza it will become responsible as occupier for all of Gaza’s needs, unlike now when it can say it has washed its hands of the enclave. This would also effectively nullify Ariel Sharon’s much heralded withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 thus causing Israel an even deeper black eye on the world state. Not to mention that it would set up Israeli forces as likely target for all manner or suicide bombers and vengeance seekers of whom there would be myriads.
Recall the fact that when the U.S. invaded Iraq it faced only Iraqi army forces which it quickly subdued. Only later did a powerful insurgency arise which made us pay the price for our foolhardy illusions about what we could accomplish there. This is what awaits Israel in Gaza should it eliminate Hamas.
Given the grand delusion that was Israel’s strategy in 2006, any serious observer has to concede the real possibility that Israel wants to go whole hog. Regime change in Gaza would entail an even greater disaster for Israel than would a limited ground operation designed to eliminate Hamas launching capability. The former would lead to a Lebanon-style debacle, while the latter will only lead to a failure of the operation to realize Israel’s objectives to eliminate Hamas rocket fire.
Unfortunately, it’s come to this: trying to persuade Israel to restrain itself from making an even more serious blunder than it already has made. If the U.S., UN and world community continues to diddle and dawdle, then they will have only themselves to blame for the results…not only more bloodshed and loss of innocent life in Gaza, but a receding ever farther into the distance of a comprehensive resolution of the overall conflict.