With rockets flying, is it time to change Gaza approach

jerusalem | More than a week of unabated Kassam rocket attacks on Sderot has created a huge policy dilemma for the Israeli government: What should it do to stop radical Gaza-based militiamen from firing missiles on Israeli civilians and causing pandemonium in the border town of 22,000?

Should it target radical Hamas leaders and operatives from the air, or move large ground forces into Gaza to push the missile launchers out of range? Should the international community be involved or should Israel go it alone? Should Gaza be proclaimed an enemy state or should Israel keep open options for early accommodation? And lastly, should Israel smash the Hamas-led Palestinian government or negotiate with it?

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, heavily criticized for taking precipitate action against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, so far has committed only limited air power. But other voices inside and outside his government are calling for more radical action.

On Sunday, after a sustained six-day barrage during which Palestinian gunmen fired approximately 150 rockets at Israeli civilians in the Gaza area, the government decided to step up its air attacks on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but not to authorize any major ground operation.

Anyone actively involved in terror — Hamas and Islamic Jihad militiamen and senior officials who give them orders — would be potential targets for assassination from the air. The air force also would be free to strike at Hamas and Islamic Jihad bases, weapon stores and Kassam-manufacturing shops.

Most military experts agree that the only way to stop the Kassams is through a major ground operation. They acknowledge, however, that it would come at great cost in terms of Israeli military casualties, Palestinian humanitarian suffering, international opinion and economic losses.

Worse, the fighting could get out of hand and lead to a wider war involving Lebanon and possibly Syria.

Former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, for example, argues that Israel should define Gaza as an enemy state with which it is at war.

That would mean no movement of goods or people across the borders; all Gaza state institutions and personnel would become targets; Israel could announce deadlines for stopping the flow of electricity, water and fuel into Gaza, giving the Gazans time to make other arrangements; and reserve the right for Israel to reoccupy parts of Gaza.

As much as the government is worried about the Kassams, it is even more concerned about the flow of arms through tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.

Hamas will be able to field a formidable military machine within a year unless the arms flow is stopped, Israeli military officials fear. Tons of arms, including anti-tank weapons, Grad ground-to-ground rockets, anti-aircraft missiles and high explosives are said to be pouring into Gaza on a daily basis.

The Israeli military is concerned as well by increasing numbers of Hamas militiamen slipping across the border into Egypt and making their way to Iran for training.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is pressing for the deployment of an international force on the Palestinian side of the border to stop the smuggling. She envisages a force modeled along the lines of the 11,000-strong UNIFIL contingent patrolling the Lebanese border with Israel, with a similarly “robust” mandate to stop arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.

In a mid-May meeting with foreign ambassadors in Jerusalem, Livni actually put the ball in the international community’s court.

“We are ready to consider such a force, but will you be ready to provide it?” she challenged the assembled dignitaries.

But there are voices in Israel, including some in the Labor Party, saying that the diplomatic boycott of Hamas needs to be rethought and possible negotiations with Hamas should begin.

What would there be to talk about?

Perhaps a long-term hudna, or cease-fire — 10 or even 20 years — in return for Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

With the Kassams still whistling across the border, however, that seems a long way away.

Evacuees from shelled town ponder fate