Israel Invades Gaza, Hoping to Pummel Hamas into a Truce

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

Israeli soldiers advance near the border with northern Gaza during a ground operation by the Israeli army late on Jan. 3, 2009

For more than a week, Israel kept its troops poised for action at the edge of Gaza. But after seven days of aerial bombardment — and much grumbling in the Israeli military about indecisiveness on the part of the political leadership — the order finally came on Saturday evening to invade the Palestinian territory controlled by Hamas. Following an artillery barrage aimed at detonating buried explosives and mines, Israeli armored columns began moving into Gaza in an apparent attempt to take control of areas used by Palestinian militants to fire rockets into southern Israel. Israeli officials stressed that the objective was to deal further punishing blows to Hamas in the hope of deterring further rocket fire. But although Israel's military spokesman said the invasion would last "many long days," several factors may yet limit the duration of the ground operation.

Although the eight-day air campaign in Gaza has claimed some 450 Palestinian victims, and continues to inflict damage on Hamas fighters — as well as, inevitably, nearby civilians — the attacks have not kept Hamas from launching more missiles. At least 15 rockets fired from Gaza struck southern Israel on Saturday.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who make the ultimate command decisions for Operation Cast Lead, have been restrained until now from launching a full-scale ground attack because of the limited goals of the Israeli operation and the time available before the diplomatic pressure for a cease-fire compels Israel to back off.

Unlike the botched invasion of Lebanon in 2006, when Israel set itself the unattainable goal of eliminating the military capability of Hizballah, this time Barak and Olmert have made clear that their objective is not to wipe out Hamas, but instead to force the radical group to accept a durable cease-fire on Israel's terms. While they hope to weaken Hamas, Israel's leaders are aware that a military campaign is unlikely to destroy the organization that remains the most popular political force in Gaza. Any attempt to do so would require not only a massive invasion of all of Gaza, but also an open-ended reoccupation of a hostile population, a trap Olmert and Barak want to avoid at all costs. Thus, the key requirement for entering Gaza is having a quick exit strategy.

Israel is also acutely aware of the diplomatic clock, and the invasion will likely be over before Barack Obama moves into the White House. Israeli officials don't want Gaza to land on his desk as a major crisis — in part because they don't really want him intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also because they want him to prioritize Iran. Diplomatic moves already afoot by the U.S. and Europeans — and the mounting pressure on Arab regimes, including that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, to intervene even if their unstated preference is to see Hamas hobbled — might result in Operation Cast Lead ending a lot sooner than Jan. 20.

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