Why Israel Hesitates on Gaza Raid

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Hamas demonstrate in Gaza City

It's not hard to find reasons why Israel is hesitant to repeat its recent West Bank military offensive in the Gaza Strip. Although Israeli forces continued to mass at the edge of the territory Friday following a cabinet decision to authorize a retaliation for Tuesday's Hamas suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion, politicians and generals debated the wisdom and purpose of such an operation — and the U.S. was reportedly quietly urging restraint on the Israelis, while pressing the Palestinians to crack down on terrorist groups.

The U.S. and a number of Israel's top military commanders are aware of the danger that an offensive in Gaza could plunge the region back into the depths of crisis, quickly erasing whatever gains have been made over the past three weeks. For the same reason, Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, stressed that unlike "Operation Defensive Shield" in the West Bank, any actions in Gaza would be short-lived and focused on identifiable strongholds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Still, that's easier said than done.

The Islamist terror cells operate in the shadows and base themselves in the Strip's crowded urban areas and refugee camps — Gaza City is one of the world's most densely populated cities. Even though Israeli military strategists believe Israel reestablished its deterrent capacity during "Defensive Shield" by breaking the previous taboo on sending troops into Palestinian cities and refugee camps, doing the same in Gaza raises the specter of civilian casualties — and also Israeli losses — far in excess of those seen in Jenin.

Hamas does maintain a visible infrastructure in Gaza, but that consists almost entirely of the mosques, schools, day-care centers, medical facilities and food-distribution centers of its welfare wing on whom tens of thousands of impoverished Gazans depend. Targeting those could carry a heavy political cost for Israel. Also, the 139-square mile strip abutting Egypt is a hotbed of Palestinian militancy and support for Hamas and other radical groups is higher there than in the West Bank. Reports from the area suggest local militants are preparing to fight hard against any Israeli incursions into Gaza's population centers, and some Israeli commentators fear that an upsurge of violence so close to Egypt will increase domestic pressure in that country to retreat from its own peace treaty with Israel.

Another concern among the Israelis and Americans is the effect of such an operation on efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority and consolidate its security structures. Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan has assumed a greater role in efforts to restore Palestinian security structures both on his home turf and in the West Bank. The U.S. would like to see Dahlan mount a full-blown crackdown on all Palestinian terrorist groups and unofficial militias, in cooperation with Israeli security and intelligence services. But a new Israeli offensive may preclude that, forcing Dahlan to allow his men to resist and, in the course of such action, driving them closer to the very groups the U.S. would like to see them arrest.

The challenge of the Rishon Letzion bombing has left Ariel Sharon in a political bind. He's certainly managed to come out on top in his recent dealings with the Bush administration; despite the recent U.S. interventions to resolve the standoffs in Ramallah and Bethlehem, the Bush administration's talk of reviving political negotiations appears to be back on hold. The see-sawing battle over Mideast policy in the administration seems to be tilting again towards the hawks, with President Bush, during this week's White House visit, appearing to endorse Sharon's position that peace talks will have to wait until security had been restored and the PA thoroughly reformed. That allows Sharon to defer the uncomfortable question of just how much of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza he's ultimately willing to relinquish.

But while Washington may be prepared to give Sharon breathing space on the political questions, his own party is proving less cooperative. The governing committee of Likud is scheduled to vote Sunday to adopt a policy resolution rejecting a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But if committing to a policy that essentially rules out any prospect of peace with the Palestinians leaves Sharon in a difficult position, that may partly be the intention — former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running hard from the right to eclipse Sharon in the battle for the party's nomination for next year's general election, and he currently has the support of the majority of the party. Committing Sharon to precluding a Palestinian state could even bring down his unity government and force an election.

The need to head off the challenge from within Likud raises pressure on Sharon to mount a hard-hitting military operation in Gaza in response the Rishon Letzion bombing. But that pressure may be counterbalanced by concern that a new upsurge of fighting in Gaza could set off a chain reaction that once again tips the balance in the Bush administration towards a more forceful push for peace. Whatever course Israel chooses, the Gaza dilemma highlights the extent to which Washington's recent piecemeal efforts to stabilize the situation have not filled the security and political vacuum left in the wake of Israel's "Operation Defensive Shield." And Hamas has made clear that it plans a whole season of suicide bombs to wreck any resumption of the peace process.