The Assault on Gaza Will Not Stop Rockets, but Could Influence The Israeli Elections

Palestinian militants have been firing mortars and home-made rockets
from Gaza since 2002, long before the Israeli disengagement. In the 20
months between the disengagement in September 2005 and Hamas'
consolidation of control in June 2007 (when it defeated Fatah aligned
security forces), around 2,700 rockets
were fired into Israel, killing 4 Israeli civilians. It is widely
accepted both that these indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli towns
such as Sderot are wrong and inexcusable, and that Israeli attacks-such
as the ones yesterday that killed hundreds in a few hours-are on an
entirely different scale.

However, Israel's past military responses to the rocket threat,
although massively disproportionate, have also been largely
ineffective. It demolished buildings and levelled large areas of farm
land in the northern part of Gaza to reduce the cover available for
rocket crews. It fired over 14,000 artillery shells in 2006, killing 59
Palestinian civilians in the process, in what was framed as a
preventive tactic to make it more difficult for rocket crews to
operate. It launched major and prolonged incursions such as Operation
Summer Rains in June 2006, devastating infrastructure such as the Gaza
power station and killing hundreds. But still rocket fire continued,
and in fact intensified in response to any increases in Israeli

Instead, the only effective way of preventing rocket fire has been
ceasefires, such as the one Hamas (but not other factions such as
Islamic Jihad) observed from November 26th 2006 to April 24th 2007.
Since Hamas increased its control of Gaza in June 2007 it has been in a
stronger position to compel other factions to comply with truces, and
hence was able to halt all rocket fire from June 19th 2008 until Israel
violated the ceasefire on November 4th with a raid that killed 6 Hamas
members. Israel's current campaign against the police in Gaza and other
Hamas security infrastructure is unlikely to damage the capability of
rocket crews - small autonomous units that are not tied to particular
locations - but it could reduce Hamas' ability to enforce future
ceasefires. Meanwhile, Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bett, told a cabinet meeting on December 21st that he believed Hamas was willing to renew the ceasefire, and wanted to extended it to the West Bank and to include an end to the siege brought about by Israel's near-total closure of Gaza's borders (a siege which the UN has long called to be lifted on humanitarian grounds).

Given that past experience strongly suggests that military action
is ineffective, and that there were grounds to negotiate an extension
of the ceasefire, why did Israel launch another military assault? The
BBC's Katya Adler asks
insightfully: "Does it really believe it can stop the rocket fire from
Gaza when previous Israeli governments have tried and failed, using
every military means?" She notes in answer that: "Israel's politicians
are pursuing a parallel campaign, too - an electoral one...The Israeli
public has a generally low opinion about how their government has
handled what they call "Hamastan" - Hamas-controlled Gaza. Until it
started talking tough, the hawkish opposition leader, Binyamin
Netanyahu, was leading in the polls. Now the gap has narrowed."

While most of the foreign media has not yet explored this issue,
the Israeli media is certainly aware of the political significance of a
major military campaign only weeks before elections (on February 10th)
in which the governing coalition had been expected to lose power. The
Jerusalem Post quotes officials
from Defence Minister Ehud Barak's Labour Party as saying that the war
is Barak's chance to remind voters "that we need someone with his
experience, someone sane to be in power in these crazy times." Recent polls
have suggested that the Labour party will receive less than 10% of the
vote, falling from its current place as the second largest party
represented in the Knesset to possibly fifth or sixth place, which
would be its worst ever result. The Jerusalem Post also notes that if
the election is delayed (as it was in 1973 due to the Yom Kippur War)
as a result of the conflict, Mr Barak and the outgoing Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert are the two men who stand to benefit most. Mr Olmert may
well want a legacy beyond the corruption charges which are forcing him
to step down after the next election. Similarly, the foreign minister,
Tzipi Livni, has the opportunity to strengthen her hawkish credentials
as she defends Israel's actions to the world, and thereby bolster her
party Kadima, which has been at second place in the polls, lagging
behind Mr Netanyahu's Likud party.

Electoral politics are not the whole story. There are plenty of
people in the Israeli military who have, irrespective of their
party-political preferences, been looking for an opportunity for a
major assault on Gaza since June 2007, and the formal end of the
ceasefire on December 18th did provide a proximate excuse for an
assault. However, it is also highly unlikely that the ministers who
issued the orders for Saturday's attack did not do so without at least
one eye on February 10th. As the body count increases in Gaza, and
probably also among Israelis, the world needs to carefully examine the
motives of Israel's leaders, while calling for an immediate end to

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