Last summer’s war between Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Israeli military forces was triggered by the ambush of an Israeli army patrol along the Lebanese border. That ambush resulted in the deaths of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others. That Hezbollah operation came just a few weeks after an attack in Gaza by Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and one taken hostage. All three Israeli soldiers remain in the hands of their respective captors.
As the summer of 2007 approaches, it appears another war may be brewing in the region, this time in the Gaza Strip. The situation in Gaza has been deteriorating steadily since the 2006 elections in which Hamas – considered a terrorist organization by the United States government – soundly defeated (76 seats to 43) the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.
The bad blood between Hamas and Fatah has erupted into a virtual civil war. Despite the hostilities between the two groups, Hamas has been launching Qassam rockets into Israel, at times averaging 30 attacks a day on the Israeli city of Sderot, located just inside the border fence and mortar attacks on Israeli army border posts.
Israel thus far has responded with air strikes, but will likely escalate that response if the attacks do not stop. Just when Hamas has indicated it may accept a one-year ceasefire with the Israelis, Islamic Jihad has begun launching rockets into Sderot. The proposed Hamas ceasefire would include the West Bank as well as Gaza, something the Israelis will probably not accept. It is not clear if Islamic Jihad would abide by the Hamas agreement. Thus far, neither the former Fatah-led government of Muhmud Abbas nor the current Hamas-led government of Ismail Haniyah has been able to stop attacks on Israeli forces and towns, nor stem the internal violence in Gaza that has plagued the Palestinians for years.
Israel reportedly decided that it would augment its air strikes on Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza with increased commando raids and “targeted assassinations” of the two groups’ political and military leadership. Israel’s public security minister stated that Israel would attempt to kill “at the first opportunity” Hamas’s political chief Khalid Mashal, who is currently resident in Damascus, where he runs the organization’s political offices. The minister also said that Israel might consider an attempt on the life of the Palestinian prime minister. In the past, attempts on high-level Palestinian officials have gotten some senior leaders, to be sure, but at the cost of numerous civilian casualties – which does not help their cause.
At some point, the Israeli people are going to demand the government take action against these groups in Gaza. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, are supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which provides money, weapons and training to all three groups. Israeli military intelligence officers claim that Iran has provided sophisticated anti-tank weapons – missiles and later-generation rocket propelled grenades – to both Palestinian organizations via tunnels from Egypt. Even leaders of the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Brigades claim they are creating a “south Lebanon” in Gaza in case of an Israeli assault, admitting they are receiving rockets from outside the territory.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even the al-Aqsa Brigades might think they can fight a successful Hezbollah-style guerrilla campaign against the Israel Defense Forces, but Gaza is not Lebanon. It is flat, not mountainous like Lebanon, much smaller and bordered on two sides by Israel. Its Mediterranean coast is less than 25 miles long and could be blockaded by the Israeli navy, much more easily than controlling Lebanon’s 120-mile coast. Will the three Palestinian groups put aside their differences with each other and coordinate their operations against the Israelis?
More importantly, though, is the attitude of the Israeli leadership. Given the criticism that the Olmert government received for its poor performance in Lebanon last summer, they won’t make the same mistakes twice. Any military action against Gaza will likely by swift, violent and decisive.