Israel weighs toll of escalation in Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shown at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009 is at a crossroads in the Gaza Strip offensive.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shown at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009 is at a crossroads in the Gaza Strip offensive.David Silverman / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel is fast approaching the moment when it needs to decide between escalating its Gaza offensive, putting its soldiers at greater risk, or quieting its guns perhaps without achieving its top aim of ending Hamas' weapons smuggling across the Gaza-Egypt border.

Hamas, too, is at a crossroads. A quick cease-fire would spare Gaza further devastation. But it could also keep the militants from reaching their key objective of opening Gaza's borders.

Israeli officials on Monday were weighing whether to take their 17-day offensive to a new, more violent phase — invading Gaza's heavily populated areas to try to go after Hamas leaders and weapons stores and pressure the group to enter a truce on Israel's terms. This could be very costly in terms of human life on both sides and yield uncertain results.

A second option is to halt the offensive as part of a truce deal that gives Hamas what it wants: an end to the blockade of Gaza imposed after the militants violently overran the coastal territory 18 months ago. While this would stop the war, it would also likely cement Hamas' hold on power in Gaza — an unwelcome outcome for Israel.

Israel could simply declare victory and get out, content with the deterrent effect that's already been achieved. Hamas would almost certainly think twice before firing rockets on Israel again. This option, unless accompanied by an internationally backed arrangement for the Gaza-Egypt border, could leave Hamas free to keep smuggling in the weapons that threaten hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Under another scenario, Israel could also declare victory and remain in key parts of Gaza, effectively reoccupying territory it left in 2005's withdrawal.

Hope for cease-fire
International mediators expressed hope Monday that a cease-fire could be achieved. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who now serves as an international Mideast envoy, said in Cairo that the "elements of an agreement ... are there" and that he hoped to see a truce "in the coming days."

Hossam Zaki, spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry, told the BBC that cease-fire talks in Cairo were "progressing." He suggested the sides might agree to stop fighting even while details of a truce deal were being worked out.

However, when asked about what is probably the main requirement for any truce to work — guaranteeing Israel that Hamas' rockets and arms smuggling will stop — he said, "Egypt is not in the business of giving guarantees of such a nature."

Despite the truce talk, Israel appears to be in no great hurry to halt its fire. The fighting has killed 870 Palestinians, but only 13 Israelis. Israel believes it has the upper hand, and may see a military escalation as an opportunity to pin Hamas to the wall, maintaining the Gaza blockade while at the same time safeguarding the border with Egypt.

Yet so far no amount of Israeli firepower has made Hamas budge, at least not publicly.

In Syria, Hamas' exiled leader Khaled Mashaal said Palestinian fighters in Gaza are doing well.

"Rest assured about the resistance. It is steadfast in the battlefield and politically. It will not be broken despite the massacres, destruction, sanctions and executions that are taking place," Mashaal told visiting Arab guests.

Israeli intelligence has concluded, however, that Hamas has taken huge hits and may well be ready for a cease-fire. This is in line with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statement over the weekend that Israel is "close" to achieving its goals in Gaza, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's comment that "we have proved to Hamas that we have changed the equation."

Elections, Obama loom
Two other elements work against dragging out the fighting in Gaza: Israeli elections on Feb. 10 and the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20.

Both Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are running in the elections. A military escalation that results in high Israeli casualties could reverse an upward trend now being seen in their poll numbers, especially if Israelis' current overwhelming support for the war begins to wane.

Many Mideast watchers are expecting Obama to be more willing to take Israel to task than President George W. Bush ever was. That expectation was bolstered when Obama told ABC on Sunday that he wanted to adopt "a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk" to Iran, Israel's archenemy.

In the same interview, Obama expressed unequivocal support for Israel's right to defend itself. However, with hundreds of civilians being killed in Gaza and international pressure growing for Israel to stop, it is unlikely Israel's leaders would put Obama to the test.