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Israel's Desperate Gamble is Likely to Backfire

The massive shelling of Gaza by Israeli forces, which they say is in retaliation for rocket fire from Hamas, has predictably led to everyone in the western world assume their traditional positions. I don’t want to argue about which side is right or wrong, because clearly the world is starved of that debate.

Yesterday the Jerusalem Post published an outrageous op-ed by former PM Ariel Sharon’s son, Gilad Sharon, arguing that for a “decisive conclusion” to this crisis, Israel needs to assume citizens are “not innocent” and needs to “flatten all of Gaza”. There is even a comparison to the US nuclear strike on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WW2.

I’ll come back to the madness of the proposals later, but Sharon is right on one point: Israel is out of options. The latest attack on Gaza is a desperate gamble and the country’s die-hard supporters in the West need a different approach to secure the country’s long term future. There are two key reasons I say this.

First

Hamas has developed longer-range rockets. This means hit targets further and with more accuracy, placing even the citizens of Tel Aviv under the threat of rocket attacks. Hamas’ increasing military capability was spearheaded by Ahmed al-Jabari – the man that Israel assassinated, kicking off the latest conflict. The New York Times explains:

The commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, had shifted Hamas’s low-grade militia into a disciplined force with sophisticated weapons like Fajr-5 rockets, which are named after the Persian word for dawn and have significantly increased the danger to Israel’s major cities. They have a range of about 45 miles and are fired by trained crews from underground launching pads.

Under Mr. Jabari, Hamas also developed its own weapons industry in Gaza, building long-range rockets as well as drones that they hoped to fly over Israel just as Israeli drones roam the skies of Gaza, sowing fear in its population.

Israel says it is readying a ground force because it wants to take out these long-range rocket pads. I believe that. I just don’t believe this is possible in the medium term. Hamas will immediately build more and continue with its strategy, with help. Israel also believes that taking out top commanders will make Hamas think twice. This is even more naive: it didn’t happen when Israel assassinated Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and it won’t work now. In fact, every time Israel attacks Hamas is strengthened and local support rises.

Second

The Arab spring has hugely changed the area. This is especially true of Egypt, which won’t stand around letting the IDF kill large numbers of Palestinians like Hosni Mubarak did. They have already watched by as 100s of Egyptian activists poured into Gaza this week with medical supplies. If the situation gets worse that trickle will turn into a flood and Israel won’t achieve its goals either. It is unlikely to want a full-scale military conflict with Egypt.

The Arab Spring also strengthened Hamas’ ties with other Arab states, simultaneously loosening Iran’s hold. This means Hamas has gained political legitimacy – the exact opposite of what Israel has been trying to achieve (now you know why Israel also opposed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak).

Unlike past years, the surrounding Arab leaders won’t want to sit by and watch Israel massacre more civilians: not just because the governments have changed, but because inaction could fuel uprisings against them. That rubicon has been crossed.

All this gives Israel very limited time. It is gambling that hitting Hamas with overwhelming force may dissuade it from more rockets attacks in the near future. This is why Gilad Sharon is advocating extreme overwhelming force. The Israeli establishment has become so myopic that the only options under consideration seem to range from retaliation to extreme action.

But neither would not work because it is more likely that Hamas will want to escalate warfare and engage Israel more permanently. Israel would become even more weakened and isolated, with peace even further away. It’s survival would be under even more threat.

There is only one way out of this in the long term for Israel: to break the cycle. Establish a long term cease-fire; stop the illegal settlements; start talking to Hamas; work towards confidence building measures and eventually negotiate a treaty.

If Israel’s supporters in the West want to see the country prosper and survive, they must recognise the dead-end it is currently in and call on it to push in a new direction. Otherwise they too will become complicit in the carnage that is likely to follow.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy which is where this article was originally published.