Destroyed homes following an Israeli air strike on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. The stated objective of Israel’s offensive on Gaza is to force Hamas to accept Israeli conditions for a ceasefire. Israel demands that the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip accept its geographic isolation while the border crossings with Egypt and Israel remain closed except for humanitarian aid. In addition, Israel also demands the presence of multinational forces to ensure the implementation of any new cease-fire agreement.
However, Israel’s Gaza operation also has undeclared objectives. The first is to restore the eroded credibility of the Israeli armed forces and their political power. The second is to secure the political place of Defense Minister Ehud Barak for the upcoming parliamentary elections on 10 February.
Labor’s election campaign is focused on building the image of Ehud Barak as a leader. The offensive on Gaza, led by Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (who is not running for reelection) and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi helps to create such an image in the public imagination. Israel’s attack on Gaza marginalized the public figure of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition. Their role is limited to that of observers and commentators, as neither of them is part of the decision making process of the offensive.
The goal of Labor’s election campaign, however, is not the election of Barak as Prime Minister, since the Labor Party will not achieve more than 15 seats in the next parliament, but to ensure his placement as Minister of Defense in any possible future government.
While Barak goes to the elections as a candidate of the Labor Party, it is expected that in the next government he will be representing the interests of the military. Similarly to the way the Ministry of Defence functioned during Olmert’s current government, in the next government, the Ministry under Barak’s leadership will continue to be an autonomous body that protects the bureaucratic, economic and political interests of the armed forces.
The armed forces support Barak because, among the possible candidates for the next Minister of Defence, he is the only one capable of representing their interests.
On the ground, the military asymmetry between the Israeli forces and Hamas during the operations renders it impossible to define the events of the past week as a war. While Israel demonstrated a capacity to kill hundreds and destroy civil infrastructure of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians launched rockets that can only create a certain panic amongst Israelis. The asymmetry here is greater than during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Then, the Hezbollah was able to paralyze northern Israel. This does not happen now in the western Negev.
However, this asymmetry makes it impossible for Israel to achieve a military victory. The way the events in the Gaza Strip will develop is secondary to the fact that in order to achieve a victory, Hamas only has to survive its confrontation with the Israeli military.
In the elections of January 2006, Hamas was established as the leading political force in the territories Israel occupied in 1967. With the fighting in Gaza, Hamas became the leader of the Palestinian national liberation movement, marginalizing the traditional forces such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Moreover, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are forced to choose between collaboration with Israel and accepting Hamas’ leadership in the struggle for national liberation. The rank-and-file of Fatah have virtually chosen and accepted the Hamas leadership, but the bureaucracy of the Palestinian Authority and senior Fatah member have yet to decide. They have time until the end of the confrontations in Gaza to do so.
Israeli demands require Hamas to choose between humiliation and death. However, in response, Hamas forces Israel to choose between genocide and defeat. At the current stage, only the physical elimination of the movement’s membership will prevent Hamas from leading the national liberation movement.
Israel can achieve a military victory over Hamas, but only through genocide. Up to certain extent, this is the meaning of the demands of the Israeli public as expressed in the Hebrew press.
An outcome that falls short of the elimination of Hamas leadership and rank-and-file will appear as similar to the Israeli defeat in Lebanon. In this country, Hezbollah survived the Israeli offensive in 2006 and placed itself as the leader of the Lebanese national movement and eventually as the power broker in the country.
Since the Western governments, those which have the ability to impede such a development, have no political will and will not until it is too late, this task becomes a responsibility of civil society. Only a massive international mobilization that will increase the price for Israel of an escalation of the offensive, may hinder the disastrous development of Israeli policies.