Mission revealed: destroy Hamas
January 5, 2009
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THE revelation of the daring objective at the heart of Operation Cast Lead calls for Israel's air-and-ground assault on Gaza to be given a new name. As the rhetorical layers are peeled back, what we are hearing makes Mission Impossible a more worthy contender.
Tel Aviv's early insistence that this massive military exercise was about putting a halt to Palestinian rockets being fired into or near communities in the south of Israel never rang true.
Measure it by the number of rockets - 8000-plus over eight years - and indeed it sounds like a genuine existential threat. Consider the toll - 20 Israeli deaths spread over eight years, which is about half the number of deaths in just a month of Israeli traffic accidents - and it all loses its oomph as a casus belli.
Israel does not want to deal with Hamas - it wants to annihilate the Islamist movement.
The Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, said as much when she dashed to Paris last week to head off a French push for a 48-hour ceasefire. "There is no doubt that as long as Hamas controls Gaza, it is a problem for Israel, a problem for the Palestinians and a problem for the entire region," she said.
If there was any doubt after Livni spoke, it evaporated on Friday when the Deputy Prime Minister, Haim Ramon, told Israeli TV: "What I think we need to do is to reach a situation in which we do not allow Hamas to govern. That's the most important thing."
And at the United Nations in New York, the Israeli ambassador, Gabriella Shalev, also seemed to depart the approved script. "[It will continue for] as long as it takes to dismantle Hamas completely," she said.
Analysis and commentary through the first eight days of this conflict have been about Israel's goal of stopping the rockets. But if the objective is obliterating Hamas, it does indeed seem an impossible task.
It is not as though there have not been earlier efforts to get rid of the Palestinian Islamists who, internationally, are a designated terrorist group but who also are a democratically elected government.
The rest of the world was so distracted by Israel's failed invasion of Lebanon in 2006 that it paid little attention to the detail of what happened as Hamas took control of Gaza 12 months later.
What happened then was that Hamas put down a coup that was sponsored by the US and Israel. Having won control of the Palestinian Authority in an election that Washington said Palestinians had to have, Hamas had to be disposed of.
Washington marshalled the funds for training and weapons and Israel facilitated their movement as forces loyal to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and his secular Fatah movement were mobilised to challenge Hamas. But after just a week of fighting, Abbas's forces crumbled and Hamas was in control of Gaza.
The objective of a complete overthrow of Hamas explains the choice of targets in Operation Cast Lead. Instead of just smugglers' tunnels and weapons caches, buildings that might be described as symbols of Hamas power - universities, ministerial offices and police stations - have been taken out.
But how would Israel fill a post-Hamas vacuum?
Even if Hamas's estimate is halved, it seems that more than 100,000 Gazans turned out for last month's rally to mark the movement's 21st anniversary and Abbas is a sad caricature who has allowed himself to become a figure of ridicule and contempt.
In propping up Abbas, Israel and Washington might have been expected to give him something that he could hold up to Palestinians as proof of his argument that they can win independence only by negotiation. But after more than a year of meetings in what is called the "peace process", Abbas has nothing to show.
This treatment of Abbas destroys another element of Israeli thinking. If Abbas is to become popular, Hamas has to become unpopular - but Palestinians have shown that when the Israelis make their life a misery, they blame the Israelis.
Abbas is even less a likely hero, given the repeated efforts by his forces to crack down on Hamas and its supporters in the West Bank. Palestinians are used to Israeli crackdowns. But in the past week it has been Abbas's forces who have kept protesters away from Israeli forces and who have rounded up any who produced the green flag of Hamas.