Angry Cairo Protests As Israel, Hamas Step Up Attacks, Vow to Fight On

Israelis and foreign observers from allied nations are beginning to question the tactical logic of Olmert’s air offensive against Gaza, even as they continue to defend Israel’s actions as self-defense against Hamas terrorism. Israel has announced the death of a top Hamas official, along with his 4 wives and 9 of his children, at his home in Gaza, and Hamas has vowed to seek revenge for the killings. Official death tolls now stand at over 400, and Israel’s 7th day of strikes included a mosque it says was used as a weapons cache for militant groups, with Hamas missile attacks into southern Israel increasing in number, range and sophistication.

The French government called on Israel and Hamas to enter a new ceasefire agreement, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected the ceasefire and said Israel will do everything possible to rid Gaza of Hamas. With international organizations calling for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, French president Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to visit the region next week to apply more international pressure to the Olmert government to end the attacks. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni has reportedly said there “no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, and that Israel is stepping up its aid provisions for Palestinian civilians.

The Associated Press, however, reporting from inside Gaza, says:

Israel attacked new targets and Palestinians fired at least 30 rockets into southern Israel. But Israel still opened its border with Gaza to allow nearly 300 Palestinians with foreign passports to flee.

“There is no water, no electricity, no medicine. It’s hard to survive. Gaza is destroyed,” Jawaher Haggi, a 14-year-old Palestinian American, said after crossing into Israel. She said her uncle was killed in an airstrike when he tried to pick up medicine for her cancer-stricken father, who later died of his illness.

Many of the evacuees were foreign-born women married to Palestinians and their children. Spouses who did not hold foreign citizenship were not allowed out.

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Independent observers seem to judge that Israel is aware of the ongoing humanitarian perils facing many, if not most, Gazans, but believes its own security needs require overwhelming, immediate and decisive action against Hamas. But many have questioned the logic underpinning Olmert’s security strategy and compare the current standoff against Hamas to the disastrous Lebanon invasion of two years ago. In December, before the current Gaza raids began, the Jerusalem Post ran an editorial critical of Olmert and blaming him for the rise of militants like Hamas:

After the Olmert-Livni government failed to defeat Hizbullah in the 2006 war, the public demanded that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign and enable the people to elect a new government capable of defending the country and fixing the damage that he and his colleagues had just wrought. Olmert refused. He justified his contempt for the public by claiming that since he was the one who had failed, he was in the best position to fix the mess he created.

His reasoning was not simply self-serving. It was strategically devastating. His stubborn insistence on remaining in power made it impossible for the country to embark on a new course.

The piece is critical both of Olmert’s aggressive tactics and of his fumbling through attempts at a softer touch —he has said it is necessary to establish a viable Palestinian state to avoid a situation in which Palestinians and Israelis inhabit one state divided by an apartheid-like system—, neither of which he seems to have mastered. The JP openly accuses Olmert of being negligent on long-term peace and security strategy, and of contemplating action against Gaza in part due to pressures emerging from the electoral climate, saying:

[Olmert's] government has more or less stood down and allowed Hamas to build its armies and terror arsenals unchallenged. But with the February 10 general elections swiftly approaching, and with public anger at their abandonment of the South daily rising, on Sunday Olmert’s ministers decided that the time has come to launch a military offensive into Gaza.

Olmert has repeatedly claimed there is no connection between the upcoming elections and the Gaza airstrikes, but analysis of his flawed approach to security is pointed and bears consideration. A key reference has to be his overwhelming attacks on southern Lebanon in 2006, which led to huge numbers of civilian casualties, the ire of allied governments whose citizens were in the crosshairs, the collapse of the western-friendly elected government and the vast expansion of Hezbollah’s influence inside Lebanon and beyond.

The ill-fated adventure arguably hampered Israel’s security capacity, making its more aggressive moves unpalatable to long-standing allies and emboldening militant groups like Hamas with new allegations to hurl at the Israeli government about crimes against innocents. While that may seem an unfair analysis, considering Israel’s very real need to prevent harm to its civilian population from groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, the propaganda battle was won by Hezbollah, and Hamas began a sustained campaign for control of Gaza, putting control of the entire Palestinian Authority in its sights.

It is not clear that Olmert has any more effective strategy in mind in the present military escalation, and throughout the first week, Hamas has escalated its attacks, its rhetoric, and likely its recruiting. Hamas may be responsible for the escalation, initially, but Olmert’s clumsy approach to undermining Hamas puts Israel’s long-term goal of peace seriously at risk. Israel may need to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, which could lead to withering casualties on both sides and the rapid mounting of pressure for Israel to abandon its offensive.

Some regional governments have acknowledge an Israeli security interest in the clash with Hamas, but anger and public outcry is pressuring governments across the Arab world to abandon that position. While Egyptian officials have blamed Hamas for creating the current crisis, Egyptian civilians have defied Egypts draconian “emergency” laws and massed in the streets to protest both the killing of Palestinian civilians and the Mubarak government’s perceived lack of aggressive action to aid Palestinian refugees.

Public outrage over the Israel-Palestine conflict has long been a key issue to Egyptian domestic security, and Mubarak’s regime has opposed militant clerics that support groups like Hamas, some of which have openly sought to bring down his government. The International Herald Tribune reports from Cairo:

Egypt has long been a leader of the Arab world and the main “confrontation” state with Israel, and in the wars of 1948-49, 1967 and 1973, it shed copious blood to try to defeat Israel in the name of Arab nationalism and a Palestinian state. But Anwar Sadat saw Egypt’s national interest in a peace with Israel and was assassinated for it by Islamic radicals. Those arrested afterward included Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later became Osama bin Laden’s deputy.

Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, has successfully negotiated the complicated issues of regional security, solidifying a relationship with Washington, maintaining cool but correct ties with Israel and helping to keep down Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. But it is a complicated exercise, said Abdel Moneim Said, director of Cairo’s Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

A viable political settlement to the crisis is of clear interest to Hosni Mubarak, but also to Egypt’s political stability. Some have said a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine would lead to a grudging democratization of Egyptian politics and society, currently beholden to security imperatives and dependent on military aid from Israel’s western allies.

A key part of Israel’s strategy for securing its population against attacks from groups like Hamas has to be an attempt to understand how the ramifications of violence in the Palestinian territories, conflict with Israel and prolong hardship, play into the recruiting apparatus of the Hamas movement. Mossab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas cleric Hassan Yousef, as reported by FOX News, has renounced his membership in the group and says he believes its radical ideology will never allow a sustainable peace to exist between Israel and Hamas. According to the report:

Yousef said he was indoctrinated at an early age to use violence to challenge Israeli control in the region. As a teenager he moved up within the organization and became the leader of the radical Islamic Youth Movement that fought Israeli tanks and troops in the streets, celebrated suicide bombings and recruited young men to the cause.

Yousef, 30, said he realized the true nature of Hamas and radical Islam during a stint in an Israeli prison. He renounced his Muslim faith, left his family behind in Ramallah and converted to Christianity.

While making some controversial remarks about his former faith, Yousef says the indoctrination process skews the outlook of young potential political actors and aids the radical group in doing what he says is a disservice to the people of Gaza, undermining prospects for peace and using tactics that invite Israeli attacks in civilian areas. Yousef has requested asylum in the US and lives and studies in San Diego. His story is one of thousands, most of which do not end in renunciation or “escape”, as FOX News would have it.

Hamas uses unfair and unsavory tactics; it may be a mafia-style organization and embrace a terrorist ideology; but, the shameless and unabashed use of force by a rogue militant group does not automatically mean that the unabashed and overwhelming use of massive military force against places where it is thought to have “installations” or stashes of weapons is the best or only strategy available to Israel. Olmert is finding that while in many ways, popular wisdom says force must be used to defend against Hamas, his approach is calling forth serious criticism from within his own country.

Astonishingly, Olmert has hinted that military success may not be the goal in attacking Gaza. With pressure mounting for Israel to suspend the bombing, on humanitarian grounds, Israel has said it would not withdraw unless an international force comes into the area to secure Israel against rocket attacks launched from Gaza. While the offensive was still in the planning stages, the Jerusalem Post reported, in a noteworthy comparison to the current situation, that Olmert and Livni had defended the Lebanon invasion as a means “to convince the ‘international community’ to deploy forces to Lebanon’s borders to protect Israel in place of the IDF.”

Was Lebanon a failure or a success? Could launching a full-scale military invasion be justified as an indirect means to creating a new security environment in which one’s own forces would be less directly involved? If so, were Olmert’s planners aware of the death and destruction that would ensue? Was Olmert simply guessing at the best strategy for changing the rules of Lebanese border security? The problem with Olmert’s approach seems to be with its tactical application: does he or does he not have clear goals? an exit strategy? a plan for the aftermath?

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