Many Israelis doubt the success of Gaza invasion

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 19, 2009 

JERUSALEM — When Israel launched its assault into Gaza on Dec. 27, the government said that its aim was to "change the situation in the south" and end Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. Announcing a unilateral cease-fire Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that "our targets, as defined when we launched the operation, have been fully achieved, and more so."

The Israeli public has its doubts, however.

According to a poll commissioned by Channel 10 on Sunday, only 41 percent of Israelis thought that the operation succeeded and 41 percent thought that it hadn't, a stark contrast to polls during the war, in which 78 percent thought that Israel was winning.

"There is bitterness as to how it ended. They feel more could have been achieved," said pollster Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University.

Those who thought that the war had failed cited two reasons: Thirty-seven percent think that the militant Islamic organization Hamas, which controls Gaza, could have been defeated, and 31 percent think that the government failed to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier whom Hamas has held for 2 { years. Only 11 percent of them considered the war a failure because of the high death toll: 1,300 Palestinians killed, compared with 13 Israelis.

The Israeli election cycle may have affected the poll. Israel is scheduled to hold elections in less than a month, and campaigning has resumed after being held to a minimum during the fighting. Olmert's critics have gone on the attack.

The government says that "by any objective standard," Israel's operation was a success. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said the goals were very simple: "There was one goal and one goal alone: to bring long-term peace and quiet to the citizens of the southern part of my country."

He said the operation had crippled Hamas' "military machine" and a wide coalition, including the United States, Egypt and Europeans, "will prevent the rearmament of Hamas." In addition, Hamas' leaders "understand that shooting rockets into Israel is unacceptable. They will think very carefully before attacking Israel."

Regev said Hamas had suffered a devastating political blow as well, because the operation had turned Palestinians and the Arab world against the militant group. Regev cited news accounts saying that Hamas is going to have trouble with Palestinians in Gaza.

The view from the ground is somewhat different, however. Israel dealt Hamas' civil infrastructure a decisive blow, destroying all the major government installations in Gaza City, including the parliament building, security headquarters and police stations.

It's far less clear how much damage was done to the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border, the main artery that Hamas uses to smuggle in weapons and supplies. Moreover, Gazans say that the militants didn't put up much of a fight, suggesting that the ranks of Hamas fighters may still be robust.

Regev thinks that to maintain the momentum the Israeli government will redouble its efforts to advance its political talks with moderate Palestinians in the Fatah faction, the secular group that rules the West Bank — between Israel and Jordan — under Mahmoud Abbas, its president, who's also known as Abu Mazen.

Analyst Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab who writes for the Jerusalem Post, disagreed with Regev, arguing that while Israeli attacks have weakened Hamas militarily, its political hold may have been strengthened. The militants in Hamas "continue to be as popular among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," he told McClatchy. "In fact, there are some in Gaza who say that the operation boosted Hamas. People are looking at the destruction and blaming Israel. I haven't heard one person blame Hamas."

Toameh even thinks that the operation may have undercut the moderates whom Israel hopes to promote. "They (the Palestinians) are cursing the moderates in the Arab world and Abu Mazen. In this war they lost credibility, as they were depicted as giving Israel a green light."

Yoni Fighel, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, an Israeli research institute, said that the operation had hurt Hamas' military wing but that Olmert's statement that all the operation's goals were met was an exaggeration. "This is unfinished business. The feeling in the military is that not all the goals were achieved. There are a lot of operational questions in regards to weapon smuggling, and Hamas still maintains rocket-launching capabilities," Fighel said.

As to Hamas' political strength, the most important question is whether the group can claim a propaganda victory. "Hamas was hurt, but the question is at the end of the day — from the propaganda point of view and from the general atmosphere — was Hamas defeated?" Fighel asked.

Fighel think that it's crucial for aid to flow into Gaza through moderate forces and not through Hamas: "I hope the international community will make their utmost to strengthen the other Palestinian factions, and not Hamas, especially through the rehabilitation process. If you link the money to Hamas' charities we will have come full circle."

Abu Toameh, however, said that was a fallacy. He said Palestinians had rejected what they saw as the corrupt elements in Fatah and would stick with Hamas: "The assumption in the West is if you give Abu Mazen money, it will have a moderating influence. In the end they will take the money and vote Hamas."

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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