Invasion's only formal goal is stop rocket fire but unpredictable dynamics multiply as Israeli forces move farther into Gaza.
Israel faces new test on the ground
JERUSALEM // With Israeli tanks rumbling into the Gaza Strip, separating the north from the south and isolating its main city, the Israeli offensive on Gaza has now entered its second stage. This will be the crucial stage, that which determines the final outcome and the number of casualties. In the absence of any serious international pressure, still nowhere in sight, Israel cannot now turn its forces around, and Hamas will be tested as never before. The only formal aim the Israeli government has yet presented for its offensive is to end the rocket fire from Gaza. That has not been achieved yet, with Hamas and other Palestinian groups keeping up the pressure, with more than 40 rockets landing in Israel yesterday as of the time of writing. That narrow aim was reiterated again at the Israeli government cabinet's weekly meeting yesterday, where Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, said Israel had no intention of "taking over the Gaza Strip". Ehud Barak, the defence minister, appeared to keep his options open, however, saying the ground operation would "be extended and intensified as necessary? War is full of surprises". The ground invasion will certainly be the most unpredictable phase of Israel's offensive. There are a number of unknowns to be taken into account. One is the capacity of Hamas to withstand an Israeli onslaught and, related to this, the capacity of the Israeli public to stomach serious losses, should Hamas have prepared itself well. Mkhaimar Abusada, a Gaza-based political analyst, said he believed Israel would be wary of a deeper sustained invasion, something he said Hamas believes it is prepared and ready to resist. "Israel knows the full reoccupation of the Gaza Strip will be costly, financially and politically." Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli military analyst, also said he expected Hamas had trained carefully over the past two years. "There is no question that when Israel engages Hamas inside Gaza, we will see a stronger Hamas." Another unknown is Israeli ambition on the ground, and how it may change as the fighting progresses. Israel may only be planning to seize control over certain areas from where rockets have been launched, but if that does not achieve its aim of ending the rocket fire, the army may well reach deeper. That is the view of Mr Amidror who said he fully expected the current position to be only a first stage. "The army took the north-east and it's now a matter of erosion," he said. The Israeli army would gradually take further slices of areas to increase the pressure on Hamas, he said, for the same reason that it could not avoid the ground invasion once the air assault had begun. "After the first air operation, it was clear that ground forces needed to be sent in. Otherwise Hamas might think Israel was afraid to send in its troops." Mr Abusada, who yesterday had moved his family from their home in Beit Lahiya in the northern part of the Strip, where the fighting was getting closer to his apartment in the centre of Gaza City, said he did not expect Israel to engage in a comprehensive invasion. "I don't think Israel will put an end to this war without achieving some of its goals. But I know that Israel will not succeed in destroying Hamas. The game now is to put pressure on Hamas to agree to a ceasefire on Israeli conditions." Finally, another question mark hangs over the role of the international community and when it will take a proactive role to end the fighting. That to a large extent depends on the number of civilian casualties and pictures of same reaching TV screens and newspapers around the world. Israel has yet to allow any international journalists into Gaza. The Foreign Press Association in Israel is trying to secure a temporary ruling from an Israeli court to allow a very restricted number, eight, to enter with humanitarian aid, but so far that has yet to happen. That has restricted the flow of information from the Gaza Strip, a key factor in pressuring western governments in particular to act. Nevertheless, should the number of civilian casualties rise even more dramatically, international pressure on Israel to end its offensive will grow. No one expects this to happen immediately, with the United States apparently intent on vetoing any action by the UN's Security Council, but international pressure may gather momentum over the next few days. "I think the US wants to allow Israel a few more days to achieve some of its aims," Mr Abusada said. "Ultimately this will have to end with a ceasefire. Hamas wants any ceasefire to include an opening of crossings and an end to the siege, but Hamas would claim victory if Israel does not go all the way and occupy the whole strip." Mr Amidror expected the offensive to continue "for weeks", but accepted that the situation was fluid and said if the world, particularly Egypt, interfered to prevail on Hamas to end its rocket fire the offensive could end sooner. "There is only one military solution and that is full control of Gaza like Israel has in the West Bank," Mr Amidror said. "Absent this, the solution has to be political. I don't think [a full occupation] is the plan, but it is certainly a possibility." firstname.lastname@example.org