A hot war in Gaza was not how Israel planned to appear on the strategic agenda of Barack Obama when he takes office in January. Its leaders had hoped to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the backburner of the new Administration, which Israel hopes will make Iran’s nuclear program its overriding priority in the Middle East. Instead, the weekend bloodbath in Gaza – the deadliest since Israel occupied the territory in 1967 – will cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an urgent crisis demanding a response from Washington, and highlighting the failure of the Bush Administration’s and Israel’s policies on Hamas in Gaza.
By TONY KARON
Smoke billows from a tunnel in Rafah on Gaza’s border with Egypt following an Israeli air strike. Israeli jets have bombed Hamas targets in Gaza for a third day, killing several children, while the Islamists fired deadly rockets to retaliate for the blitz that has left more than 300 dead.(AFP/Said Khatib)
The air strikes that began Saturday, in which Palestinians claim at least 280 people have been killed, marked a dramatic escalation of a high-stakes strategic poker game between Israel and Hamas. Over the past seven weeks, each side has calculated the odds of outbidding the other, and even as Hamas, and the civilian population it represents, paid a heavy price in human casualties over the weekend, it may nonetheless retain a strategic advantage. The radical Palestinian movement that governs Gaza appears to have underestimated Israel’s readiness to launch a military campaign in response to an escalation of Palestinian rocket fire onto its southern towns and cities. This is, however, an Israeli election season in which polls show voters moving so quickly to the right that even the hawkish frontrunner, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is losing support to parties even more extreme than his own. Still, the factors that restrained Israel from launching an attack on Gaza until now remain in place, and the strong likelihood of an escalation in the confrontation in the days and weeks ahead – and the negative regional backlash it is likely to promote – will likely mark a diplomatic setback for Israel. (Read TIME’s Top 10 news stories of the year.)
Israel launched Saturday’s strike knowing that Hamas would respond with a fusillade of rockets, possibly using some of the longer-range weapons smuggled in to Gaza over the past year to strike Israeli towns such as Ashdod and Ashkelon. It may even activate suicide bomber cells in East Jerusalem or in the West Bank. Israel had prepared for the first possibility by deploying additional air raid protection in towns as far as 40 kilometers from the Gaza border. And it is likely to follow up its air strikes with ground attacks in Gaza aimed at neutralizing as much as it can of Hamas’ military capability. But Hamas has good reason to expect that Israel’s military campaign will be limited, and it believes it can come out ahead in the strategic equation despite the heavy cost in blood that will be paid by its own leaders and militants, as well as by Palestinian civilians.
Read the rest from TIME magazine: