Hamas rulers won't be easily ousted; Israel hoping strikes will halt attacks

By Karin Laub
Associated Press / December 28, 2008
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JERUSALEM - Gaza's deeply entrenched Hamas rulers won't be easily toppled, even by Israel's unprecedented bombings yesterday that killed more than 230 people, most of them men in Hamas uniform.

For now, Israel's defense minister says he is striving for a lesser, temporary objective: to deliver such a punishing blow to Hamas that the Islamic militants will halt rocket attacks on Israel.

But Israel's offensive, launched just six weeks before a general election in the Jewish state, is fraught with risks. The horrific TV images of dead and wounded Gazans are inflaming Arab public opinion, embarrassing moderate Arab regimes, and weakening Hamas's rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel also risks opening new fronts, including unrest that could destabilize the Abbas-ruled West Bank and possible rocket attacks by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas on northern Israel.

Hezbollah already proved its military prowess in its 2006 war with Israel, firing thousands of rockets. That war erupted while Israel was fighting in Gaza. Meanwhile, protests erupted across the West Bank yesterday.

Far from being cowed, Hamas leaders sounded defiant yesterday, and Hamas militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel. One Israeli was killed, and mounting Israeli casualties could turn Israeli public opinion against the offensive.

While hard-liners in Israel have demanded more aggressive action to curb Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, a difficult and bloody ground operation could backfire on Israeli political leaders who are campaigning to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel lost 114 troops in a month of fighting.

Hamas could kill an Israeli soldier, Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who was captured in 2006. Hamas also could use longer-range Grad rockets on Israeli civilians in bigger cities such as Ashkelon and Beersheva.

"Once you set the ball rolling, you cannot determine where it is going to stop," said Mouin Rabbani, a Jordan-based Mideast analyst.

Israeli leaders say they had no choice but to act.

A truce between Israel and Hamas, which took effect in June, began unraveling in early November, after an Israeli cross-border raid in Gaza. Since then, Gaza militants have fired scores of rockets. Israel held off on a major response, apparently in hopes that a new truce could be negotiated.

The government, a coalition of the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, could not afford to be seen as indecisive at a time when hard-line opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was mounting a strong political challenge. Elections are scheduled for Feb. 10.

Yesterday's strikes appeared aimed at hurting Hamas, while minimizing risk to Israeli forces.

Barak said the offensive would continue as long as necessary and could be widened - an apparent reference to sending in ground troops if necessary. Barak, however, defined a narrow objective, to halt the rocket fire from Gaza, not to bring down Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist group.

Eighteen months after seizing Gaza by force, Hamas is in firm control and commands thousands of armed men. It is unlikely to be brought down by force, short of Israel reoccupying the territory. Israel doesn't like that option because it doesn't want to get bogged down in urban warfare.

"Israel is not looking for a knockout against Hamas because the costs are too high," said Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official. "The purpose is to eventually return to a cease-fire."

While far from being defeated, Hamas took a heavy hit.

Hamas officials said all the group's security compounds were struck. The militants may eventually have to agree to a truce, perhaps even on lesser terms than the June cease-fire, just to rebuild.

However, the Gaza offensive also hurt Abbas, who was increasingly sidelined as a leader even before yesterday's violence. The past year of peace talks with Israel has had no visible results. Meanwhile, Hamas has said it will no longer recognize Abbas as president after his four-year term ends next month.

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