The invasion of Gaza: what does it mean? – Part One

Just over one year after the Annapolis Conference that was supposed to produce a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israeli ruling class has concentrated all its military might to pulverise Gaza. Once again the Middle East is engulfed in the flames of war. Alan Woods explains the reasons for Israel's invasion of Gaza and analyses the wider implications for relations between the powers in the Middle East and on a world scale.

In November 2007 at the Annapolis Conference, held at the proposal of George W Bush, a plan was worked out that was supposed to produce a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Just over a year later the peace plan is in ruins. The Israeli ruling class has concentrated all its military might to pulverise Gaza. Once again the Middle East is engulfed in the flames of war.

Palestinian Women (Photo by Álvaro Herraiz on flickr)On Saturday 3 January Israel poured large numbers of troops and tanks into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in a massive ground offensive despite mounting European and Arab calls for an immediate ceasefire. The assault was accompanied by an intense bombardment from warplanes, helicopters, artillery and naval forces off the coast, and, according to local reports, it cut off the population centre around Gaza City from the southern strip.

The invasion was preceded by an intensely destructive bombing campaign, which caused considerable disruption to the Hamas forces. It has also destroyed most of the infrastructure and killed many people, mostly ordinary civilians, men, women and children, most of who have nothing to do with Hamas. The effects of this on a terrified population, deprived of food, water and medical supplies, can only be imagined. It was clear from the start that it was only the prelude to invasion, since all history proves that air bombardment on its own can never win a war, conquer a territory, or even prevent the launching of missiles.

In purely military terms the outcome in the short term is not in doubt. A modern, well-equipped, highly trained and disciplined army is confronting a mainly irregular fighting force with inferior weaponry. The Israelis have complete domination of the skies, as was shown in the horrific air bombardment that preceded the invasion. Unsurprisingly, the first stage of the offensive is unfolding like clockwork. The Israeli army has cut the main road to Gaza City and has surrounded it, squeezing it as in an iron vice.

The leaders of the western world wring their hands about violence and appeal for a halt to the killing. But the stance taken by the West stinks of hypocrisy. George Bush is the biggest terrorist in the world. The USA and its Coalition partners have killed far more civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Israelis in Gaza. They have no moral right whatsoever to condemn the evils of war and terror. Yet these ladies and gentlemen claim the right to pose before the television cameras passing judgements on others.

The Israelis are paying no attention to these complaints. They say the war will continue until there are guarantees that there will be no more rocket attacks. Unless the Israeli army can stop these attacks, the whole affair would have been entirely counterproductive. If it fails, Israel would not only have earned the condemnation of the rest of the world (we will not speak of the Arab world), but it would have revealed itself as weak - whereas the whole purpose of the exercise is precisely to be a show of strength. Therefore, the war will inevitably continue, at least for the time being, irrespective of either the sincere protests on the streets or the insincere protests and crocodile tears of bourgeois politicians.

Israel has mounted its most extensive public relations offensive (which conveniently includes keeping foreign journalists out of Gaza). The world is constantly told that Hamas' rockets are a terrible threat to Israel's security (although up to the invasion they had only killed four people). But they would like the images of children being pulled like broken dolls from the ruins of their homes in Gaza to be hidden from view. The aim is to place sole blame for this crisis on Hamas and relate it to the global "war on terror". The war is continuing, and will continue, until the rulers of Israel judge that they have achieved all or most of their objectives.

Remorseless advance

The Israeli army is advancing remorselessly. It has effectively sliced Gaza in two. While it is true that Hamas has greatly improved its fighting capacity in the last period, and that its hard core includes trained fighters, it cannot hope to stand against the Israeli army. The overwhelming military superiority of the Israeli army was seen at the beginning of the war when they entered Gaza without much trouble. But from now on the situation will change. One Hamas spokesman warned that Gaza would become a "graveyard" for Israeli soldiers. But this is an exaggeration. At least initially Hamas fighters appeared to offer only limited resistance to the Israeli assault.

However, in order to achieve its declared ends, the Israelis will soon have to go into heavily populated areas, where every alley, window and rooftop will be a potential ambush, every doorway a potential booby-trap, and every passing civilian a potential suicide bomber. The Financial Times wrote: "Hamas militiamen will be able to inflict casualties on Israeli troops if they enter the deadly labyrinth of Gaza City and its refugee camps, as they were sucked into the treacherous ravines of south Lebanon. Israel has failed to control Gaza or shut down Hamas in the past, even after assassinating nearly all its veteran leaders."

Although, from a strictly military point of view, Hamas cannot defeat the Israeli army, neither can there be a formal military "victory" of Israel over Hamas. Ground fighting in Gaza's congested cities and refugee camps will mean many more civilian casualties. It will also mean that the Israelis will take more losses. Even the destruction of the missiles - seemingly a very modest task - will not be so easy, since they are mainly small home-made devices that can be easily moved and concealed in many different places.

Eventually, the rocket fire will be silenced, or at least reduced, but at what cost in civilian lives one can only imagine. The appalling suffering of the people of Gaza aroused the conscience of the world. 75 percent of the population has no electricity, the hospitals are overwhelmed and food is hard to obtain. The pictures of dead and wounded women and children on the television screens of the world will serve further to inflame the passions of the Arab world, further alienate international public opinion and further isolate Israel.

Just and unjust wars

It is the height of stupidity to allow one's attitude to war to be determined by the official propagandas, which always seeks to place the blame on the other side and to present the victims as the aggressor and the aggressors as the victims. In the same way it is unwise to allow oneself to be swayed by emotions and to evaluate war in sentimental or moralistic terms.

The pursuit of war - any war - is to make the enemy submit. Whether one likes it or not, this involves killing people. The interests of the belligerents dictate wars, whether economic, strategic or political. Whether one considers war in a given case to be just or unjust depends on these factors, and not at all who fired the first shot, or whether it was a case of offence or defence. When all the conditions for armed conflict are given, the actual outbreak of hostilities can be provoked by any accident. It is completely superficial, however, to confuse what is accidental with what is essential.

From a Marxist point of view, the only wars that are just wars are those wars undertaken by the oppressed and exploited against the oppressors and exploiters. There have been such wars throughout history, starting with the wars waged by Spartacus and his slave army against the Roman slave state. In such cases, the working class must always take the side of the poor and oppressed against the rich and powerful. The war in Gaza is such a war. It is the war of a poor oppressed people fighting for their rights against a powerful imperialist state. That is the main thing. All other questions are subordinate to this.

The Israeli leaders argue that this was a war of defence. Every state that wishes to commence hostilities against another state must always find some excuse for its action. Hence, if we are to believe what they say, there has never been an aggressor state in the whole of history. In 1914 Britain declared war on Germany to defend "poor little Belgium", although this same poor little Belgium was brutally holding down millions of colonial slaves in the Congo. At the same time Germany was defending itself against barbarous and aggressive Russian Tsarism and Russia was defending itself against aggressive Prussian militarism, and so on and so forth.

This war is no different. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, said the assault was aimed at taking control of key parts of the Gaza Strip that are used by Hamas and other militant groups to fire rockets on Israel. He described the latest escalation as "unavoidable", adding the offensive was aimed at securing peace for the country's residents in the south. Not for the first time in history the aggressor presents his violent aggression as the only way to ensure - peace.

The argument that this was a response to the missile attacks of Hamas is clearly a subterfuge designed to conceal the real motives. The tactics employed by the Israelis provide clear proof of what was already evident: this offensive was prepared well in advance and corresponds to a well thought-out plan. That Hamas has obligingly provided the Israelis with a convenient excuse for this aggression is beside the point. The Economist (January 3) published an editorial with the title Gaza: the rights and wrongs in which we read the following sentence: "But however deplorable, Israel's resort to military means to silence the rockets of Hamas should have been no surprise. This war has been a long time in the making." (my emphasis, AW)

What caused this war?

Hamas was firing rockets into Israel (it is still doing so). From a military point of view these attacks were mere pinpricks. They did not even dent the power of the Israeli state or army. What they did do was to sow fear and panic in the civilian population of the areas that were affected and thus provide the Israeli government the excuse it needed to launch this attack. It has served to push the population of Israel behind the most reactionary and bellicose elements. Far from undermining Zionism, it has strengthened it.

We cannot defend the launching of missiles against civilian targets in Israel. But our condemnation of these methods has nothing in common with the cynical hypocrisy of Bush, who is the biggest terrorist in the world. Our opposition to terrorism is not for alleged moral reasons or pacifist sentimentality. It is because these methods do not work and are completely counterproductive.

In any case, it is quite clear that the real motive for the invasion was not these rocket attacks. According to the New York Times the number of missiles launched by Hamas was not increasing but decreasing before the attack - from hundreds to only 15 or 20 a month. However, the response of the Israelis has been brutal in the extreme. The UN, with its usual polite euphemisms, calls it "disproportionate". Let us quantify that statement. The Bible says: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. But in the first eight days of conflict, more than 500 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, of whom the UN estimates more than a quarter are civilians. By contrast, Israel has lost five of its citizens, including two soldiers. This is a ratio of a hundred to one.

As a matter of fact, Israel declared war on Hamas long ago. There is more than one way of waging war, including economic war. Let us therefore retrace the steps that led to war. When Israel pulled out of the Mediterranean enclave in 2005, they had no intention of allowing the Palestinians to exercise genuine self-determination. Ever since the people of Gaza had the temerity to elect Hamas three years ago, the Israelis and the West have subjected Gaza to a remorseless economic blockade that has led to the slow strangulation of the economy. At the same time, Israel has significantly expanded its occupation of the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem.

Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006 not because most Palestinians agreed with its ideas but largely because after the failure of the so-called peace-process and years of bloody intifada, they became disgusted with the corruption of the Fatah leaders and their collaboration with Israel. But the so-called democrats in the West were not prepared to accept the result of the election. They are all in favour of democracy as long as the results of elections are favourable to their interests. But if they do not like the result, they resort to all kinds of measures to undermine and overthrow the democratically elected government, whether it be the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Hamas in Gaza.

This was followed by a bloody civil war between Hamas and Fatah, which was instigated by the Israelis. Fatah forces attempted to seize control of Gaza by a coup in the summer of 2007 but it was defeated and Hamas strengthened its hold on power in Gaza, to the dismay of Israel and the USA. The latter responded by subjecting the people of Gaza to what was in effect a siege, backed by total diplomatic isolation. By these means, Israel, with the complicity of the USA and the EU, decided to punish the people of Gaza, both those that voted Hamas and those that did not, by slow starvation.

This was already a unilateral declaration of war. If the USA, Britain or any other country had its ports blocked, its roads and borders closed and all diplomatic links severed by the actions of a foreign power, it would have been grounds for a declaration of war. Hamas responded with missile attacks and suicide bombings in Israel, which were militarily useless but suited the Israeli hawks very well. This alarmed the Saudis and others, who appealed to their friends in Washington to intervene to prevent a new conflict that could destabilise the whole Middle East.

Last summer, the Egyptian government, shaken by the events in Gaza and the effects on the Egyptian masses, brokered lengthy negotiations with the Israelis, which finally fixed a six-month truce. The Egyptians also sponsored talks between Hamas and Fatah with a view to establishing a power-sharing deal to put an end to two years of vicious infighting.

But all this immediately began to unravel. Israel tightened trade restrictions and refused to free any of its thousands of Hamas prisoners. These were clearly provocative moves designed to undermine the Hamas moderates and force a military confrontation. On the other hand Fatah, in its stronghold on the West Bank, clamped down on Hamas, with dozens of arrests and the sacking of some 400 teachers said to be affiliated to Hamas.

After the ceasefire there was no serious attempt to negotiate with Hamas. Instead there was one provocation after another. In Israel the approaching elections and government crisis also produced a hardening of attitudes. Under such conditions no Israeli politician could afford to appear soft on the question of Hamas. On the contrary, there was a kind of competition to see who could deliver the most bellicose speeches. When two sides are preparing for war, bellicose speeches can have a logic of their own.

If you drive an animal into a corner, it is well known that it will bite. Before the end of the official truce on December 19th, the ceasefire was already dead. The Hamas leadership concluded that the deal with Israel had brought no gains for Gaza. They repeated their accusations that Abbas had sold out to his Western backers and sought nothing but Hamas' destruction. Egypt, the supposed mediator, was in fact complicit in Israel's siege. From the logic of the Hamas leaders, the failure of the ceasefire left them with no alternative but to continue firing rockets into Israel.

This bloody tit-for-tat was bound to end in an open outbreak of hostilities. The final provocation came in November when Israel killed six gunmen it said were digging tunnels to launch a raid on Israel. Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets, which furnished Israel with the excuse it needed to launch a long-prepared offensive. The invasion of Gaza was the inevitable result.

Impotence of the "United Nations"

Once again, the so-called United Nations has revealed its complete impotence. As the Security Council prepared to meet on Saturday night, Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general telephoned the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to voice deep concern over Israel's ground operation. "He is convinced and alarmed that this escalation will inevitably increase the already heavy suffering of the affected civilian populations," according to a statement from Mr Ban's office. Oh yes, they are all deeply "concerned". But the concern of these gentlemen does not prevent a single drop of blood being shed and is of an entirely theatrical character.

For half a century the UN has been passing resolutions on the Palestinian question, without the slightest result. Now they are not even capable of passing a resolution. Within hours of the start of Israel's offensive, the US had blocked a United Nations Security Council call for an immediate ceasefire, made by the only Arab member of the Council, Libya. Although there was "strong convergence" within the council on the need to "halt the violence", the US refused to accept even the compromise of a joint press statement. The presidential statement requires consensus among all 15 members, and in any case, would have fallen short of a binding UN resolution.

UN officials suggested US opposition to any outcome that might have implied criticism of Israel was determined by statements from the White House that had put the blame on Hamas since the start of the crisis. Of course it was! The statements of Alejandro Wolff, deputy US envoy merely echoed the statements of the Bush administration, including Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state that the situation in Gaza "should not be allowed to return to the status quo ante".

What does this mean? It means that until the Israeli army has finished pounding the people of Gaza into submission and destroying Hamas, there is no question of a ceasefire. These brutal statements are only recognition of the cruel reality of the situation. And the impasse at the UN cruelly exposes the impotence of the Security Council. After an inconclusive three and a half hour session of the Council on Saturday night, Mr. Wolff repeated the lie that the root cause of the crisis was continued Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. The US, he said, "saw no prospect of Hamas abiding by a ceasefire demand by the UN" and therefore it would not do the council any good to issue statements that would not be adhered to.

This piece of sophistry deserves a place of honour in the annals of diplomatic hypocrisy. In the first place, in a war there are always at least two sides. It is presumed that Hamas would not accept and therefore such a resolution would be a "waste of time" Yet the US representative in the UN only mentions one side - Hamas - but not Israel. Would Israel accept the UN call for a ceasefire or not? The question is left unanswered.

Secondly, the argument is entirely phoney. According to this logic there would have been no point in passing UN resolutions in regard to Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction prior to the US invasion of that country. At least the US went through the motions of passing "resolutions for peace" in the UN. Here, by contrast, it openly supports an act of naked aggression, without any diplomatic niceties. And the UN says: "amen!"

In fact, what that episode revealed is the real position of the UN and the attitude of Washington to it. The imperialists use the UN as a talking shop to perpetuate the myth of "international law" and the existence of a world body that stands higher than the national interests of the great powers. This is intended to fool naïve people into believing that they can appeal to the UN to stop wars. The left reformists are particularly prone to such illusions. But in reality all serious matters are settled, as they have always been settled, by force. Only hopeless pacifists and people who believe in fairy stories can have any trust in the UN. International diplomacy in general, and especially the diplomacy at the UN, remain what they always were: a cynical deception of the people and a convenient mask for aggression.

Obama and Bush

It is well known that the interests of US imperialism are very much at stake in the Middle East, both for strategic and economic reasons (oil). It is also well known that the only reliable ally that Washington has in the Middle East is Israel. This fact explains the attitude of George Bush to the conflict.

However, it is important to bear in mind that, although Israel is a faithful ally of US imperialism in the region, this does not mean that it does not have interests of its own and that these do not necessarily coincide with those of the USA on each and every occasion. During the period of the Cold War, when the USSR still existed, and countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq were in its sphere of influence, the Americans were compelled to support Israel, almost unreservedly. But since the fall of the USSR twenty years ago, the picture has varied to some extent.

Washington needs to cultivate the Arab world, reassure the nerves of Saudi Arabia and win friends and influence people (especially those with oil). That is why Bill Clinton in 2000 began to put pressure on Israel to reach a deal with the PLO. The Israeli ruling class was never enthusiastic about this but had no alternative but to grit its teeth and accept, since Washington pays the bills and, as we know, he who pays the piper will always call the tune. The result was the abortion of the Oslo and Madrid agreements, which established a truncated statelet on the West Bank, cut off from Gaza. This was a complete travesty that satisfied nobody. The Palestinians accepted it on the understanding that it was only a first step in the direction of a genuine Palestinian state. However, twenty years later, we are no nearer this goal.

Now, in the dying days of his administration, Bush is once more giving unconditional support to Israel in its attack on Gaza. This was entirely predictable. At least George Bush speaks clearly. There is no doubt on whose side he is on in this war. But what about the incoming President, the new miracle-worker, the peacemaker Barak Obama? What is his position on the war and what has he got to say about it? So far he has said hardly anything, under the pretext that he is "not yet President" and "America must speak with one voice."

Despite his diplomatic silence we know very well what Obama thinks. On a visit to one Israeli town in July of last year he said: "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." Mr. Obama forgets to mention the small detail that Palestinian territory is being occupied by Israelis, as the territory of the United States was occupied by Britain in the 18th century, when the American people, though they lacked rockets, used other, equally violent means, to expel the invaders.

Are there no differences, then, between Bush and Obama? The interests of US imperialism in the Middle East are what determine the actions of both men. In that sense there is no real difference. But there are important differences on how they interpret these interests, just as changing circumstances can modify the tactics of politicians who share the same interest. The motto of the US Marine Corps is "Speak softly and carry a big stick". But like his predecessor Ronald Reagan, George W. represents the most aggressive, provincial and obtuse wing of the US ruling class. His natural inclination was to speak loudly and hit everybody in sight with a baseball bat. This tactic can sometimes be crudely effective, but in the long run can create a lot of bad headaches.

Obama is a more subtle and intelligent representative of imperialism than Bush. He has inherited a difficult situation, both in the USA and internationally. There is an economic crisis, growing unemployment and falling living standards at home and a trail of foreign policy disasters abroad. There is growing pessimism and discontent in the US, which was reflected in the election of Obama and which he must do something to pacify. One of the pledges that Obama made during his election campaign was to begin the pullout of US troops from Iraq. The US public, completely alienated from the war, will demand that this pledge be carried out. But certain things flow from this.

It will be impossible to carry out a withdrawal from Iraq unless Washington is prepared to negotiate a deal with both Syria and Iran, both of which have influence within Iraq and other parts of the region. But Damascus and Teheran will drive a hard bargain, and part of that bargain must include the Palestinian question. Since both Syria and Iran have long posed as the defenders of the Palestinian cause, it is unthinkable that this issue should not be on the agenda.

All this is well known to Israel and must have been a major element in their decision to invade Gaza. As the Economist expressed it: "With Iran's nuclear threat on the horizon, and Iranian influence growing in both Lebanon and Gaza, Israel is keen to remind its enemies that the Jewish state can still fight and still win." In effect, the Israeli imperialists are saying to Obama (and anyone else who cares to listen): Do not forget that we are still here and we are a power to reckon with! We can make or break any deal you arrive at. Ignore us at your peril!

Differences among the imperialists

As always, there are different nuances between the imperialist powers, just as there are different material interests at stake. There are differences between the USA and Europe, just as there are differences within the European Union and also between Bush and Obama. While in the short run these differences will not alter the course of the war in Gaza (the Israelis have their own interests to uphold), they can have important consequences for what happens after the war is over.

The strategists of imperialism are seriously concerned about this conflict. These concerns have nothing to do with humanitarian considerations, the loss of life or the sufferings of the Palestinians. They reflect the dangers that exist for the interests of imperialism in the Middle East, which is a key area in the global arena. In an editorial published on January 4, entitled "A dangerous gamble in Gaza", the Financial Times wrote:

"Israel's decision to pour ground troops and armour into the Gaza Strip is a dangerous gamble. If the goal is to reduce the number of rockets Hamas can fire at neighbouring, southern Israeli towns, it is probably achievable - for now. But if Israel proposes to cut the heart out of its most implacable Palestinian opponents, it will fail.

"In either case the mounting casualties, including civilians, from Israel's disproportionate air, sea and artillery bombardment in densely populated urban areas will so blacken its reputation, and so undermine moderate Arab and Palestinian opinion, that its political position will be seriously weakened."

Therefore, some governments, especially in Europe, are anxious to put an end to the hostilities as soon as possible and broker some kind of agreement. Alarmed at the possible repercussions of the invasion of Gaza, the EU has sent not one, but two, missions to the area, although what they can achieve other than earn a very satisfactory salary, is unclear. They want "an internationally monitored ceasefire, of sufficient duration to resume and conclude negotiations on that basis; for Israel then to lift the blockade; and for new elections to decide who speaks for the Palestinians - Fatah, whose position is fast being eroded by this crisis, Hamas, or a combination of them both". (The Financial Times)

Politicians like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair weep crocodile tears about the horrors of violence, the deaths of innocent people and so on, and constantly appeal for peace ("an immediate ceasefire"). This sounds very nice, but in fact is just empty talk. The fact is that there is no peace but war, and our attitude to war is not determined by the fact that people die (as they always do in wars), but what are the real causes of the conflict and whose interests are at stake.

France, as usual, is playing its own game in the Middle East. It is no accident that Abbas met the French president Nicolas Sarkozy in Ramallah on Monday. Unlike Britain, France is not always willing to dance to Washington's tune and sacrifice its national interests to those of Israel and the USA. France wants to get its hands on the oil and markets of the Middle East that US imperialism covets, and is prepared to fish in troubled waters and occasionally to step on Washington's toes to improve its relations with the Arab world. However, in the last analysis, France is only a small player on the world scale. Its attempt to pose as the "friend of the Arabs", apart from being hypocritical, can decide nothing.

Once again, the British government emerges as the most servile lackey of Washington. The only difference between the two is that whereas Bush speaks with cynical frankness, the statements of the British are full of hypocritical cant intended to create a false impression of impartiality, like cyanide pills coated with saccharine. John Sawers, Britain's ambassador at the UN, said he was "very disappointed" at the failure of Saturday night's UN meeting. He said that the idea of deploying monitors should be explored. Ways had to be found to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, which had contributed to the crisis.

What does this mean? How can monitors be deployed when a war is raging? What are they meant to monitor? The fact that people are being killed? But we can find this out merely by switching on our television sets. Monitors can only be sent to observe a ceasefire. Since there is no ceasefire, what role would there be for monitors? Only this: to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Israel possesses the strongest army in the region and is armed with all the latest weapons of destruction. In comparison with this, the Palestinian arsenal is Lilliputian. Despite this, for British diplomacy the entire question boils down to the need to prevent arms reaching the Palestinians, which can "contribute to the crisis".

Isn't this priceless? What they are proposing in London (and Washington) is to disarm the Palestinians in the face of continued Israeli aggression. That is to say, they wish to disarm the oppressed in the face of the oppressor. But there is a small problem here that most assuredly can "contribute to the crisis", namely, the Palestinians already have arms and are using them to defend themselves. What is to be done about these arms? They must be taken out of the hands of the Palestinians (in order to secure peace). Since, unfortunately, the Palestinians refuse to disarm, someone must take the arms from them by force (for peace, of course). That someone is the Israeli army, who are doing a very thorough job of "peacemaking" (through war).

And so, with many a sigh, the professional diplomats in London wipe the tears from their eyes - and obediently stand to attention behind the Americans and Israelis. The public declarations of sympathy with the innocent victims of violence (99 percent of whom are Palestinians) are merely a smokescreen to conceal from an indignant public that the policy of the "democratic" governments of Europe and the United States is to stand by and do nothing while Gaza is crushed.

Israel's aims

What are the war aims of Israel in the present conflict? They want to smash as much of Hamas' military potential as possible, intimidate and terrify the population of Gaza and to send a warning to other countries in the region (and indirectly to Washington) that they are a power that is not to be meddled with. Although the Hamas rockets were not the major cause of the invasion, Israel cannot be said to have succeeded if the rockets continue to fall on Israeli soil.

They will therefore proceed to methodically destroy as much of Hamas' forces and military infrastructure as possible. In the first place they must locate and destroy the missiles that are being launched onto Israeli territory, and which were supposed to be the cause of this war. Secondly, they will attempt to find and kill as many of the Hamas leading cadres as they can and (they hope) smash it as a viable fighting force. They wish to destroy the supply lines that enable Hamas to receive arms and other material from Egypt. This will take time, and the war will continue until they have realised all their objectives.

There are other aims that are not military but political and are never mentioned. The first relates to the coming elections in Israel, where there is a growing economic, social and political crisis. As a reflection of this crisis a series of splits have developed in the political leadership of an increasingly shaky coalition. There has been infighting over strategy between Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and leader of the governing Kadima party, and Ehud Barak, the bellicose defence minister and leader of the Labour Party. This infighting reached such a point that Haaretz, a leading newspaper, called for a ceasefire - in the Israeli cabinet.

The general election will take place in February and it is clear that both leaders are trying to compete with Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right wing chauvinist party Likud. In particular, Barak is attempting to sound even more aggressive and nationalistic than the hawkish Netanyahu. These electoral considerations are undoubtedly a factor in the situation, but they do not exhaust the question. In such an important matter as war, more fundamental questions than electoral politics must be at play and different interests are involved.

An important element in the equation is the prestige of Israeli armed forces, which was severely dented in the 34-days' war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.The Israeli military establishment, still smarting from its humiliation in Lebanon, would like to prove the superiority of the Israeli armed forces. They wish to re-establish the credibility of Israel's deterrent power. An attack on Gaza presented itself as an ideal opportunity and the plans for this were obviously prepared a long time ago. The question of the missiles was merely the excuse for a conflict that was inevitable.

The current operation in Gaza is a direct consequence of the 2006 war in southern Lebanon, but it is by no means certain that there will be a comparable outcome. The Israeli generals have had sufficient time to absorb the lessons and are probably better prepared. Their intention now is to make a limited strike that will seriously damage the fighting capacity of Hamas and kill as many of its leaders and militants before withdrawing, having inflicted maximum damage on the economy and infrastructure of Gaza that will take a long time to rebuild.

Unlike the war in Lebanon this was not a rushed and improvised military response but has been carefully prepared. The physical conditions of this war are also different. Small, flat and isolated, Gaza presents a far easier operating environment than did Lebanon. The Israelis moved swiftly to split the strip in two. This gives the Israeli army a position it can hold if it is forced to remain in Gaza for a long time, if necessary, reducing the ability of the main concentrations of fighters in the north to get further supplies from the south. Although there can be all sorts of reverses, at present the Israeli army has Gaza by the throat.

Part 2 >>

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