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Tempted by Opportunity, Israel Gambles on Force

The Jewish state saw a chance to drive two enemies from power. But the operations' risks are becoming clear, some analysts say.

July 17, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — What began as a pair of hasty military incursions aimed at getting back captured Israeli soldiers has evolved with breathtaking swiftness into a full-blown campaign by Israel against two of its bitterest enemies, the Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

Surprised twice by small-scale border raids less than three weeks apart, Israeli leaders have made a deliberate policy decision to seize the opportunity -- some call it a pretext -- to mount simultaneous large-scale offensives. The goal of each operation is to smash a guerrilla organization that is also deeply entrenched in the business of governance.

In both instances, Israeli and outside analysts say, Israel has embarked on a risky strategy that has two major elements: the use of overwhelming military force to reduce the opponent's power coupled with strikes that hurt the wider civilian economies and populations of the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. The aim of the second part of the strategy is to put pressure on more moderate elements of the Palestinian and Lebanese governments to strip Hamas and Hezbollah of some of their influence and prestige.

In Gaza, the fighting had gone on for roughly a week before it became clear that the goal of the military operation had widened well beyond the efforts to stop Hamas from lobbing crude Kassam rockets into southern Israel and to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a captured 19-year-old tank gunner.

Soon after the offensive began, commentator Roni Shaked wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that Israel had a "golden opportunity." Whether or not the operation succeeded in freeing Shalit, "by crushing the Hamas regime, Israel can accomplish a much greater strategic step, which could have a profound effect on the entire region," he wrote.

Within days, Israeli policymakers were speaking openly of their hopes to use the confrontation to drive Hamas from power.

Israeli leaders were far faster to see the tantalizing glitter of such opportunity in Lebanon.

Hamas has been in power in the Palestinian territories only since March. Hezbollah has dominated southern Lebanon for years, and the Israeli army has long worked on plans for striking it if the right moment presented itself.

Only hours after Hezbollah fighters Wednesday staged a cross-border raid in which they killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two, Israeli leaders began to talk of dealing the militant movement a devastating blow from which it could recover neither politically nor militarily.

From across the Israeli political spectrum, such declarations are now being made on a daily basis.

"We must eliminate, destroy and crush all of Hezbollah's infrastructure," lawmaker Eli Yishai of the religious Shas party said Sunday.

"We intend to break this organization," Defense Minister Amir Peretz of the left-leaning Labor Party told journalists.

But the policy carries several risks.

Israel is uneasily aware that Hamas and Hezbollah now find themselves on common ground -- squarely in Israel's gun sights. That may strengthen ties between the two groups, who, despite common opposition to Israel, have previously been rivals.

The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has spoken of trading all three Israeli captives -- the two that Hezbollah claims to hold and the one held by Hamas-linked militants -- for an unspecified number of prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel has rejected that demand.

In Gaza, masked militants vowed Sunday to aim more rockets at Israel "to show solidarity" with Hezbollah, which they called "the twin of our resistance."

A second major risk involves civilian casualties.

In Lebanon and in Gaza, the Israeli military incursion has dramatically heightened daily hardship, and civilians are keenly aware that they bear the consequences when Islamist fighters choose to aim a blow at powerful Israel.

"When they fire a rocket from my orange grove, I want to ask them, 'Why don't you just aim it at me instead?' " said Bassam Daoud, a farmer in northern Gaza, referring to the Hamas fighters. "I will pay the price for what they do." Daoud's agricultural lands were laid waste earlier this month by Israeli troops seeking to stop Hamas from launching Kassam rockets.

But whatever resentment is directed at the guerrillas pales in comparison with the helpless fury that Gazans and Lebanese feel when confronted by the fierce firepower Israel has brought to bear in their backyards.

"We have to be realistic about what kind of result we are likely to get when we presume to 'engineer' the population's attitudes, trying to make them run to their leaders and cry out for change," said Uri Dromi, an analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute and a former Israeli government spokesman.

"Face it -- we've had a really notable lack of success with that kind of thing in the past."

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