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Israel facing problem of finding exit strategy for Gaza operation
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As the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip continued on Thursday, Israel is now facing the primary problem of finding an exit strategy for the operation, an expert said.

The operation, dubbed Cast Lead, entered its sixth day on Thursday. According to Palestinian sources, the offensive beginning Saturday has so far killed over 400 people and injured over 2,000 others.

Hamas, the Gaza ruler, has sustained significant damage, and its operatives have hidden out in hospitals and mosques, said Israel's Shin Bet security agency on Wednesday, noting that "Hamas has been attacked like it has never been attacked before."

"As is common in these situations, Israel's primary problem is finding an exit strategy," said Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

"That is, how are the achievements of the military campaign translated into the desired results. Such a strategy impacts on the length of the campaign and the additional steps that may be taken," said Brom.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the goals of the operation are "to fundamentally improve the security situation in the southern part of the country."

In Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's terms, the objectives are "to change the situation from the foundation and ensure that there will be no more fire or other hostile activity coming from Gaza."

Wider objectives -- such as toppling the Hamas regime or conquering Gaza -- were not presented, noted Brom.

This suggests that the method of operation has been chosen to exact a toll of Hamas and weaken it in order to create a new balance of deterrence between Israel and Hamas, assuming that Hamas will exercise more restraint in initiating attacks against Israel once it grasps the steep price it will have to pay and its limited ability to cope with the Israeli response, he said.

"In other words, Israel is striving for a new, stable and long lasting ceasefire with a weakened Hamas under terms that reflect the change in the balance of power. Among the new conditions would be a ban on Hamas activity near the border with Israel and limiting, to the extent possible, the smuggling of arms into Gaza, " explained the expert.

"For Hamas, it will do what it can to prevent this outcome. It would seem that its basic objective is also a new ceasefire, but on its own terms, i.e., with no limits on its ability to operate in the Gaza Strip area and along the Egyptian border, and with crossings to Egypt and Israel that are open regularly," he said.

According to the expert, Hamas' primary available tool is continued harassment of Israel, and the main component of Hamas' response is its continued ability to launch rockets and mortars of a long enough range to disrupt the daily routine of many Israelis.

On Thursday, Gaza militants continued its retaliatory barrage, firing rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel with a range of up to 40 kilometers. Since Saturday, the fire has caused four deaths and over a dozen injuries on the Israeli side.

However, the main problem of Hamas is that the IDF has successfully struck a significant part of Hamas' capabilities and to a considerable extent suppressed its ability to deploy the forces left at its disposal, said Brom.

"Therefore, Hamas is likely to try to rehabilitate its ability to deploy its forces, ideally with reduced exposure to IDF deterrent capabilities, and at the same time resort to other means of attack," he said.

Though Israel is mulling an exit strategy for its Gaza operation, and Hamas appears to be willing to accept a new ceasefire based on its own terms, it is by no means an easy job for the two sides to reach a new truce in the near future.

There are two possible mechanisms for Israel to attain its goals, said Brom.

The first is striving for an agreement or understandings with Hamas about a ceasefire under new terms through mediators from the Arab world and beyond who would be able to negotiate with both sides, he said, adding that the advantage of an agreement or understandings is the ability to create a more stable ceasefire than before.

The second mechanism is a unilateral ceasefire on the part of both sides, under terms in which the price of transgressing the ceasefire terms would be made very clear to Hamas.

This would require no agreement or formal understandings, but such a ceasefire is less stable because the two sides may offer different interpretations of what is allowed and what is not, without there being any sort of mechanism to handle problems that arise, Brom warned.

Above all, it is necessary to find mediators who can examine the different options and help end the fighting so that Israel's strategic objectives of the operation will be realized based on the military moves that serve these objectives, noted the expert.

In Brom's opinion, as soon as the goals are attained, Israeli leaders would prefer to end the fighting.

On Thursday, Olmert said during a tour to the rocket-battered southern city of Beersheba that Israel has no interest in extending the ongoing offensive in Gaza.

"We have no interest in waging a prolonged war ... We are also not eager to wage a war on a wide front," he said.

The premier reiterated that Israel does not mean to harm Gaza civilians but to strike Hamas with "an iron fist," saying that he was hopeful that the goals of the operation would be attained quickly.

Commenting on a possible ceasefire with Hamas, Olmert said that he is interested in establishing an international supervision and enforcement mechanism for any Gaza truce, which he has reportedly made a precondition of any such deal.

"If the conditions mature and we think they offer a solution that ensures a better security situation for southern Israel, then we will consider the matter. But we aren't there yet," said Olmert on Wednesday.

(Xinhua News Agency January 2, 2009)

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