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Analysis: Israel, under fire from Hamas’ rockets, has few options

JERUSALEM – Israel’s options for stopping Hamas rocket fire run from bad to worse.

Israel can halt the barrage on its border towns only if it reoccupies Gaza for good, military experts concluded after two weeks of lopsided fighting between Israel’s high-tech military and a few thousand Islamic militants armed with crude scrap metal projectiles.

However, a bloody invasion comes with many risks, including the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and sabotages Israel’s goal of separation from the Palestinians, which began with its 2005 pullout from the coastal strip. Israel’s leaders are also gun-shy after last summer’s hasty — many say botched — war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Yet, if Israel doesn’t take dramatic action, large amounts of weapons will likely continue to reach Hamas through smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border. And an uninterrupted arms flow means Hamas can strike even harder — with longer-range rockets — in the next round of cross-border fighting.

“There is no military solution,” said Israeli military analyst Reuven Pedatzur. “For the last several years, the army tried several options. All of them did not succeed, not from the air and not from the ground.”

A diplomatic solution also seems far off. Israel won’t negotiate with Hamas, and moderate Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas appears powerless to rein in the militants.

Hamas stands to benefit more than it loses from almost any scenario.

Stepped-up rocket attacks on Israel have helped Hamas to regain some of the popular support it lost in months of internal fighting with Abbas’s Fatah movement.

If Hamas halts fire now and negotiates a new truce with Israel — the previous one lasted for five months — it can buy time to beef up its fighting strength and recover from the current round.

In the past two weeks, Hamas launched more than 250 so-called Qassam rockets, with a range of about six miles, many slamming into the border town of Sderot. Two Israeli civilians were killed in Sderot, and several thousand of its 24,000 residents have fled.

In response, Israeli warplanes pummeled Hamas targets, including training bases and rocket squads, with dozens of missile strikes, but the damage does not seem to be lasting.

Hamas’ 15,000 fighters were driven underground, but can emerge again during a lull. Israel killed about 50 Hamas gunmen, but new recruits are eager to take their place for the promise of a regular salary. Missiles destroyed 14 of 16 training camps, but they can easily be rebuilt because they consist of little more than open fields and a few shacks.

“If Israel continues demolishing our buildings, we can stay in tents,” said Islam Shahwan, spokesman of Hamas’ security branch, the Executive Force, which has about 6,000 gunmen. “Our soldiers can work from the streets, or even from their homes.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has resisted growing popular pressure for a new military offensive, instead offering the public a dose of sober realism. “We don’t want to create unrealistic expectations that it’s possible to stop the Qassams totally,” he told his Cabinet on Sunday.

For now, Israel seems to be going for limited goals: reducing rocket fire and weakening Hamas.

The Cabinet has approved a plan of gradual acceleration, starting with air strikes on Hamas militants, followed by hits against the group’s political leaders, the reoccupation of Gaza’s edges to push back rocket launchers and — as a last resort — a ground offensive.

The military is moving cautiously because any escalation could trigger more rocket fire, said Alon Ben-David, military commentator for Israel TV’s Channel 10. “Israel is trapped from all sides. Any move will end with a barrage of rockets on this town,” he said of Sderot.

The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, told the Cabinet that Hamas has developed longer-range rockets that can reach the Israeli port city of Ashkelon, six times the size of Sderot, but is holding off for now. Ashkelon might become a target if Israel takes aim at Hamas’ political leaders, as it had done in a series of assassinations in 2004, Ben-David said.

Only a Qassam hit with many Israeli casualties is likely to provoke an immediate ground invasion.

Legislator Yuval Steinitz of the hardline Likud Party is one of the few proponents of retaking Gaza, at least temporarily, saying a similar offensive in the West Bank in 2002 sharply reduced attacks on Israel.

“I think it’s a must for Israel to go into Gaza … to dismantle the terror network and destroy the rocket industry and then to pull out again,” said Steinitz, a member of parliament’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Shin Bet told the committee that more than 20,000 guns, about 1,000 anti-tank rockets and launchers, about 100 tons of explosives and several longer-range Katyusha rockets and anti-aircraft missiles were smuggled into Gaza in the past year, Steinitz said.

However, retired Israeli general Shlomo Brom argued that nothing short of an extended takeover of Gaza would suppress rocket fire. Previous short-term incursions also led to more rocket fire.

The price for reoccupying Gaza is high, wiping out the gains of the Gaza pullout and possibly triggering the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, Brom warned in a paper published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies

Israel, as an occupying power, would then become fully responsible for the welfare of more than 3 million Palestinians, in Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel must “not succumb to illusions that there is a comprehensive solution to the Gaza Strip problem,” he wrote. Instead, it should “adopt more limited objectives at a lower cost.”

Israel’s options for stopping Hamas rocket fire run from bad to worse.

Karin Laub, the AP’s chief correspondent in Ramallah, West Bank, has covered Israel and the Palestinian territories since 1987.

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