Stability of region hangs in balance

Sat, Nov 17, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:There are echoes of January 2009 in the conflict but the stakes are higher

Israel’s military operation, Pillar of Defence, is now 72 hours old. In the initial phase, Israeli forces have mounted hundreds of missile, drone and conventional airstrikes on multiple targets from Gaza City in the north to Khan Younis in the south.

In this time, Hamas and other anti-Israel forces in Gaza have – contrary to the Geneva Conventions – launched over 300 indiscriminate rocket attacks aimed at civilian areas within Israel. Israel maintains it strikes at military targets only; its critics disagree. Hamas makes no such distinction.

So far, the escalating crisis resembles the initial phase of Operation Cast Lead – an Israeli air and ground offensive against Gaza in January 2009. That operation resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 Palestinian men, women and children.

There are other similarities between Cast Lead and the current conflict. Both have involved the calling-up of Israeli reservists for a winter-time offensive into Gaza. Both were mounted in response to waves of rocket and missile attacks into south and central Israel.

For Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Operation Pillar of Defence is his first war. And it comes two months before Israel’s general elections on January 22nd. The stakes are especially high not just for Gaza, but for wider regional stability.

Hamas for example has successfully launched at least two Iranian-manufactured Fajr 5 missiles into Israel. These missiles, carrying 95kg of high explosives with a range of 75km, reached the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv on Thursday and Jerusalem yesterday.

This is the first time in more than 20 years Tel Aviv has sounded its air-raid sirens.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have mobilised 16,000 reservists for a possible ground incursion. This would include infantry, armoured and specialist engineering brigades similar to those deployed in Cast Lead.

The transition from drone (unmanned aircraft), missile and air strikes to a full-scale ground offensive in the last Gaza war took seven days.

Based on this timescale, if Netanyahu decides to start a ground assault into Gaza, we could expect it to begin next Tuesday or Wednesday. Such an assault would be extremely costly in political, financial and human terms.

Cast Lead cost the Israeli exchequer approximately $1 billion. Its brutal and inconclusive outcomes probably cost then prime minister Ehud Olmert the general election. The loss of civilian life in Gaza brought the IDF and Israel into international disrepute.

Netanyahu will be conscious of these factors in deciding whether to escalate into ground action in the coming 72 hours.

Hawks in the international defence and intelligence community regard the Israeli response to Hamas as a possible precursor to a pre-emptive strike against Iran in the new year.

Tom Clonan is The Irish Times’s security analyst